Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth-seekers – so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions. Come down the rabbit hole with us as we discover answers to these questions.
In this episode, we’ll be working through a visitor question: “Who did Lincoln trust the most?” Come along with us as we talk to a renowned Lincoln scholar, an expert on Lincoln’s political life, and a philosopher of trust.
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 2.1 “Who did Lincoln trust the most?”
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.=
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!
CH: Let’s take that half hour now. For this episode, we’re exploring the question: “Who did Lincoln trust the most?”
JC: This question was one of those that came to us after the tour proper was over, which always indicates to me that a visitor has been percolating on something for a while. The visitor asked our colleague Lydia, who led his tour, and she popped in to talk to me about it, but I didn’t really have a great answer either.
CH: We needed an expert. So, to start with some context, we spoke to Sandy Goldberg, a philosopher at Northwestern University. What is trust in the first place?
Sandy Goldberg: So, trust is typically described as a kind of attitude that we have, uh, when we are interacting with other people. It’s often described as a way that we, ah, have of relying on them. It’s a, it’s often described as a kind of reliance. So you think about, for example, you can rely on your next door neighbor, and if you think about the reasons why you might rely on your next door neighbor – it might be just because she tends to do something every day. Uh, like for example, she waters her plants at exactly eight o’clock every morning, and so you know that when she’s out there, it’s eight o’clock, you rely on her for that. Trust would appear to be a special kind of this reliance, where you rely on them for a special kind of reason. And, a lot of the debate in philosophy is: what’s the nature of that reason? Go back to the, the next door neighbor who waters her plants every morning. If you just rely on the fact that she does this every morning, you wouldn’t be said to trust her. So what’s distinctive about trusting someone? If you trust someone, you typically rely on them because, ah, well, perhaps you think that they know that you are relying on them, and they use the fact that you are relying on them as a reason to be reliable. So some, some people think that’s what trust is. Trust is a way of relying on people, where you, you signal to them that you’re relying on them in the expectation that they will recognize you’re relying on them as a reason to be reliable. That’s one possible way of thinking about what it is to trust someone. Here’s another one – this one is owed to um Annette Baier, who is a very influential philosopher who was at the University of Pittsburg for many years – she said that what it is to trust someone is it’s to rely on them out of a sense that they are, they will exhibit good will towards you. That is, maybe you take my interests into account when you’re behaving, you think about me from the perspective of what, what you should do, and I rely on you to have that good will, and that’s precisely what trust is. One of the things that Baier pointed out that I thought was really interesting was that when you trust someone and they let you down, your reaction is one of, um, not just disappointment, but sometimes even, you have a more moralized reaction, like you’re outraged or you’re resentful. So, if I, if I trust you to water my plants when I’m gone and you don’t do so, I get upset with you. Whereas, if I was just relying on my next door neighbor to water her plants at eight o’clock every morning, but she didn’t know that I was relying on her in this way, if one morning she decided not to water her plants at eight o’clock, I wouldn’t be outraged or resentful, or upset with her. I might be disappointed, but I wouldn’t be, I wouldn’t have those moralized reactions. And Baier pointed out that she thinks that’s the core to trusting to someone, that you put yourself in a position where if they disappoint you, you will have these moralized reactions, and if they actually live up to your trust, then you’ll have positive moral reactions towards them.
JC: This was something I found it easy to identify with – I looked up Annette Baier’s work, and the other thing she says about it, is that you tend not to notice trust exists until it’s broken, which I also thought was a great insight. It’s a powerful, visceral feeling when your trust is broken, and there’s nothing that’s quite the same.
CH: Absolutely. So, as I was thinking about this, I immediately thought of a book I recently read by Brené Brown. She’s a social scientist and self-described researcher, storyteller, and Texan whose work is focused on shame, courage, and vulnerability. She wrote that trust came up a lot in her research on shame and vulnerability, so she wanted to try to understand it a little better. When we say we trust someone, what do we actually mean by that? A definition that she came across from Charles Feldman that really meant a lot to me is that “Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” I can’t help but think, then, about the opposite of trust in this context—which is betrayal. And, to me, that is why broken trust or distrust is just so incredibly hurtful. I also appreciate how she talks about trust as something that is built slowly and in small ways. And it got me thinking about the people I trust most in my life, and it’s certainly true for me, that that trust was built over time and in very small ways. It’s interesting to think about something that is built slowly in small ways can be destroyed very quickly, ah, and I think that’s where the vulnerability piece is particularly potent for me. Sandy also mentioned that we may not notice all the ways we place our trust in others throughout the day.
