Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for Diary of Gideon Welles.

Diary of Gideon Welles.

January 2, 2014

Diary of Gideon Welles

January 2, Saturday. Double duty for yesterday’s holiday. Senator Sumner called on Saturday as usual. After disposing of some little matters of business, he spoke of the President and the election. He says the President is moving for a reelection, and has, he knows, spoken to several persons on the subject very explicitly. I told him the President had exchanged no word with me on the subject, but that I had taken for granted he would be a candidate, that I thought all Presidents had entertained dreams of that nature, and that my impressions are that a pretty strong current is setting in his favor. To this Sumner made no response, affirmatively or negatively. I think his present thoughts are in another direction, but not very decidedly so. Neither of us cared to press the other. Whether he had in view to sound me I was uncertain, and am still.

In many very essential respects Sumner is deficient as a party leader, though he has talents, acquirements, sincerity, and patriotism, with much true and false philanthropy. He is theoretical rather than practical. Is egotistical, credulous to weakness with those who are his friends; is susceptible to flattery from any quarter, and has not the suspicions and jealousies that are too common with men in position. There is want of breadth, enlarged comprehension, in his statesmanship. He is not a Constitutionalist, has no organizing and constructive powers, and treats the great fundamental principles of the organic law much as he would the resolutions of the last national party convention. Towards the slaveholders he is implacable, and is ready to go to extremes to break up not only the system of bondage, but the political, industrial, and social system in all the rebellious States. His theorizing propensities and the resentments that follow from deep personal injuries work together in his warfare against that domineering oligarchy which has inflicted great calamities on our country and wrongs on himself. He would not only free the slaves but elevate them above their former masters, yet, with all his studied philanthropy and love for the negroes in the abstract, is unwilling to fellowship with them, though he thinks he is. It is, however, ideal, book philanthropy.

As Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, his services at this time are invaluable. He is, fortunately, in many respects the opposite of Seward, has higher culture and, on international law and the science of government, is vastly better informed and greatly the superior of the Secretary of State. But the latter has greater tact, more practicality, and better knowledge of parties and men, greater versatility of genius and unsurpassed pliability, so that he can more readily adapt himself to whatever may seem expedient. Sumner acts not always from fixed principles but earnest though prejudiced convictions, investigating questions in which he is interested elaborately, and brings learning and authorities to his support. Seward is earnest for his party, but has no great deference for political principles of any kind; his convictions or opinions are weak and change without hesitation if deemed expedient or if his party can be benefited. To such a Secretary an adviser like Sumner is valuable, yet Seward does not appreciate it. There is mutual want of confidence.

My impressions are that Sumner’s present leanings are, after vague and indefinite dreams of himself, for Chase, who has ultra notions, but Chase has to some extent modified his opinions since our conversation last summer, when we took a long evening’s ride. The subject of reconstruction was just then beginning to be earnestly discussed.

Sumner has not the arts that are the chief stock in trade, to use a mercantile phrase, of some tolerably successful politicians, and he is so credulous as to be often the victim of cunning fellows of greatly inferior capacity who flatter and use him. When Senator Dixon of Connecticut desired, and was intriguing for, a reelection to the Senate, he contrived to get a quasi indorsement from Sumner in a general letter, which was used effectually to defeat Sumner’s best friends in Connecticut and injure the cause nearest his heart. Dixon understood his weakness and made skillful application of it to dupe and deceive Sumner. Too late Sumner regrets his error, but will repeat it when a shrewd and cunning mind shall need to practice the deception. He can, right or wrong, stand firm and immovable on great questions, but is swayed by little social appeals to his kindness. His knowledge of men is imperfect and unreliable, and hence, while he will always have position with his party and influence its movements he will never be the trusted leader.

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