Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Review - " The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War " by Joseph Lambert

[The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War by Joseph Lambert, Jr. (Kent State University Press, 2023). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,235/319. ISBN:978-1-60635-466-7. $39.95]

Though his widely respected but financially straitened jurist father was a deeply committed Whig, Ohio lawyer, industrialist, diplomat, and politician David Tod (1805-1868) bucked family tradition and from early adulthood onward became an equally faithful Democrat, maintaining that political allegiance throughout the antebellum period. For Tod, however, the outbreak of the American Civil War sparked a sharp and instantaneous rejection of his previous political partisanship. For him it was not a Republican war. Like many other prominent War Democrats, Tod felt that saving the federal Union and the country's experiment in self-government was paramount and could only be achieved through military means. To that end, he offered fulsome support for President Abraham Lincoln's Republican-led war effort. This conversion from partisan Douglas Democrat to (mostly) bipartisan Union Party leader is meticulously documented in Joseph Lambert's The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War. Though a pair of recent studies, William Harris's Lincoln and the Union Governors (2013) and more notably Stephen Engle's Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln and the Union's War Governors (2016)1, explore the political actions, relationships, and significance of Lincoln's gubernatorial partners, Lambert's study is the first modern full-length biography of Tod, a single-term war governor often overshadowed by neighboring state executives such as Indiana's Oliver Morton and Richard Yates of Illinois.

Of course, if one wants to develop a primary thesis of "political transformation," a biographer must first construct a clearly understood foundation upon which to build the narrative. In examining at length Tod's social and political upbringing (particularly his discussion of Tod's ideas for state bank reform and his opposition to a national bank) through several chapters, Lambert succeeds in firmly establishing Tod as a loyal Jacksonian Democrat and constitutional constructionist. Tod's actions as U.S. Minister to Brazil (1847-1851) are lauded for improving soured relations between the two countries. It was also where northerner Tod witnessed slavery up close, and the book notes that the extended time spent in Brazil contributed to Tod's evolving views on the subject of human chattel. Evidence shows that Tod, in a shared trait with Lincoln, was clearly antislavery in his general stance toward the institution but not an abolitionist. During the Kansas troubles of the 1850s and the momentous political campaign of 1860, Tod emerged as a solid Douglas Democrat. That would change.

During the secession crisis and opening months of the war, Tod unequivocally trumpeted the cause of Union. Though he had suffered a stroke while stumping for Douglas during the 1860 presidential election, Tod nevertheless vigorously campaigned in favor of Lincoln's militant stance toward the rebellious South. He became an active force in the Ohio branch of the Union Party, a fusion of Republicans and War Democrats. While many fellow Democrats, and even some later historians, interpreted this emergent partnership to be political opportunism on the part of Tod, Lambert could find no evidence that Tod sought the Union Party nomination for governor of Ohio in 1861. Regardless, it was an election he easily won.

Going back to the Union Party nomination process, one might wonder why sitting Republican governor William Dennison, who by all accounts more than ably managed the state's mobilization for war and strongly supported the President, was unseated. Lambert points out that Dennison was hurt by his staid personality, which did not inspire public confidence when matched against Tod's fiery campaign speeches promoting the war and his overall genial enthusiasm. Perhaps even more important, Tod was a moderate on the slavery issue, and it was calculated that that aspect of his political portfolio, in contrast to Dennison's more radical approach, made him more appealing to the broad base of Ohio voters who were antislavery but still wary of abolitionists.

Lambert admits that Tod was a bit overwhelmed by his state commander-in-chief responsibilities at the beginning of his term, and he generously commends Dennison for bequeathing to his successor a well-organized recruitment system and military bureaucratic apparatus. But, as the author also justly maintains, Tod deserves credit for recognizing what and who made it all work, and the new governor commendably resisted the temptation of cleaning house in favor of installing his own leadership/patronage appointments and implementing change for the sake of putting his own stamp on running all aspects of state government. Upon receiving horrifying news of mass casualties incurred during first great battles in the West, one particularly effective state-level leadership response was Tod's distribution of state resources (in the form of money, supplies, medical staff, etc.) to western battlefields through chartered steamships, a proactive and timely approach that cut through red tape, eased the suffering of the wounded, and saved many lives. Through that initiative and others, Tod quickly gained a widespread and justly earned reputation as a devoted friend of the fighting man.

