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Montgomery BlairPostmaster General Montgomery Blair was the most conservative member of the Lincoln Cabinet on racial issues. Journalist Edward Dicey wrote for his English audience in 1861: "Beside the Abolitionists and the Democrats, there was a third party of the more moderate Republicans, whose chief representative was Mr. [William H.] Seward, and who were disposed to look very jealously on any proposition to interfere with the domestic institutions of the seceding states. Just at this time a great emancipation meeting was held at New York at which Mr. Montgomery Blair was invited to attend. This gentleman, the Postmaster General in Mr. Lincoln's Administration, is a Maryland man. By one of the political combinations so universal in American politics, he had been selected by the Republican party to fill this post on Mr. Lincoln's accession, not because he held anti-slavery views himself, but because it was believed that, out of personal connections, he would support Mr. [Salmon] Chase, who did. The result, however, proved that on all questions connected with slavery he sympathized far more strongly with Mr. Seward than with the Abolitionist portion of the Cabinet. His dereliction of strict anti-slavery principles had long been surmised; and in his letter declining to attend the above-mentioned meeting, he stated very distinctly the grounds on which he differed from his more Republican colleagues. It was in the following words that he expounded his views:
No one who knows my political career will suspect that I am influenced by an indisposition to put an end to slavery. I have left no opportunity unimproved to strike at it, and have never been restrained from doing so by personal consideration; but I have never believed that the abolition of slavery, or any other great reform, could, or ought to be effected by except by lawful and constitutional modes. The people have never sanctioned, and never will sanction, any other; and the friends of a cause should especially avoid all questionable grounds, when, as in the present instance, nothing else can long postpone their success.1
Historian Richard Nelson Current wrote: "Montgomery Blair, a tall, lean, hatchet-faced man with small and deep-set eyes, always spoke of secessionists deliberately but defiantly, though the family had many secessionist relatives. In his cold animus there was not a trace of the abolitionist spirit. True, he had won the respect of some abolitionists by serving as counsel for the slave Dred Scott, but he was no Negro-phile. His racist convictions were as strong as his Unionists convictions, and these were strong indeed."2
Blair, according to fellow Lincoln Administration Charles A. Dana, was "was a capable man, sharp, keen, perhaps a little cranky, and not friendly with everybody, but I always found him pleasant to deal with, and I saw a great deal of him. He and Mr. [Edwin M.] Stanton were not very good friends, and when he wanted anything in the War Department he was more likely to come to an old friend like me than go to the Secretary. Stanton, too, rather preferred that."3
Blair's family connections sometimes worked against him rather than for him. To dislike one member of the Blair family was generally to dislike them all. Lincoln chronicler John Waugh wrote that "Frank's temper was unsettling to the family. 'Our only real trouble, [sister] Elizabeth confessed, 'is Frank will give vent to some of his wrath which will only hurt himself & help his foes.' And when that invariably happened, she would fret and write, 'I confess to some nervousness about the outrageous insult F gave his colleague.' Bad temper, this gentle sister thought, is 'so unprofitable,' anger 'the poorest of counsellors.'"4
Montgomery Blair had policy and personalty conflicts with virtually all his fellow Cabinet members. Historian John Niven, biographer of Gideon Welles, wrote: "Blair's dislike for Stanton bordered on hatred; his contempt for Chase ran dark and deep. Egotistical, voluble, and indiscreet, he broadcast his opinions of both men in conservative Republican and Democratic circles....As much as Welles liked Blair, he deplored his vindictiveness, his habit of judging everything and everything and everyone from a narrowly partisan perspective."5
Blair family biographer William Earnest Smith wrote: "The Blairs believed their program for emancipation agreed with that of the President. In 1861 while the Blairs were powerful at the Executive Mansion, Montgomery Blair, after deep reflection, drew up a written statement of his views and advice on the subject for the President. There is a copy of this letter in the Blair Papers, bearing the date of November 21, 1861, in which he advises the President to recommend compensation for the slaves which were the property of Union men and had been lost through the operations of the war. He proposed the confiscation of the estates of traitors and the use of their property in payment for the freed negroes. 'This deserves consideration,' he says, 'in view of the not improbable necessity of emancipation by martial law in the Gulph States.' Such a blow, he thought, 'would probably divide the slave holders & might bring openly to the side of the Union the greater portion of them with a view to prevent, if possible, the necessity of the measure and to be in condition to great the benefit of the law & it would deprive them of all sympathy,' if they refused to come back into the Union and accept the offer. He believed, too, that the slaveholders would not accept the offer unless the President offered to provide for the colonization of the freedmen."6