SG: It’s hard to notice exactly when we’re acting on trust and when we’re not acting on trust. I mean if you tried to catalog the number of events on a daily basis when you are acting on trust, my guess is that, in any arbitrary hour of the day you probably could come up with fifty different events, and that’s my guess as to why we don’t always pay attention to our trusting relationships.
JC: Now, what about Lincoln? Who did he trust?
CH: We spoke to Harold Holzer, Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, renowned Lincoln scholar, and a wonderful friend to President Lincoln’s Cottage and member of our Scholarly Advisory Group.
Harold Holzer: Lincoln trusted different people to different degrees, ah, at different stages of his life. That sounds like a cop out, but there were several Lincolns. During his presidential years, I think William Seward himself. They were fellow aspirants for the presidency in 1860. They had known each other very little, meeting as far as we know only once in Boston in the 18, late 1840s, when Lincoln was on a campaign speaking tour for Zachary Taylor for president. And, ah, as I say, when Seward became Secretary of State within weeks he came to believe that Lincoln was not being aggressive enough in putting down secession, that he was waiting too long, and that his administration had become bogged down in inertia. So he tried to ah secure more power for his position, kind of to become a de facto Prime Minister in the presence of a benign king. Well, Lincoln wasn’t a benign king, he was an active leader of a republic. And he told Seward, where to go, basically, and told him to go back to the State Department and do his job. And from that moment –
CH & JC: [laughter]
HH: From that moment on, William Seward was unwaveringly loyal to Abraham Lincoln, and I think Lincoln gave him complete and utter trust. He told Seward about all his political anxieties… Here’s an example of trust, and it relates directly to the Soldier’s Home. Lincoln had drafted the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862, the early summer, and he announced to his Cabinet in July that he wanted to promulgate an emancipation. Every member of his Cabinet told him it was a bad idea, that it would hurt him in the forthcoming off-year elections, it would arouse slave rebellions, that it was unconstitutional – on and on and on. Lincoln did not care what any of them said, but when William Seward spoke up, and said he was afraid that without a Union victory to back up the strength of the administration it would seem, as Seward said, like a “last shriek on the retreat.” And Lincoln believed in Seward enough, respected him enough, and trusted him enough to take that to heart. As he later said, Lincoln later said, that was the only excuse or explanation that he bought. So he agreed to table the Proclamation, and the rest is history. He started going to the Soldier’s Home, and slowly wrote a new draft of the Proclamation on those hallowed grounds so that by the time the Union won the Battle of Antietam, in late summer, September, he went back and made history with the Proclamation because he had trusted Seward, not to do it too precipitously.
JC: Where do you think that trust was built up? How did they, how did Lincoln come to trust Seward?
HH: In one respect, you wouldn’t think they would be a match made in heaven. Lincoln didn’t smoke and Lincoln didn’t drink, and Seward loved his whiskey and he smoked cigars endlessly, and when Lincoln would walk from the White House across Lafayette Park to the Seward home, he would, ah, find Seward, you know, like immersed in cigar smoke. I don’t know what it was. I know he had a New York – he was a New Yorker, he was a machine pol, Lincoln was a – fast talker, and Lincoln was a slow talking Westerner… I guess opposites attract. And Seward was a really good politician. He was a really smart guy. He had shared Lincoln’s belief that a house divided cannot stand, he just said it in a different way without quoting the Bible and got in trouble for it. So I think they had that bond, of understanding this, the slavery issue and that it had to be resolved. But it – no one can explain why personalities click.
JC: Both of us had sort of guessed that Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, might have been the answer to this question because we knew he was up here on the grounds with Lincoln. Here’s what Harold had to say about that.
HH: I mean trust, absolutely in Stanton, but he wasn’t exactly the guy that Lincoln enjoyed hanging out with. I mean, Stanton was all business, he was grim as anything, he called him Mars the God of War. But for hanging out and talking politics and laughing, and exchanging bad jokes, I think Seward was the man. And he sort of enjoyed the fact that Seward swore a lot. Trust is ah, I mean trust is ah, I guess a different thing than companionship. He thought Stanton was loyal to the Union and a brilliant organizer, but he thought Seward was a really smart politician. And, what did Lincoln really like to talk about, more than anything? Politics.
CH: We had also, in our conversation with Sandy, talked about the difference between trusting someone to do something – especially their job – and trusting them with, say, your secrets. Harold had a Lincoln example to illustrate this idea.
