“A Little Out of Temper”: When Lewis Henry Morgan Met Abraham Lincoln

2018 marked the bicentennial of the birth of Lewis Henry Morgan (d. 1881), a Rochester, New York attorney and founding figure in American anthropology and archeology. Morgan established his reputation with League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (Morgan 1851), a comprehensive study of sociopolitical organization and material culture that grew out of his youthful fascination with Native American traditions. The book was made possible by the assistance of Ely S. Parker (Hasanoanda), who authored some sections, and his sister Caroline G. Parker (Gahano), members of a prominent Tonawanda Seneca family who facilitated Morgan’s fieldwork. Although manifestly ethnocentric, League of the Iroquois is one of the earliest recognizably anthropological accounts of culture as a distinctive and coherent system of thought and action. Morgan’s dedication of the book to Ely Parker acknowledges the fundamental if uneasy collaboration between anthropologists and their interlocutors that underlies all ethnographic research.[1]

Morgan’s next two books featured other innovations. The American Beaver and His Works (1868) was based on unprecedented field observations of the behavior of these animals in their engineered environments. In Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), Morgan analyzed a vast amount of data acquired through a questionnaire he designed to elicit the divergent logics of kinship terminologies used by speakers of many different languages worldwide.   

In Morgan’s best-known work, Ancient Society, Or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization (1877), he laid out a materialist scheme of universal history. The book was taken up by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and turned into a staple of socialist reading groups, despite Morgan’s firm belief in the benefits of individual property and free markets. Today, critics remember Ancient Society for its association with social evolutionism and Victorian ideas of racial hierarchy and white supremacy (for example, Gates Jr. 2019:68; see also Baker 1998: 43ff, and Harris 1968: 137ff).

Morgan bequeathed his field journals, scholarly papers, and library, along with a substantial sum of money, to the University of Rochester. These materials offer only limited insights into Morgan’s personal affairs, thus presenting a challenge to his biographers.[2] I therefore was intrigued to discover among the published correspondence of Abraham Lincoln a brief reference to a hitherto unreported meeting between the president and Morgan.  According to Lincoln, the encounter ended unhappily. What was this meeting about, and why might Morgan have gone away, in Lincoln’s words, “a little out of temper”?

On June 2, 1864, Joseph Henry, Director of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to Lincoln to introduce his “much esteemed friends” Morgan and Professor Eben Horsford of Cambridge, “who desire to place before you, a case of military discipline” (Basler 1953: 378).  Four days later, Morgan and Horsford visited Lincoln in Washington, D.C. and appealed to him for the pardon of Private James McCarthy of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who faced the charge of desertion. McCarthy’s regiment was organized in Rochester, where Morgan resided, and its ten companies were recruited from the city and its surrounding Monroe County.  

Lincoln refused Morgan and Horsford’s request, and the two unsuccessful petitioners departed. Soon afterwards, however, Lincoln telegraphed Major General George G. Meade, head of the Army of the Potomac, proposing that if Private McCarthy’s “Colonel and you consent, I will send him to his regiment” (Basler 1953:378). Meade responded to Lincoln the next day, June 7th.  His telegram noted that “private James McCarthey of Co ‘K’ 140th” had been

apprehended by our Pickets attempting to pass our Lines towards the enemy when arrested. He attempted to bribe the Pickets to allow him to pass. I cannot recommend any mitigation of the sentence in his case (Basler 1953:385). 

The sentence in McCarthy’s case was confinement and hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (Florida Keys), which in 1864 housed over 700 prisoners convicted by court-martial. A register of the 140th NY includes this listing for a James McCarty, quite possibly the man on whose behalf Morgan interceded:

Age, 21 years. Enlisted at Sherman [NY], to serve three years, and mustered in as private, Co. K, August 19, 1863; transferred to Co. K, Fifth Veteran Infantry, June 3, 1865, while absent in confinement (New York 1905:124).      

On June 10th, 1864 Lincoln forwarded Meade’s telegram to Joseph Henry with the following endorsement:

A few days ago a friend of yours called and urged me to pardon Private McCarthy, & upon my refusal, went away dissatisfied, and I thought a little out of temper. After he was gone, I telegraphed Gen. Meade that if he and McCarthy’s Colonel would consent, I would send him back to his Regiment; and the within is Gen. Meade’s answer (Basler 1953:385).  

Although Lincoln’s note to Henry does not specify the friend who went away dissatisfied, the following endorsement by Joseph Henry, dated August 16th, 1864, suggests that the friend in question was indeed Lewis Henry Morgan: “I send this paper to you as an evidence that Mr. Lincoln desired to do what is proper in the case you and Professor Horsford presented to him. It has lain in my portfolio for several weeks” (Basler 1953:385).

I have not found any reference to the meeting with Lincoln or to the situation of Private McCarthy in Morgan’s papers, neither in his correspondence with Joseph Henry, with whom Morgan was then collaborating on the research and publication of Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity, nor in his correspondence with Eben N. Horsford, a Harvard chemist who was a close friend of Morgan and his wife, Mary Elizabeth (Steele) Morgan. I suggest, nevertheless, that we can better appreciate Morgan’s dissatisfaction with Lincoln by considering Morgan’s previous failed attempts to obtain a federal post and to influence federal Indian policy.