Chase biographer Frederick Blue wrote: "Brothers Frank and Montgomery had not only opposed Chase's philosophies and ambitions but they were also at odds with him over patronage. Each felt it his right to control appointments in his state; Chase instead had rewarded Treasury patronage to their Republican factions, led by Henry Winter Davis in Maryland and B. Gratz Brown and Charles D. Drake in Missouri. Feelings were especially intense in Maryland when Chase refused to appoint a Blair man to a Treasury job in Baltimore and removed another pro-Blair appointee as collector of internal revenue in favor of a Chase favorite. During the 1863 political campaign in Missouri, Frank accused Chase of creating a corrupt political machine and of using his patronage against Lincoln. In a Saint Louis address, he referred to Chase as 'no whit better than Jefferson Davis,' a speech which led Chase to suggest to Lincoln that 'General Blair's unprovoked attack on me will injure its author more than its object.' Thus, the Blair family was more than eager to pursue its attack on Chase when the Pomeroy Circular increased his vulnerability."7
Montgomery's position was further complicated by the outspoken nature of other family members. In the summer of 1861, Frank Blair clashed with John C. Frémont — about the time when brother Montgomery had been dispatched to Missouri to investigate Fremont's leadership and when Frémont was exciting emotions with a proclamation on August 30 emancipating slaves in Missouri. Blair wrote President Lincoln on September 4:
I earnestly am pained to have to request that Genl Fremont may be superceeded in the command of the Western Department. The war men of St Louis concur in representing the condition of affairs there to be such that I am constrained against my own prepossessions to unite with them in the conclusion that this step is required by public interests.
Montgomery wrote back to President Lincoln on September14: "I arrived here Thursday Evg & have had a full & plain talk with Fremont. He Seems Stupified & almost unconscious, & is doing absolutely nothing. I find but one opinion prevailing among the Union men of the State (many of whom are here) & among the officers, & that is that Fremont is unequal to the task of organizing the defences of the State." The Postmaster-General went on to defend his brother:
Frank has endeavored to aid Fremont in good faith & has I believe the general confidence of the Union men of the State, but finding himself of no use has gradually withdrawn ceased to give counsel & limited himself to his immediate command. But Finding that this Fremont has commenced a warfare upon him in the newspapers It is probable indeed that the same jealousy which the special confederates of of Fremont openly manifested towards Lyon was felt towards Frank who was very much identified with Lyon in the popular mind and there is manifestly a purpose to take Franks regiment from him. An effort was first made to [vent?] Fremonts body Guard out of it Frank protested of course— That was relinquished only to start a scheme of taking away three of his German companies on the pretext of organizing them with other German companies Frank again protested This is the ground of attack in the newspapers in which it is said that Mr Politician Blair is no longer omnipotent in Missouri— That he has no commission as Col &c &c.
Congressman Frank Blair showed his continuing ability to annoy radicals two and a half years later, when on February 27, 1864, he delivered a speech entitled 'The Jacobins of Missouri.' It was, according to Salmon Chase biographer Frederick J. Blue, "delivered without the president's prior knowledge, [and] charged that as a result of corrupt Treasury practices, the Mississippi Valley was 'rank and fetid with the frauds and corruptions of its agents' and that permits to buy cotton were 'just as much a marketable commodity as the cotton itself.' Postmaster General Blair accelerated the distribution of his brother's speech throughout the country and even accused Chase of having written the Pomeroy Circular."10
Such skirmishes were par of an ongoing battle. The Blairs fought their adversaries at both national and state levels — Frank Blair in Missouri and Montgomery Blair in Maryland. Montgomery was at war with the more radical branch of the Republican Party in Maryland led by Henry Winter Davis. After his expulsion from the Cabinet in September 1864, Montgomery first sought to be appointed to the Supreme Court and failing that in February 1865, he sought to be elected to the Senate to replace Senator Thomas H. Hicks, who had died. Blair's feud with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton came home to roost when the patronage appointments of the War Department rallied behind the radical candidate, Congressman John A. J. Creswell. The Baltimore Clipper, which backed Blair, reported: "The purse and the sword, the Treasury of the Untied States and all the patronage of the War Department may elect him [Creswell]....No persons ever wished him to be a candidate but Henry Winter Davis and his friends."11
In addition to Chase, Montgomery feuded with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. William Ernest Smith wrote: "Although the Blairs favored many of the war Democrats in political appointments, they could not bring themselves to accept Stanton at any time. Stanton, it appears, during the course of a conversation which he had in John Lee's house in the early part of the war, set forth the advantages that would follow a division of the Union. Such talk was nothing less than treason. Montgomery Blair contended that Stanton talked secession to one class and loyalty to the Republicans. The Blair family never for a moment doubted the unreliability and selfish treachery of Stanton."12
Blair was strongly pro-Lincoln and strongly anti-Radical. In October 1863, Montgomery Blair threw a grenade at the Radicals that landed in the middle of the Lincoln Administration. Lincoln chronicler John Waugh wrote: "It was a funeral Montgomery Blair had in mind when he went to Rockville, Maryland, in early October to address a Union Party meeting. The intended corpse was Sumner's congressional-supremacy thesis. Just when it appeared peace was nearly won, the rebellion destroyed, and slavery suppressed, Blair began, 'we are menaced by the ambition of the ultra-Abolitionists, which is equally despotic in its tendencies and which, if successful could not fail to be alike fatal to Republican institutions."13 He linked Radical Republicans with racial amalgamation.