HH: I’ll give you a little, a trust story about General Grant though. So again, after Vicksburg in July 1863, Lincoln had great trust/faith in Grant. Here was the guy at last who was going to fight the war and win the war. Well, Congress said, and others said, you got to promote the man. You know, he’s out there in the West, he’s technically under General Halleck, ah, Halleck doesn’t really like him, he’s a little jealous – you got to give Grant preeminence. And in fact, Congress agitated, and – he had a lot of friends in Congress, Grant did – to make him Lieutenant General, and nobody had held that rank permanently since George Washington, and that’s a big move. Okay, did Lincoln trust Grant to make him Lieutenant General? Well, he wanted to make sure first that Grant did not have designs on running for president in 1864. So Lincoln sent out word, I’m gonna absolutely sign on to promoting Grant if I get word that he is not going to stab me in the back politically. So did he trust him at that point? Ah, not so much, trusted him to do his job, but wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to knife him when it came to the presidency.
JC: We had a clear sense of who Lincoln had placed his trust in during his presidency. Sidney Blumenthal, who works on the political life of Abraham Lincoln and has experience in politics himself, spoke with us about a couple key figures in Lincoln’s early life.
CH: Who did Lincoln need to trust in order to become president in the first place?
Sidney Blumenthal: The person who trusted Lincoln the most in his early life, who was most instrumental in Lincoln becoming Lincoln, was Mary Todd. Mary Todd came from, um, an upper class family in Lexington, Kentucky, she was a southern belle. She had been brought to Springfield by her older sister to meet eligible bachelors who might be marriage material, and instead she fixed on this figure of Lincoln. Who her family considered, as they put it, a “plebe,” but she believed in his potential. She had said as a child, having known Henry Clay, who was the business partner and political ally of her father that she wanted to marry a president. I’m sure she didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln might be a president, but she thought, having the pick of all the men in Springfield, that he was somebody who could go far. So here’s someone else who we don’t think about, um, but who was a major figure in Lincoln’s life. His name was Jesse Fell. Um, he was an industrialist. He was a philanthropist. He was an early conservationist, um, and he was an abolitionist. And it is Jesse – and he was also a very political person and one of the founders of the Illinois Republican Party, and it is Jesse Fell who comes to Lincoln and says, when he is running against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 for the Senate, that you must debate him, you must pursue him, you must stalk him until he agrees to a debate. And Jesse Fell believed in Lincoln’s ability to stand up to Douglas, who was ferocious, demagogic, he was a, um, fearsome figure. But, Jesse Fell felt that Lincoln could stand up to him, and as a result of that, the Lincoln-Douglas debates take place, and they are central in the, in the making of Abraham Lincoln and the creation of his national reputation. Lincoln trusted many people, and he had to, in order to advance his principles and his politics. So one of the people he trusts is David Davis, who was the maestro of their traveling troop of lawyers through central Illinois. Large figure, booming voice, a figure of authority, um and, was a conservative old Whig who Lincoln was constantly trying to pacify from being angry at abolitionists, or anybody who was at all more progressive than he was in his attitudes. And, David Davis becomes his, the manager of his nomination struggle at the Republican convention in 1860. Lincoln stays in Springfield. The convention is in Chicago. David Davis sets up the headquarters in a hotel in Chicago. He is the one who Lincoln has to trust to get him the nomination, and Davis, on his own, cuts the deals. Lincoln sends him a telegram and says, you know, make no contracts without informing me, and Davis says to the people around him: Lincoln ain’t here.
JC: [laughter] He’s like well, I’m going to do it anyway.
SB: And he did it anyway, and Lincoln got the nomination. So, Lincoln had to trust in David Davis, and David Davis did what he thought he had to do.
JC: Does it sound like Lincoln had anybody who he really trusted?
CH: I think so, I think it sounds like he had maybe a lot of people he really trusted.
JC: Really? For me, all I heard all of those and it sounds to me that there are different people he can give little different small pieces of his trust, but nobody he can actually trust with everything.
CH: Yeah, that’s kind of interesting. I guess, I was surprised that there wasn’t more, at least in the people we talked with, there wasn’t more made of his trust with Mary, or of Mary. And I think that it tends, I don’t know, marriage seems to be one of the places in your life where people talk about the importance of trust and where you, you know, you tend to you know, I don’t know.