In more ways than one, the book shows how Tod quickly proved to be an able war governor. One of Tod's earliest proposals, though rejected at the time by the state legislature, was the creation of a large standing militia force for internal security and border defense. The author perhaps underestimates the political and fiscal feasibility of a force as large as the one Tod proposed, which would have dwarfed similar state armies such as the neighboring Indiana Legion, but Lambert correctly notes that standing garrisons would have significantly eased security concerns (and public panic) during the 1862 Kentucky Campaign and the mounted raids led by John Hunt Morgan. Even so, when discussing Ohio's response to the approach of Confederate troops during General Bragg's Kentucky incursion, Lambert credits Tod with creating and coordinating an emergency response that was more than up to the demands of the occasion.

In Lambert's view, a key component of Tod's strength as a war governor was his willingness to subordinate state prerogatives for federal ones, principally in the area of recruitment2. In a move that did not sit well with many Democrats, Tod did not directly oppose in theory a proposed federal draft to supplement presumed future shortfalls in state volunteer recruitment, and he also was in line with the administration when it came to jailing opposition newspaper editors and others who publicly sought to discourage enlistment. The book shows that Tod was single-minded in the drive to save the Union and was prepared to temporarily abandoned his previously strict constructionism in order to support nearly any Lincoln administration measure aimed toward achieving that overarching end. According to Lambert, the depth of Tod's political transformation was most profoundly expressed through the speed and strength of Tod's support for the Emancipation Proclamation. This emerged during the northern governors meeting assembled in Pennsylvania around that time. No press were allowed and no minutes were taken, so how individual governors responded during the meeting to the key issues of the war (and how well or badly the administration was handling them) remains open to speculation. Indeed, when it comes to interpreting Tod's commitment to emancipation, the opinions of historians have been mixed. However, in his own research Lambert discovered a revealing interview with one of the attendees following the conference, a governor who had no obvious personal or political motivation to buff up Tod, in which it is unequivocally stated that Tod expressed one of the earliest and strongest affirmations of Lincoln's proclamation.

While Tod remained a popular public figure during his term of office, critics were sharpening their knives, and, as Lambert demonstrates, they would close in from all directions. The fall 1862 elections went badly for Tod's political allies, the inroads made by more conservative Ohio Democrats demonstrating growing discontent with Lincoln's home front policies and his overall management of the war effort. Linked with Tod, that tide contributed to what would be a fatal compromising of the governor's political future. He also made things worse for himself through his own actions. By notably failing to mention emancipation in his January 1863 State of the State address, Tod again opened himself up to old charges stemming from his antebellum political career that he was a two-faced, unprincipled politician. Ohio conservatives attacked him for his support of free speech suppression, arbitrary arrest, and emancipation while Republican allies (always the Union Party majority) increasingly accused Tod of not being radical enough and, perhaps just as important, excessively stingy in rewarding Republicans with vacated government and military appointments. Overall, Lambert's study does an excellent job of tracing what was behind both Tod's meteoric rise and his just as meteoric fall from political grace. Later in his term of office, Tod did finally succeed getting the legislature to pass a law creating a state militia army, but there was not enough time to implement it before Morgan's Great Raid passed through southern Ohio during the summer of 1863.