In 1861, Morgan aspired to a federal appointment as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  He served that year in the New York State Assembly in order to acquire relevant experience, swapping his appointment as chairman of the Committee on Claims for one as chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs (Resek 1960:83). Morgan also hoped for the support of his fellow New Yorker and Union College alumnus William Henry Seward, who had lost the nomination to Abraham Lincoln at the Republican presidential convention.  After the November election, Morgan’s friends wrote testimonials to the president-elect in support of Morgan’s appointment as commissioner.  Lincoln, however, gave the job to William P. Dole, thereby redeeming the promise made in a deal that secured Indiana’s 26 votes at the Republican convention (Nichols 1978:5; Prucha 1984:463).

In December 1862, Lewis Henry Morgan wrote to Abraham Lincoln regarding “the present system of Indian management.”  He bluntly informed the president that the system “is a total failure, a failure so complete as to be disgraceful to the government” (Kosok 1951:36). Morgan drew upon personal observations made during four consecutive summer trips starting in 1859 to Kansas, Nebraska and far up the Missouri River into Dakota (Morgan 1959).  He offered several recommendations for reforming the corruption of Indian agencies and reorganizing the payment of annuities.  Morgan also recommended that “territory sufficient to form two Indian states should be set aside by Congress,” thus forming a “permanent society, in two nations, under government protection and encouragement” (Kosok 1951:36, 37).

Morgan subsequently aired many of the same ideas on Indian policy that he had expressed to Lincoln in two letters published in The Nation in 1876 following Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn.  (The first of these letters is notable for Morgan’s defense of the Sioux and his refusal to call Custer’s defeat a “massacre.”)  In August 1877, Morgan wrote directly to Rutherford B. Hayes, reiterating his main ideas.  (Upon Hayes’s inauguration in March, Morgan had begun again to solicit testimonials from friends in support of a presidential appointment as ambassador to Italy. He did not receive this or any other appointment.)[3] The following year, The Nation published a revised and slightly longer version of the letter sent to President Hayes.

While Morgan’s letter to Hayes was acknowledged by the president’s secretary of the interior, Carl Schurz, it is uncertain whether Morgan’s 1862 letter was ever read or even received by President Lincoln.  Paul Kosok (1951:35) reports finding it with an appended official note that implies Morgan’s recommendations were “just filed away among the records of the Secretary of the Interior—and forgotten.”  I have found no reply from Lincoln or his staff to Morgan’s letter in the correspondence included among his papers at the University of Rochester.

Lewis Henry Morgan was disappointed at losing the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs because of Lincoln’s political patronage of a less qualified candidate.  He might also have been annoyed by the lack of a response to the policy recommendations he sent to Lincoln.  Given these circumstances, Lincoln’s remark that his refusal to pardon Private McCarthy left his visitor “a little out of temper” becomes perhaps more understandable. Morgan was simply responding to the latest discourtesy shown him by the president.

[1] Ely S. Parker went on to become a Tonawanda Seneca sachem chief and acquired the name Donehogawa. He served as a Union Army General and military secretary to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant appointed Parker in 1869 as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native person to serve in this role.

[2] See Carl Resek, Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Daniel Noah Moses, The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009).

[3] August 6, 1877 Letter from Lewis Henry Morgan to President Rutherford B. Hayes; Box 8, Folder 15, Lewis Henry Morgan papers, A.M85, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester.

Works Cited.

Basler, Roy P., ed. 1953. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 7. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896 – 1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 2019. Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. New York: Penguin.

Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Kosok, Paul. 1951. An Unknown Letter from Lewis H. Morgan to Abraham Lincoln. University of Rochester Library Bulletin 6(2):35 – 40.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1851. League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois. New York: Sage and Brother Publishers.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1876. The Hue-and-Cry Against the Indians. The Nation (Number 577), 20 July, pp. 40-41.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1876. Factory System for Indian Reservations. The Nation (Number 578), 27 July, pp. 58-59.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1868. The American Beaver and His Works. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1871. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. 

Morgan, Lewis H. 1877. Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism, to Civilization. London: Macmillan. 

Morgan, Lewis H. 1878. The Indian Question. The Nation (Number 700), 28 November, pp. 332-333.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1959. The Indian Journals, 1859 – 62. Leslie A. White, ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Moses, Daniel N. 2009. The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

New York (State). 1905. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the Year 1904. Albany: Brandow Printing Company, State Legislative Printers.

Nichols, David A. 1978. Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Prucha, Paul F. 1984. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Resek, Carl. 1960. Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robert J. Foster: contributions / website / robert.foster@rochester.edu

1 Comment

  1. Just a note of a degree of separation. We don’t– at least I don’t– think of Morgan connected to Boas–but there is Carl Schurz– Lincoln’s man– connected to Morgan. Boas’ uncle Dr. Abraham Jacobi was Carl Schurz’s best friend and they both supported young Franz. All three vacationed together with their families for years by Lake George.

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