President Abraham Lincoln Uses Montgomery Blair, His Postmaster General, as a Conduit to Blair’s Brother Frank, Who at Lincoln’s Request Was Resigning His Military Commission to Take a Seat in Congress

Frank supported Lincoln’s policies, and the hope was he would help organize the House, and perhaps even become Speaker

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In the Civil War era the Blairs were one of the most influential families in Washington. Francis Preston Blair, Sr. had been from 1831 to 1845 Editor-in-Chief of the Washington Globe, which served as the primary propaganda instrument for the Democratic Party. Blair was also a key advisor to President Andrew Jackson,...

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President Abraham Lincoln Uses Montgomery Blair, His Postmaster General, as a Conduit to Blair’s Brother Frank, Who at Lincoln’s Request Was Resigning His Military Commission to Take a Seat in Congress

Frank supported Lincoln’s policies, and the hope was he would help organize the House, and perhaps even become Speaker

In the Civil War era the Blairs were one of the most influential families in Washington. Francis Preston Blair, Sr. had been from 1831 to 1845 Editor-in-Chief of the Washington Globe, which served as the primary propaganda instrument for the Democratic Party. Blair was also a key advisor to President Andrew Jackson, and in Jackson’s informal Kitchen Cabinet. But in the 1840s Blair, though a slaveholder, came to oppose the extension of slavery, and left the Democratic Party over the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. He was a force in helping form the Republican Party in 1854. Blair supported Abraham Lincoln for President in 1860, and served as an advisor to Lincoln during the Civil War. His son Montgomery was Lincoln’s Postmaster General, at a time when that was an influential Cabinet post, and his other son Francis, Jr. (Frank) was a Congressman and general in the Union Army. Montgomery Blair was the most conservative Republican in Lincoln’s cabinet, and the Blairs, whose family owned slaves, represented the conservative wing of the Republican Party on emancipation. Frank Blair was the party’s “chief theoretician” for colonization of former slaves, and the “best, most passionate, and most industrious proponent of a plan of gradual emancipation,” according to historian Allan Nevins. The Blairs were at loggerheads with the Radical Republicans like Sumner who were actively gunning for Montgomery’s ouster, and also for marginalizing Francis Sr. and Jr.

In early April 1862, Congress, with Frank in the House of Representatives (and with his support), voted for compensated emancipation for the District of Columbia. In the midst of this debate, Frank rose to make a spirited defense of the President on April 11. Wrote Blair biographer William E. Parrish, “To those who said that Lincoln had not policy, Frank argued that the President’s main concern lay in preserving the Union. Refusing to believe that the South had seceded strictly over the issue of slavery, Frank recalled those Southern leaders who had tried to pursue moderation, and then made it clear that he considered the real cause of the war to be the ‘negro question and not the slavery question.’” Blair argued against full emancipation: “No wise man desires to increase the number of enemies to the State within the hostile regions, or divide its friend outside. Mr. Lincoln knew that a decree of emancipation simply would have this effect. Such an act he knew was calculated to make rebels of the whole of the non slaveholders of the South, and at the same time to weaken the sympathy of a large number of working men of the North, who are not ready to see their brethren in the South put on equality with manumitted negroes.”

President Lincoln’s Secretary John Hay recalled that one night in early December 1863, he, John Nicolay, and Secretary of the Interior John Usher were in the President’s office discussing the Blairs when Mr. Lincoln came and observed: “The Blairs have to an unusual degree the spirit of clan. Their family is a close corporation. Frank is their hope and pride. They have a way of going with a rush for anything they undertake, especially have Montgomery and the Old Gentleman.” Lincoln had written Montgomery Blair with some advice to pass on to his brother just weeks earlier, on November 2, 1863: “I understood you to say that your brother, Gen. Frank Blair, desires to be guided by my wishes as to whether he will occupy his seat in Congress or remain in the field. My wish then is compounded of what I believe will be best for the country, and it is, that he will come here, put his military commission in my hands, take his seat, go into caucus with our friends, abide the nominations, help elect the nominees, and thus aid to organize a House of Representatives, which will really support the government in the war. If the result shall be the election of himself as speaker, let him serve in that position. If not let him retake his commission and return to the army for the country.” Lincoln went on to write: “It will be a mistake if he shall allow the provocations offered him by insincere time-servers to drive him from the house of his own building. He is young yet. He has abundant talents—quite enough to occupy all his time without devoting any to temper. He is rising in military skill and usefulness. His recent appointment to the command of a corps by one so competent to judge as General Sherman proves this. In that line he can serve both the country and himself more profitably than he could as a member of Congress upon the floor.” Thus, Lincoln, using Montgomery as a conduit to Frank, recommended that Frank take his seat in Congress and work effectively there, and if that brought insufficient results he could resume his military career.

Thus, at the request of President Lincoln, Blair relinquished his command of the 15th Corps on December 11, 1863, to return to Congress, and resigned his commission on January 1, 1864. It was accepted by Lincoln on January 12. In Congress, Blair would defend Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans against radical elements of the Republican Party. He was equally courageous and aggressive on the battlefield and political field. Blair twice vigorously attacked Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase on the House floor, and he had enemies in place in the Radical Republican wing. Blair failed to become Speaker of the House, resigned his seat in June 1864, and was returned to military service by President Lincoln.

On December 29, 1863, just three days before Blair resigned his commission but after he had relinquished his command, Lincoln called a Cabinet meeting. The topics discussed were not recorded and are unknown. Montgomery Blair and a few others were not present.

On January 2, 1864, Lincoln wrote to Montgomery Blair, asking to see him. Autograph note signed, on his note card, Washington, January 2, 1864. “Will the Postmaster General please call and see me this morning? A. Lincoln.” We speculate that the President was calling Montgomery Blair to the Executive Mansion to again use him as a conduit to his brother Frank, and related to Frank’s taking his seat in Congress and the organization of the House. Perhaps the results of the December 29 Cabinet meeting were also discussed. This intriguing note to Blair is unpublished.

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