Lincoln Got It, Too: Underestimating Bush

Mackubin T. Owens

October 1, 2002

Congressional Democrats and other assorted smarty-pants are discovering that they made a mistake by underestimating George W. Bush. They all thought they were smarter than the president. He let them act on their supposed intellectual superiority as he fed the rope they would need to hang themselves.

After President Bush let it out that he would unilaterally use force against Iraq, the smarty-pants insisted he get authorization from the United Nations and Congress. So he said “please, B’rer Fox, don’t throw me in that briar patch.” He made a strong case before the U.N. and then went to Congress to get the authorization all the smarty-pants said he needed. All of a sudden, the congressional smarty-pants realized that they’d been had—they would be forced to deal with this issue before the election.

So Sen. Robert Byrd whines about the undue pressure of debating an issue of national importance during an election season. “We must not yield to this absurd pressure to act now, 27 days before an election that will determine the entire membership of the House of Representatives and that of a third of the Senate. Congress should take the time to hear from the American people, to answer their remaining questions and to put the frenzy of ballot-box politics behind us before we vote. We should hear them well, because while it is Congress that casts the vote, it is the American people who will pay for a war with the lives of their sons and daughters.” Of course, this is the same gentleman who is known for his defense of the Senate’s prerogatives. He just doesn’t want to discuss those prerogatives before an election.

When it comes to being underestimated, President Bush is in good company. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Like President Bush, he had enough confidence in his own abilities and judgment to place on his cabinet adversaries and bright people. Lincoln made William Seward Secretary of State and Salmon Chase Secretary of the Treasury. Both were smarty-pants who were convinced they were much more intellectually gifted than the president.

Seward fancied his role in Lincoln’s cabinet as that of “prime minister.” In pursuit of a “peaceful” solution to the secession crisis, he took it upon himself, without Lincoln’s knowledge, much less approval, to assure the rebels in South Carolina that Lincoln would not attempt to re-provision Ft. Sumter. Lincoln magnanimously refused to humiliate Seward for undertaking a course of action at odds with his own, but in a note he reminded Seward that whatever policy prevailed, “I must do it.” Seward subsequently became the most loyal of Lincoln’s cabinet members.

The best example of the consequences of underestimating Lincoln’s political skill occurred during the so-called cabinet crisis of December 1862. It was a bleak time for the Union. Grant had been turned back in his first attempt to capture Vicksburg when Confederate raiders destroyed his supply base at Holly Springs in northern Mississippi. After repulsing the Confederate invasion of Kentucky, Union forces were stalemated in north-central Tennessee. And most importantly, the Army of the Potomac had been badly mauled by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the bloody disaster at Fredricksburg.

During these dark days, radical Republicans proposed to reorganize Lincoln’s cabinet. They were motivated by the belief that Lincoln was acting too timidly in prosecuting the war and that the cause of this timidity was Seward’s undue influence over the president. The sources of this claim was Treasury Secretary Chase, a “closet” ally of radical congressional Republicans, who harbored presidential aspirations.

Lincoln was distressed by this attempt at a legislative coup, but he agreed to meet a congressional delegation and to listen to their concerns “attributing to Mr. Seward a lukewarmness in the conduct of the war.” Seward had already offered to resign, but Lincoln did not reveal this to the radical delegation. When they accepted Lincoln’s invitation to return the next evening, they were surprised to find the entire cabinet (except for Seward) assembled. Lincoln defended Seward and asserted that the entire cabinet supported all of the major policy decisions, for which he alone was responsible.

When the president turned to the Cabinet for confirmation, Chase realized that no matter what he said, he would be discredited, either in the eyes of the radicals, who had acted upon the intelligence he had provided them, or the president and his cabinet colleagues, who would see him as disloyal. He weakly agreed with Lincoln, after which the deflated radicals departed in defeat. Chase’s presidential aspirations were dead, as far as the radicals were concerned. He had withered under fire.

The next day, an embarrassed Chase offered the president his resignation. Lincoln fairly snatched it from Chase’s hand. “Now I can ride,” exclaimed Lincoln. “I have a pumpkin in each end of my bag.” The point was clear. If the radicals wanted to take down Seward, they would lose Chase.

Like Chase, who thought he was “playing” Lincoln, today’s smarty-pants thought they were playing George W. Bush. And like Chase, they have discovered that they are not nearly as smart as they thought they were.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.