Blair family biographer William Ernest Smith wrote that: "Montgomery Blair, feeling that the time was auspicious for a blow at the audacious Radicals, made what proved to be the most unpopular of his speeches when he spoke to his friends at Rockville, a little town in Maryland. They were holding an Unconditional Union meting there on Saturday, October 3, 1863. The speaker attacked the ultra-abolitionists and Radicals whose policy he conceived to be entirely out of harmony with that of the President. [Attorney General Edward] Bates thought that Blair courted the President assiduously in 1863 in order to retain his good opinion while he appealed to the Democrats for their support. Montgomery Blair, he said, was looking for jobs for his family whether the country went Republican or Democrats in the elections. Bates was unjust to Blair, inasmuch as Blair was begging his friend through letters to keep the Republicans in power to guarantee the end of slavery, and was supporting the President at every turn while he was attempting to organize a Republican party in the border states."14
While attacking secessionists and their northern sympathizers, Blair reserved his harshest invective for Republican Radicals. He maintained that loyal unionists were "menaced by the ambition of the ultra-Abolitionists, which is equally despotic in its tendencies, and which, if successful, could not fail to be alike fatal to republican institutions. The Slavocrats of the South would found an oligarchy — a sort of feudal power imposing its yoke over all who tilled the earth over which they reigned as masters. The Abolition party whilst pronouncing philippics against slavery, seek to make a caste of another color by amalgamating the black element with the free white labor of our land, and so to expand far beyond the present confines of slavery the evil which makes it obnoxious to republican statesmen. And now, when the strength of the traitors who attempted to embody a power out of the interests of slavery to overthrow the Government is seen to fail, they would make the manumission of the slaves the means of in using their blood into our whole system by blending with it amalgamation, equality, and fraternity."15
Blair's speech created a storm of Radical outrage. After reading the report of Montgomery's Rockville speech, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens wrote to Secretary Salmon P. Chase: "I have read with more sorrow than surprise the vile speech made by the P.M. Genl. It is much more infamous than any speech made by a Copperhead orator. I know of no rebel sympathizer who has charged such disgusting principles and designs on the republican party as this apostate. It has and will do us more harm at the election than all the efforts of the Opposition. If these are the principles of the Administration no earnest Anti-Slavery man will wish it to be sustained. If such men are to be retained in Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet, it is time we were consulting about his successor."16
Historian Allan Nevins wrote: "Beyond question the multifariously malicious Blair family was imperiling unity and Northern cohesion."17 Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson wrote President Lincoln from Utica, New York at the end of October 1863: "We shall have some hard questions put at us in the next Congress. Blair is universally denounced for his speeches and actions and is every hour setting men against you. On the opening of Congress — when the pressure of the elections are over — the war he has made causelessly upon us will be repelled — at any cost."18 Senator Zachariah Chandler wrote President Lincoln in mid-November to complain about conservative New York Republican Leader Thurlow Weed: "Will You pardon me for writing as Your Sincere Friend plainly and truthfully. The telegraph this morning says "Thurlow Weed Gov Morgan & Other distinguished Republicans are here, urging the President to take bold conservative in his Message" I have been upon the stump more than two months this fall & have certainly talked to more than 200.000 people in Illinois Ohio & New York and privately to many hundreds & have Yet to meet the first Republican or real War Democrat who stands by Thurlough [Thurlow] Weed or M Blair. All denounce them in most bitter terms."19
California journalist Noah Brooks reported to his readers: "There is but one expression, and that of reprobation, toward Postmaster General Blair for his extraordinary course, and it now remains to be seen whether Lincoln will sacrifice his chances of a renomination by tacitly indorsing Blair's ratiocinations by retaining him in the Cabinet. Although he was appointed to his place upon the urgent request of such radicals as Sumner and Wilson, against whom he now turns, we cannot expect that any sense of obligation to them would induce him to modify his own private views or restrain his public utterances. Good faith is not a characteristic trait of the Blair family. But good sense, at least, might have restrained him from loading his own wrong-headed opinions upon the Administration