To Abraham Lincoln, cabinet members were there to give advice on how to implement decisions that he already made. He believed his job was to set policy. Their jobs were to execute it.
Lincoln was the commander of a cabinet that had enough egotism and intelligence to fill a few White Houses. Yet, by multiple accounts of those within the cabinet, and those close to the President or his officers, Lincoln made the vast majority of major decisions by himself, and only afterward sought the guidance and advice of his trusted counselors.
This may come as a shock to those who might think executive decisions are often taken by a vote of great minds, and that leaders will defer to collective wisdom. Even in the 1860’s, it was considered unusual in the way that Lincoln ran his cabinet, since so many of his predecessors had run a committee-style management in their administrations.
Lincoln believed that the American people had hired who they thought would be the best as President, just like he hired the best for particular departments. That meant presidential decisions that affected everybody, especially highly political ones, were his alone to make.
“There is but one vote in the Cabinet, and that is cast by the President.” – William Seward, Secretary of State [i]
When a department was involved with a major policy decision, Lincoln consulted with that respective cabinet officer before arriving at his decision, but that officer never had the final say. Lincoln would only be looking for the best ways to implement the decision or be advised of the difficulties he would be facing.
The prime examples of Lincoln’s singular decision-making philosophy are the hiring and firing of all of his generals and cabinet officers, the military strategy for the war, and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Throughout Lincoln’s years as President, many in Washington, and even in the cabinet, thought that Secretary of State William Seward, since he was the “true statesman,” controlled much of what Lincoln said and did. This was refuted by Seward himself, who said, “There is but one vote in the Cabinet, and that is cast by the President.”[i]
Lincoln’s famous political advisor of the time, Thurlow Weed, reinforced Seward’s sentiments:
“His (Lincoln’s) mind is at once philosophical and practical. He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him; but thinks and acts by himself and for himself.”[ii]
In no other way was Lincoln’s managerial independence more persuasively demonstrated than in his decisions for who actually held a major position in the Administration. Throughout his tenure, egos flared multiple times among prominent men representative of different factions from the very beginning.
Besides the consistent grumblings of cabinet officers that Seward supposedly had Lincoln’s undivided attention, there were also constant complaints that Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase was undermining the administration, and that War Secretary Edwin Stanton was, well, being his normally abrasive self.
Each time, Lincoln made it clear to everyone who was actually in charge. He also made it very apparent that the decision as to who would serve the President was exclusively Lincoln’s – and Lincoln’s alone.
- Lincoln even resisted the constant cries of the cabinet to fire General George McClellan, who refused to pursue the Confederate Army, until he could find the right person to replace him.
- Lincoln alone invented the idea of the Emancipation Proclamation, wrote it, and then presented it to the cabinet for advice on implementing it.
- The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery permanently, was pushed by Lincoln onto his cabinet and then onto Congress when he felt the time was right.
There is a reason you are the leader. You make the best decisions at the right time, and you set the goals. Consultation with those who can help is advised, but trust yourself.
For more on why committees don’t work, see “’Management by committee’ signals final stages of company ‘life cycle,’” by Thomas R. Schori, Ph.D., and Michael L. Garee at tomschori.com.”
[ii] Ibid (p. 289)