From Lincoln, by Gore Vidal, 1984. (Novel 2 in the 7-novel "Narratives of Empire" series.)
Lincoln is set in Washington D.C. 1861–1865, the years of the American Civil War. It provides an intimate narrative of Abraham Lincoln's presidential administration as seen through the eyes of William Sanford—a fictional character whose descendants feature in the subsequent Narratives of Empire novels—as well as the historical personae of presidential secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, John Wilkes Booth's accomplice David Herold, and others.
To Washburne's relief, no one recognized Lincoln. But then he himself had been in a moment' doubt when Lincoln had pushed down his collar, to reveal a short, glossy black beard that entirely changed the shape—and expression—of his face.
"Is it false?" Washburne stared hard. They were now standing beneath a huge poster of "Abraham Lincoln, the President-elect. Welcome to Washington City."The clean-shaven face on the poster was hard, even harsh-looking, while the bearded face looked weary, but amiable.
"No, it's real. What you might call an adornment. I had to do something useful on the train from Springfield."
Chase was convinced that Lincoln was weak, he was equally convinced that he was extremely wily.
Chase handed Lincoln a letter from the head of the Peace Conference, former President Tyler. "He sends his compliments, sir."
[Lincoln] turned to the semicircle of delegates, who stared at him as if he were some sort of rare beast. "Gentlemen, I know some of you personally from the past. I know all of you by name and repute. I am glad that this conference continues, and I will do what I can to give assurance and reassurance to the Southern state that we mean them no harm. It is true that I was elected to prevent the extension of slavery to the new territories of the Union. But what is now the status quo in the Southern states is beyond my power—or desire—ever to alter."
A Southern congressman challenged Lincoln. "Will you uphold the laws, where previous presidents did not? Will you suppress the likes of Mr. John Brown and the Reverend Garrison, who preach war against us and our property?"
"Well, we hanged Mr. Brown, and we put Garrison in prison." Lincoln was mild. "That strikes me as a reasonable amount of suppression."
The city was filled with alarming reports. The President would be shot on his way to the Capital. The President would be shot at the Capital. The President would be kidnapped at the Inaugural Ball and taken across the Long Bridge to Virginia and held hostage... This [rumor] enlivened General [Winfield] Scott, who had placed two sharpshooters in every window that looked upon the eastern portico of the Capital, as well as sharpshooters all up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, not to mention plainclothesmen everywhere.
As Seward took his seat beside the President, he murmured, "There's a rumor that all the telegraph offices in the North were raided yesterday."
"Well," said Lincoln, "that's the first rumor I've hear this week that's founded on fact. Yesterday, at three in the afternoon, I ordered every U. S. Marshal in the country to seize the original of every telegram that has been sent and a apy of every telegram that has been received in the last twelve months."
Seward whistled softly. "The legal basis for this seizure . . . ?" He cocked an eye, comically.
"The broader power inherent in the Constitution.... Anyway, now we'll have a better notion of just who and where our enemies are, particularly in this part of the world."
Lincoln stared at the painting of General Scott conquering Mexico while Seward started at the painting of General Scott winning the War of 1812. General Scott stared at the bust of General Scott, executed in white marble by a student of Canova who had, in Seward's view, failed to matriculate.
Finally, Lincoln spoke to the youthful General Scott storming Chapultepec rather than to the ancient, mottled man who was propped up opposite him, one huge cylinder of a leg resting on a low table. "If the Maryland legislature meets as planned today, they are certain to vote an ordinance of secession."
"But we could stop them, sir." General Scott had not, as Seward thought, gone to sleep. The eyes were now so ringed with fat that it was hard to tell whether or not they were open, while the old man's breathing was that of a heavy sleeper.
Lincoln slumped in his chair; and grabbed his knees in such a way that his chin could now rest comfortably upon them. The hair as usual resembled a stack of black hay after a wind. "I think the governor will take the hint, and guide the legislature in such a way that it will do nothing provocative for fear of our garrison [in Annapolis]."
Lincoln's beard now resembled a bird's nest once the young had flown. "I've already instructed General Butler to let the legislature met. But I have also given him orders to arrest anyone who takes up arms--or incites other to take up arms, against the Federal government."
Lincoln turned to General Scott, who came to massive attention in his chair. "You are to instruct General Butler...that he is to wait upon the legislature [in Annapolis] and if an ordinance of secession is passed, he is to interpret this as an incitement to take up arms against the United States, and those legislators--who would incite the people to take up arms against us...shall be promptly arrested and held in prison at the government's pleasure."
"Sir, with what are they to be charged?"
"I don't think we should be too specific."
"I myself testified at Richmond in the course of the trial of Colonel Aaron Burr, who was no more guilty—"
Seward interrupted the old man without even a show of courtesy. "Mr. Lincoln, you are willing to arrest and to hold men indefinitely with ever charging them with any offense? But on what authority?" Seward felt as if two millennia of law had been casually erased by this peculiar lazy-limbed figure, now twisted in his chair like an ebony German pretzel.
Lincoln addressed General Scott. "Telegraph the order to General Butler."
"Yes, sir." Scott rang a bell. An orderly entered, received his instruction from Scott; then departed with the order to overthrow the first rule of law—habeas corpus.
Seward wondered what precedents there were for the disposal of a mad president. Like so many other interesting matters, the Constitution had left the question unduly vague.
Mary glided toward the men with, she hoped, genuine reptilian speed as well as grace. "What's that for, Father?"
"Well, Molly, I was just showing Billy some of the new money that we're going to print so much of. Now, here's Mr. Chase's honest face on the one-dollar bill, which everyone gets to see, and here I am—proposed, that is—on the two-dollar bill....
"I asked Mr. Chase why hehad put himself instead of me on the one-dollar bill...and he said, 'As you are President, you must be on the more expensive bill; and I on the less."
Lincoln and Herndon and Washburne laughed. Mary did not.... [S]he had also been deeply affronted to see Chase's face so conspicuously displayed on the currency. "He is running for president!" she had exlaimed when she saw the one-dollar bill. For once, Lincoln had agreed with her; but he alo thought it wonderously funny, "To run for president on the money!"
Mary looked at Lincoln; and wondered what it was that sustained him. She had watched, day by day, as the war whittled him away. He seldom ate or slept or, worst of all, laughed. There she looked back at the map. "This town is significant because of all these road, isn't it?"
Stanton looked surprised. He came close to the map and studied it carefully with his small watery eyes. "Well, there are a lot of roads, yes."
"But look," said Mary, suddenly interested. This sort of detail always fascinated her: it was like working closely with a good dressmaker and a complicated pattern "Note," she said, "the main road here to Baltimre and the one here to Philadelphia; and this one to Harrisburg. Why, this town is at the very center of everything in Pennsylvania."
"You know, Mother, you may be right." Lincoln also peered at the map. "I can't say that any of us here at the highest command post of all every noticed anything much except a dot called Gettysburg."
Stanton's response was a snort. "It is an accident," he said, "if the town is of any strategic importance."
"But someone must have known." Mary was quite thrilled with her new dignity as warlord and tactician. "These places are not chosen at random, are they?"
Lincoln chuckled. "I have a hunch they are, Mother."
"Let us pray that we do no lose this all-important town," said Mary, all-importantly, as she left.
Image (top): Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. Seated portrait, holding glasses and newspaper, Aug. 9, 1863.] A