Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky

Article excerpt

Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky. By Elizabeth D. Leonard. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 417, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $40.00.)

In the introduction to this volume, Elizabeth Leonard asserts that "no member of Lincoln's aclministration or the postwar federal government - indeed, no Civil War-era political figure - has been more unjustly neglected by historians, more misrepresented by Americans' collective historical 'memory,' and, in the end, more completely forgotten than Joseph Holt" (pp. 1-2). Leonard certainly proves her case. Joseph Holt was a consequential player in most of the critical moments during this period, and we are in Leonard's debt for reclaiming his story.

A native of Stephensport, Kentucky, Holt was the second son of a substantial planter family. Intellectually and politically gifted, he was encouraged to pursue a life of scholarly and legal studies. During early adulthood, he developed a deep (and lifelong) distrust of political extremism, which he believed "led inexorably to revolution, potentially against a legitimate, constitutional, republican government" (p. 67). Holt's fears extended not only to abolitionism, and later the Republican Party, but also to the pro-slavery wing of his own Democratic Party, even though he and his family had long owned slaves.

During the antebellum period, Holt never ran for office despite being repeatedly called upon to do so. Instead, he garnered a reputation for brilliance and fairness through essays and speeches about leading political issues, which in turn resulted in a string of influential political appointments. His advocacy for Buchanan in 1856, for instance, won him first the position of Commissioner of Patents, then Postmaster General, and finally Secretary of War, where he not only helped navigate the Fort Sumter crisis, but also oversaw the security of the capital during Lincoln's inauguration.

Like many border state moderates during the secession crisis, Holt embraced unionism as a conservative reaction against the extremism of secession. But during the war, also like other unionists, Holt became increasingly intolerant of anything less than unconditional loyalty, a philosophy that both prompted his appointment into places of authority and was itself shaped and deepened by his experience in those roles. As Leonard convincingly shows, Holt was at the center of the delicate balancing act surrounding border state policy during the first year of the war. From Washington, D.C., he acted as the leader of Kentucky's unconditional unionists (often in collaboration with Lincoln's close friend, Joshua Speed). In speeches and letters, he urged his fellow citizens to abandon the "fallacy of neutrality," while at the same time privately urging President Lincoln to pursue a moderate course regarding slavery. …

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