of which he is a member. Soon after the Pennsylvania election Judge [William D.] Kelley, of Philadelphia, and John W. Forney called upon the President with their congratulations — and Forney, with his usual outspoken candor, very plainly said to the President, Blair being then present, that his conservative friend Governor [Andrew G.] Curtin desired the President to know that if the Rockville speech of Postmaster General Blair had been made thirty days earlier it would have lost the Union ticket in Pennsylvania twenty thousand votes. He also expressed his astonishment to Blair that he, a Cabinet Minister, should have the hardihood to utter such sentiments in public, just on the eve of important elections in other States, as those of the Rockville speech. Blair responded that whatever Forney might think of the matter, he had only spoken at Rockville his honest sentiments. 'Then,' said the impetuous Forney, turning upon him, 'why don't you leave the Cabinet,' and not load down with your individual and peculiar sentiments the Administration to which you belong?'" According to Brooks, "The President sat by, a silent spectator of this singular and unexpected scene....20
A few days later, presidential aide John Hay reported in his diary that "I handed the President Blair's Rockville speech, telling him I had read it carefully, and saving a few intemperate and unwise personal expressions against leading Republicans which might better have been omitted, I saw nothing in the speech which could have given rise to such violent criticism." The President replied: "The controversy between the two sets of men represented by Blair and by Sumner is one of mere form and little else. I do not think Mr. Blair would agree that the States in rebellion are to be permitted to come at once into the political family and renew their performances, which have already so bedeviled us, and I do not think Mr. Sumner would insist that when the loyal people of a State obtain supremacy in their councils and are ready to assume the direction of their own affairs they should be excluded I do not understand Mr. Blair to admit that Jefferson Davis may take his seat in Congress again as a representative of his people. I do not understand Mr. Sumner to assert that John Minor Botts may not. So far as I understand Mr. Sumner, he seems in favor of Congress taking from the Executive the power it at present exercises over insurrectionary districts and assuming it to itself; but when the vital question arises as to the right and privileges of the people of these States to govern themselves. I apprehend there will be little difference among loyal men. The question at once is presented, In whom is this power vested? And the practical matter for discussion is how to keep the rebellious population from overwhelming and outvoting the loyal minority.21
The next day, Hay reported that Philadelphia Congressman William Kelley came to the White House. "He came up with me talking in his effusive and intensely egotistic way about the canvass he had been making & speaking most bitterly of Blairs Rockville Speech. He went in and talked an hour with the President."22
Nevertheless, Blair had his sympathizers and supporters. Connecticut Senator James Dixon wrote Blair: "I have seen a report of your recent speech, in the Herald, and am truly grateful to you for such words of truth & wisdom. Sumner's heresies are doing immense harm in a variety of ways. If the position taken by him is understood to be the position of the Administration, thousands of our best men will cease to give it their support; and if his doctrines prevail the country will be ruined. I do hope most you & Mr Seward will stand firm— Mr Welles cannot differ from you unless he has changed the tenor of his life long opinions, which I do not believe. In the Senate I know you will find many supporters among the Republicans. It is impossible that the intelligence of that body should have sank to so low a point, as to permit the errors of the radicals to prevail there."23
Historian William Ernest Smith wrote: The theory that Lincoln repudiated Blair because of the Rockville speech is not tenable. It is more logical to accept the opposite theory. Although he could not announce himself in favor of the Democrats in the border states, whom he distrusted, he realized that the Radical faction, which he distrusted as much as the Democrats, accepted only two phases of his policy: Freedom of the slaves, and the preservation of the Union. He was forced to choose some one whose views he accepted and in whom he could confide. Blair, who took his problems of consequence directly to the President, was the natural recipient of that confidence. Bates and Welles frequently observed his conversations with Lincoln in 1863. Frank Blair always thought that his brother talked with the President about all important matters concerning politics, the country, and the Blair family."24
