Seen against such a background, the political and diplomatic frivolity of the Secretary of State is not so inexplicable as it would otherwise be. This background, as well as the intrigue of the Secretary, helps us to understand Lincoln's great task inside his Cabinet. At first the Cabinet was a group of jealous politicians new to this sort of office, drawn from different parties, and totally lacking in a cordial sense of previous action together. None of them, probably, when they first assembled had any high opinion of their titular head. He was looked upon as a political makeshift. The best of them had to learn to appreciate the fact that this strange, ungainly man, sprung from plainest origin, without formal education, was a great genius. By degrees, however, the large minds in the Cabinet became his cordial admirers. While Lincoln was quietly, gradually exercising his strong will upon Seward, he was doing the same with the other members of his council. Presently they awoke--the majority of them at least--to the truth that he, for all his odd ways, was their master.
Meanwhile the gradual readjustment of all factions in the North was steadily going forward. The Republicans were falling into line behind the Government; and by degrees the distinction between Seward and Lincoln, in the popular mind, faded into a sort of composite picture called "the Administration." Lincoln had the reward of his long forbearance with his Secretary. For Seward it must be said that, however he had intrigued against his chief at Washington, he did not intrigue with the country. Admitting as he had, too, that he had met his master, he took the defeat as a good sportsman and threw all his vast party influence into the scale for Lincoln's fortunes. Thus, as April wore on, the Republican party settled down to the idea that it was to follow the Government at Washington upon any course that might develop.
The Democrats in the North were anti-Southern in larger proportion, probably, than at any other time during the struggle of the sections. We have seen that numbers of them had frankly declared for the Union. Politics had proved weaker than propinquity. There was a moment when it seemed--delusively, as events proved--that the North was united as one man to oppose the South.
There is surely not another day in our history that has witnessed so much nervous tension as Saturday, April 13, 1861, for on that morning the newspapers electrified the North with the news that Sumter had been fired on from Confederate batteries on the shore of Charleston Harbor. In the South the issue was awaited confidently, but many minds at least were in that state of awed suspense natural to a moment which the thoughtful see is the stroke of fate. In the North, the day passed for the most part in a quiet so breathless that even the most careless could have foretold the storm which broke on the following day. The account of this crisis which has been given by Lincoln's private secretary is interesting:
"That day there was little change in the business routine of the Executive office. Mr. Lincoln was never liable to sudden excitement or sudden activity.... So while the Sumter telegrams were on every tongue...leading men and officials called to learn or impart the news. The Cabinet, as by common impulse, came together and deliberated. All talk, however, was brief, sententious, formal. Lincoln said but little beyond making inquiries about the current reports and criticizing the probability or accuracy of their details, and went on as usual receiving visitors, listening to suggestions, and signing routine papers throughout the day." Meanwhile the cannon were booming at Charleston. The people came out on the sea-front of the lovely old city and watched the duel of the cannon far down the harbor, and spoke joyously of the great event. They saw the shells of the shore batteries ignite portions of the fortress on the island. They watched the fire of the defenders--driven by the flames into a restricted area--slacken and cease. At last the flag of the Union fluttered down from above Fort Sumter.
When the news flashed over the North, early Sunday morning, April 14th, the tension broke. For many observers then and afterward, the only North discernible that fateful Sabbath was an enraged, defiant, impulsive nation, forgetful for the moment of all its differences, and uniting all its voices in one hoarse cry for vengeance. There seemed to be no other thought. Lincoln gave it formal utterance, that same day, by assembling his Cabinet and drawing up a proclamation which called for 75,000 volunteer troops.
An incident of this day which is as significant historically as any other was on the surface no more than a friendly talk between two men. Douglas called at the White House. For nearly two hours he and Lincoln conferred in private. Hitherto it had been a little uncertain what course Douglas was going to take. In the Senate, though condemning disunion, he had opposed war. Few matters can have troubled Lincoln more deeply than the question which way Douglas's immense influence would be thrown. The question was answered publicly in the newspapers of Monday, April 15th. Douglas announced that while he was still "unalterably opposed to the Administration on all its political issues, he was prepared to sustain the President in the exercise of all his constitutional functions to preserve the Union, and maintain the Government, and defend the federal capital."
There remained of Douglas's life but a few months. The time was filled with earnest speechmaking in support of the Government. He had started West directly following his conference with Lincoln. His speeches in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, were perhaps the greatest single force in breaking up his own following, putting an end to the principle of doing nothing, and forcing every Democrat to come out and show his colors. In Shakespeare's phrase, it was--"Under which king, Bezonian? speak or die!" In Douglas's own phrase: "There can be no neutrals in this war; ONLY PATRIOTS--OR TRAITORS."