JC: And it’s very possible that I am throwing out the baby out with the bath water and it is better to have many people you can trust with some things, then to trust no one in the pursuit of the one person you can trust with everything. The other thing that came up in all of our conversations for this episode was the current political environment and where trust might be missing there. What kind of model might Lincoln’s trust offer us for how to think about the relationship between presidents and the people?
HH: So here’s my final thought on trust, and this occurred to me during this terrific conversation. Whom did Lincoln trust the most? This is going to sound corny, but how about, the people. In his 1861 inaugural address, he wanted to stress that secession is illegal, because the majority rule is what this country was sustained on – the ability of elections to take place and for the losers to say to the winners, we respect your victory, we will be loyal to you. So, Lincoln says in Washington on March 4th, 1861, “why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?” So that’s who Lincoln trusted the most – he trusted the majority rule. Look at 1864, in August 1864, he’s commuting to and from the Soldier’s Home thinking, I’m not going to win this election and I’m not going to take over the government, I’m not going to invalidate the election, and I’m not going to cancel the election. What an extraordinary thing to allow, during a revolution, to let an election go forward. That never happened in world history until Iraq, by the way. So, Lincoln has a trust in the voice of the people, and he goes to Washington from the Soldier’s Home one day and he makes his Cabinet sign a document, sight-unseen, that commits them, I mean it maybe it would not have stood up in court, but commits them in principle, to cooperating with the incoming administration to save the Union – that’s trust in the people. If he wins he’ll continue his policies, if he loses, the people have spoken. Lincoln put his money where his mouth was on that kind of trust. Presidents should be very careful about maintaining the public trust. Because if you, if you exaggerate enough times then truth vanishes.
CH: I got so excited when Harold brought up the blind memorandum. It’s one of my favorite stories about Lincoln. Um, but back to Lincoln as a model for some of the trust issues we’re currently experiencing. Here’s what Sandy had to say.
SG: My impression is that there are many, many, many failures that go into this. And, that the problems that we see with ah, people not knowing who or what to trust are actually, um, a symptom of a deeper, a deeper problem. And that deeper problem I think is politics that has been unresponsive to many, many people. Whether it’s in the US or in Europe or, in many places in the world, I mean Hong Kong, certainly um you see this in Brazil, you still this in many different places, that they are, they’re not responding to many of the people’s preferences, to their desires, and this gives rise to a kind of anger that we see playing out in our politics these days. The failures of trust that we see these days is actually seriously a problem. It may actually be a symptom of a deeper cause. We talk these days about the concerns we have over populism, concerns over populism are essentially concerns over how easily manipulated people can be, and if you have that fear, you probably won’t be in a position where you’re trusting the people to make good decisions. So I’m, I know that I’m always moved whenever I read Lincoln’s words on, that give expression to the extent to which he trusted the American people. And, ah, perhaps we could all learn a thing or two from those words these days.
JC: Sidney agreed with Harold.
SG: Presidents, to begin with, need to have trust in the government of the United States, in the Constitution of the United States, and without that, uh, the government really doesn’t-doesn’t work. Let me just say that Lincoln had trust in something larger even than people. He believed in the Constitution, he believed in saving the Union, and he believed in his idea of America. Uh, he believed in a new birth of freedom, he believed in the sacrifice of the soldiers, and that it was for a greater cause. He, uh, believed in the, uh, place of the United States in the world, as a beacon of, um, freedom and liberty, the last best hope of Earth. And, um, because of all of those beliefs and that ultimately there were, there was, in the-in Americans the better angels of our nature, Lincoln was able to go on, uh, through the worst hardships. So that’s an example and a model for all presidents.
Joan: I think Lincoln’s trust in American principles and in America’s people, is incredible. In both senses of the word, first in that I think it is a great and important thing – and probably is part of what carried him through these vast difficulties he was experiencing – and secondly in that I find it genuinely very difficult to understand. I don’t know where he pulled his belief from, that somehow it would all work out.
Callie: And see, this made me start to wonder about how much Lincoln must have trusted himself. Another thing that Brené Brown talks about in her work is the importance of self-trust, particularly the idea that if you can’t count on yourself, how can you expect others to count on you? That you can’t ask other people to give you what you don’t have. I imagine, then, that Lincoln must have trusted himself a lot. I was still left with a pressing question: once trust is broken, can it ever be repaired?
