For the past several months the media have reported stories of how much President-elect Barack Obama admires the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns-Goodwin, the theme of which is what an incredible political conniver, manipulator and string puller Abraham Lincoln was. Goodwin uses more euphemistic language, but that indeed is the theme of the book by the confessed plagiarist Goodwin.
Of special interest to Obama, according to news reports, is Goodwin’s lavish praise for Lincoln’s supposedly extraordinary "statesmanship" for having appointed former rivals for the Republican nomination, such as William Seward (secretary of state), to his cabinet. As this is being written the media are simply going nuts over the Obama-Lincoln theme in light of all the talk of Hillary Clinton, a "New Yorker" like Seward, possibly being appointed to the post of secretary of state by the new president from Illinois.
There’s one problem with the story about how extraordinary it was for Lincoln to have appointed former political rivals to his cabinet, however: It isn’t true. Many previous presidents did the same thing. Doesn’t it make sense that presidents would look to the most popular politicians within their own party to serve on their cabinets — either to share in their popularity, or to keep a closer eye on them since they were at one time, after all, rivals?
The Handy little Complete Book of U.S. Presidents by William A. Degregorio provides all the relative information on presidential rivals and cabinet choices (and much more). In it we learn that supporters of Secretary of War William Crawford of Georgia gave James Monroe a good battle for his party’s nomination in 1816. After he was elected, Monroe appointed Crawford to the post of secretary of the treasury.
Henry Clay competed with John Quincy Adams during the 1824 election, after which President Adams appointed the Kentuckian as his secretary of state. James Buchanan challenged James Polk for the Democratic Party nomination in 1844, after which President Polk made Buchanan his secretary of state.
William Marcy of New York challenged Franklin Pierce for the Democratic Party nomination in 1852, and later became President Pierce’s secretary of state. And President James Buchanan, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, appointed his nomination rival Lewis Cass of Michigan as his secretary of state.
Lincoln did appoint four previous rivals to his cabinet, but three of them resigned during the first term, with only Seward staying on. In any event, it is a myth that what Lincoln did with regard to appointing rivals to his cabinet was exceptional, let alone extraordinary.
Currently, there is a raging debate in the ga-ga-over-Obama media over whether they should portray President-elect Obama as "the next FDR" or "the next Lincoln." The lie that FDR "got us out of the Great Depression" is being invoked by the Obama/FDR mythmakers in the media, whereas the cabinet rivalry lie is being invoked in an effort to create the myth of Honest Barack, the ticket splitter from Illinois.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.