After losing the nomination for a second term, Tod selflessly campaigned for his replacement, and during Morgan's Great Raid he effectively micromanaged the state's military response. Later that summer, Tod, who had opposed black recruitment earlier in his tenure, finally offered the War Department a regiment drawn from the state's relatively large free black population. Having earlier asked for a postponement of the federal draft in his state, Tod was informed that black soldiers would count toward the state's requested enlistment total. Though it has been suggested that Tod came around to black enlistment only to help forestall draft implementation, Lambert offers a strong counterpoint to the most cynical claims, citing Tod's earnest efforts in equipping and supplying the men, strident requests for equal pay, and affectionate speeches made in their support. As a lame duck governor, Tod continued to work tirelessly toward getting Ohio volunteers into the ranks of the army, and near the end of his term he responded to Confederate threats from Canada by coordinating a strong security screen along the state's Great Lakes border.

An exhausted ex-governor Tod returned home in 1864 to his lucrative coal, iron, and railroad pursuits, but he wasn't entirely done with politics. Campaigning for Lincoln and against the Peace Democrat movement in his home state that year, the still popular Tod was tagged by an appreciative Lincoln for the Secretary of the Treasury cabinet post vacated by Salmon Chase's resignation. Citing continued poor health, Tod graciously declined the honor. Lambert agrees with critics at the time that Tod was a very curious pick given his life-long public opposition to the kinds of financial policies and strategies that Secretary Chase employed so effectively in sustaining the northern economy and war machine. The author agrees that it was best for the country that someone better qualified fill the position, which ultimately went to William Fessenden of Maine, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. This is just one example of how Lambert judiciously weighs the strengths and weaknesses associated with his subject's political life.

For many, the war's end also signaled the end of the Union Party's usefulness, but David Tod felt that he could not in good conscience return to the Democratic Party. Indeed, he felt that it would take at least one additional election cycle before the Democrats could hope to regain their moral standing in the country. Until then, Tod would support the Grant presidency. He came around to supporting black suffrage as well, though he died of a stroke before ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. In the areas of equality, citizenship, and civil rights for freedmen, Lambert deems Lincoln's own transformation on those matters a "spiritual" one in contrast to Tod's more constitution-based, pragmatic, and legalistic one (though some who knew Tod personally believed it more heartfelt than that). What is beyond dispute is that the political transformation of David Tod was weighty, real, and deserving of being remembered as much more than mere shifting with the prevailing political winds.

In the end, Lambert's biography delivers a strong endorsement of the idea that David Tod's historical significance in deftly guiding the war effort of one of the Union's most vitally important states and his earnest support for emancipation transcended his relatively brief time spent in elected office. Bookended by the governorships of William Dennison and John Brough, it was Tod, Lambert argues, who successfully navigated the state through its most challenging trials. A highly recommended study, Joseph Lambert's The Political Transformation of David Tod ably addresses a significant gap in the modern biography of northern war governors, many of whom played critical roles in assisting the Lincoln administration's path to Union victory.

Additional Notes:
1 - Both titles come well recommended. Given the significance of the federal-state partnership to the outcome of the war, it is surprising that Engle was the first historian in seven decades to comprehensively examine the subject of Lincoln's relationships with the state governors. For those who might find the scale of Engle's Gathering to Save a Nation daunting, Harris's more introductory-level study, part of SIU Press's prolific Concise Lincoln Library series, is a fine alternative.
2 - While Lambert's study traces the Civil War career of a western governor, it tends to track the overall progress and state of the Union war effort in a rather eastern-centric manner. In discussing manpower and recruitment issues more generally as background to Tod's influence in Ohio, some arguably misplaced emphasis emerges in the book. For example, the author on more than one occasion assigns to General George McClellan's handling of the Peninsula Campaign primary blame for the mid-1862 manpower crisis that sparked another massive call for volunteers from the states. Administration gaffes, even extraordinary ones such as Secretary Stanton's Spring 1862 suspension of military recruitment all across the North, are minimized as secondary factors or overlooked entirely.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your review of the Tod biography, and wanted to note that Steve Engle has a new Civil War governor's biography out, entitled _In Pursuit of Justice: The Life of John Albion Andrew_. It was published last fall by the University of Massachusetts Press.


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