James Oakes: What’s So Special About a Team of Rivals?





[James Oakes, a professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics.”]

INSPIRED by the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, President-elect Barack Obama is considering appointing a “team of rivals” to his cabinet — if rumors about the nomination of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state are true. But there’s more mythology than history in the idea that Lincoln showed exceptional political skill in offering cabinet positions to the men he had beaten in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination.

For one thing, there was nothing new in what Lincoln did. By tradition, presidents-elect reserved a cabinet position, often secretary of state, for the leading rival in their party. John Quincy Adams inaugurated the practice by appointing one of his presidential rivals, Henry Clay, to that post. It was a controversial move in 1824; enemies of Adams denounced the appointment as a corrupt bargain.

By the 1850s, the practice had become a tradition. In that decade, Presidents Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan installed in their cabinets men who had been major rivals for their party’s nomination. Daniel Webster, who lost the Whig Party nod in 1848, became Fillmore’s secretary of state. William Marcy, after failing to win the 1852 Democratic nomination, took the same position in Pierce’s cabinet. Lewis Cass, the Democratic nominee in 1848 and a man whose presidential dreams never diminished, was appointed Buchanan’s secretary of state in 1857. These were not notably successful administrations. Most historians agree that Pierce and Buchanan rank among the worst presidents in American history. There was nothing particularly unusual, or even impressive, when Lincoln followed this well-established practice.

Nor is it quite correct to say that Lincoln installed his “enemies” in the cabinet. Rivals for his own party’s nomination are not the same thing as political “enemies.” It would have been inconceivable, for example, for Lincoln to offer a cabinet appointment to his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas....

There is little doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a great president. But not much of what made him great can be discerned in his appointment of a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas to his cabinet.

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