Despite his flaws and tempestuous nature, Montgomery Blair and his family were always loyal to President Lincoln — even when they had reason to think relationships seriously strained by events. Pressure on President Lincoln to dismiss Blair arose again at the Republican National Convention in Baltimore in June 1864. "After the convention adjourned, Blair submitted his resignation, which Lincoln rejected. Nevertheless, Blair gave Lincoln an undated letter of resignation, knowing that political pressures would probably force the president to accept it," wrote historian William E. Gienapp.25 The next month, General Henry W. Halleck threatened to resign when the Postmaster General suggested that Halleck had been inept in defending Washington from the Confederate invasion led by General Jubal Early — and protecting the Blair family mansion from being burned. Halleck had written Stanton on July 13:
I deem it my duty to bring to your notice the following facts:
The President had to smooth over Halleck's feelings and wrote Secretary of War Stanton: "The General's letter, in substance demands of me that if I approve the remarks, I shall strike the names of those officers from the rolls; and that if I do not approve them, the Post-Master-General shall be dismissed from the Cabinet. Whether the remarks were really made I do not known; nor do I suppose such knowledge is necessary to a correct response. If they were made I do not approve them; and yet, under the circumstances, I would not dismiss a member of the Cabinet therefor. I do not consider what may have been hastily said in a moment of vexation at so severe a loss is sufficient ground for so grave a step. Besides this, truth is generally the best vindication against slander. I propose continuing to be myself the judge as to when a member of the Cabinet shall be dismissed."27
Although President Lincoln did not yield to the pressure from General Halleck to dismiss Blair, he yield two months later to pressure from Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler and other Radical Republicans to dismiss him. Chandler had tried to match the withdrawal of the independent presidential candidacy of General John C. Frémont with Blair's expulsion from the Cabinet. Fremont had rejected a deal, but nevertheless withdrawn — sealing Blair's fate.
Nevertheless, Blair's loyalty to the President and ambition for another post remained undimmed. He unsuccessfully sought Mr. Lincoln's nomination as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court later in the fall. On December 6, 1864, Blair wrote President Lincoln a long memo on his views on the progress of reconstruction.
In compliance with your request I commit to writing the views to which I referred in a recent conversation. The gradual suppression of the rebellion renders necessary now a persistence in the policy announced in your amnesty proclamation, with such additional provisions as experiment may have suggested — or its repudiation and the adoption of some other policy. For my part I recognize the plan already initiated by you as consonant with the constitution — as well calculated to accomplish the end proposed, and as tending to win over the affections of a portion of the disaffected citizens to unite with all the loyal to aid the work of the military power wielded by you — allying them in its consummation as the restorers of order and good feeling throughout the Union. This plan so far has had happy results. In Missouri — the Governor, Lieut[.] Governor, the Senate and House of Representatives, all concurring The State so far as its authorities were concerned was put out of the pale of the Union, and the State Militia assembled in front of its great city to assert the authority of the Rebel Confederacy. You have repeatedly driven out the rebel power and enabled the loyal people of the State to restore amend and reinvigorate their constitutional authority without the intervention of Congress— Kentucky paralized by the disaffection of the slaveholders and under the betrayal of its Governor, suppressed the loyal feeling of the masses by having the mask of neutrality imposed on it. The military force of the United States having expelled the armies from the South and their allies within the State, it has taken its true attitude on the basis of its own rights. Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana are on the point of embracing the amnesty proclamation and stepping into the Union under its provisions. They come recognizing the validity of your military proclamation — slavery being discarded wherever that reaches it, and so it is manifest, that just as soonas the regular military power of the Rebellion is driven out, the reign of the constitution of the Union is exhibited in the rising up of the State Government to resume its functions. The whole country hails in this auspicious beginning now assured of progress by your re election that your fundamental proclamation of freedom will be made universal by the vote of three fourths of the states extending and confirming it by constitutional amendment— No man of any party has the hardihood now to hint a doubt, that the scope of the measures so happily inaugurated, and proceeding under your auspices will secure forever the freedom of the slaves.