SG: I, I have often, um, wondered whether the way to think about that is not unlike the way to think about how the body repairs itself after, um, you have, you get injured. Um, suppose, for example, I end up scraping my knee badly and it starts bleeding and-and uh, you know, I end up having to put a bandage on it. And you ask the question, can-can my knee ever fully recover? And the answer is, it does recover but it always has, uh, the, that scar. And, my guess, but I really want to make clear this is more of a guess than anything that I’ve-I’ve thought about, my guess is that, um, you can recover from a situation in which you’ve violated another person’s trust. Though, even in the best-case scenario there will probably be a scar, and the way to understand what that means is that it will always be more of a question in their mind after you’ve violated their trust whether you are doing that again, and that question will arise even after they have returned to, to trusting you. It will happen- it will occur to them more often than it had before they, before they, they felt like you violated their trust.
JC: One of the things I like about that analogy also is that, healing your knee-your knee will not be fine tomorrow.
JC: Right, and it might be fine –
JC: Next week. And there are some ways you could hurt your leg that would not be fine for several years, right? And I think something similar can happen with relationships.
SG: That-that’s-that’s correct.
JC: So for us, today, why does it matter who Lincoln trusted?
SG: It’s-it’s really [laughing] I love that question. My quick answer would be-would tell you a bit about the character of the man Lincoln himself. If we-if we had a sense of who he trusted most, uh, it would tell us about his judgement, uh, his des-his capacity to discern the-the motives of others, it would-and it- in general just tell us a bit about his-his worldview. And that-that would be worth knowing.
SB: A president can’t accomplish anything without trust on various levels, including the people closest to him in his political party, among his, uh, staff within the White House, within the Cabinet, he requires people to support his program, his principles, and himself. I wish I could say herself. There are-there have been cases of presidents who have misplaced trust. Among those who misplaced trust were, obviously Warren G. Harding, who trusted all of his friends and robbed the country blind. And, uh, just, uh, destroyed his presidency and he died as the Teapot Dome Scandal was unfolding.
HH: One reason it matters very much is that, the people in whom he gave trust left us the most accurate and dependable reminiscences of him, and so we have their words and their recollections to-to fuel our own American history, and our own history of Lincoln.
CH: Harold specifically mentioned the Ward Hill Lamon story, where Lamon repeated a fabricated story about Lincoln’s dream foreseeing his own death, as an example of an untrustworthy source. You might recognize that story from our first episode, “How could Lincoln sleep, if slavery was happening?”
JC: It struck me that there’s only so far we can get in seeking to know Lincoln’s secrets, because if his people were really trustworthy they won’t have told anyone what they were.
CH: You know I think one of the things, uh, about exploring this topic that was just so eye-opening for me, is just how foundational trust really is, I mean, of course I knew it was important, of course, I, I value it in my relationships with other people, but I think when I started to think more and more about that-that part that I quoted earlier about, you know, it’s allowing yourself to be vulnerable with someone else and-and sort of trusting them, giving them the responsibility with that thing that you’ve shared. And that can, I mean it can be beautiful or it can be, just…
JC: Very dangerous.
CH: Yeah, really super dangerous.
JC: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the things that really stuck with me, is that this is all invisible until something goes wrong. That it can be very easy for who you are trusting, and what you are trusting them with, to be subconscious and automatic or just because of the circumstances that are happening without anybody really thinking about it, until something goes wrong, at which point it is the only thing anybody is thinking about.
CH: Absolutely, and-and the other piece, kind of along those lines, is that- just how slowly it’s built. But how quickly it can all be dismantled.
JC: Right, and it is nearly impossible to move through the world without trusting anybody, in that even if you are just walking down the street you are trusting the people around you to not do something bad to you, but if you want to build any kind of relationship with anyone, a deeper kind of trust is needed.
CH: I’ll be honest, looking at this actually made me want to be more cautious with who I trust.
JC: I’m pretty paranoid about it already.
CH: I think you might be on to something.
JC: Well that’s what made me like, that’s kind of where I ended up in terms of thinking about Lincoln, is it sounds incredibly lonely to be the president, because it doesn’t seem to me like there would be anyone you could fully trust with all of the pieces of yourself. And I’m just sort of hopeful that the Cottage can have provided Lincoln a place where he could be slightly less guarded and a little more of himself at least some of the time.
CH: Maybe it’s a reminder to all of us to think about: who in your life do you trust, and what do you trust them with? How can you be more conscious in your trust?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org.
JC: To the visitor whose question sparked this episode, thanks for sending us into uncomfortable territory.
CH: Comments? Questions? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave us a review on your podcast app.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!