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August Belmont (1816-1890)

The group of New York Democrats with whom August Belmont was associated was called the "Silk Stockings." Their nicknamed suggested the power, wealth and influence they possessed, but not the confidence that Belmont had in his acceptance. "Even when he had been chairman of the Democratic National Committee, August [Belmont] had felt like an outsider," wrote biographer David Black.1 But as a millionaire with the best connections on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Belmont had more influence than most outsiders. Belmont was a committed Democrat — at a time when it was not easy to be one. Biographer Irving Katz wrote: "Belmont's identification with the loyal opposition during the war years; his struggle to patch up party dissension and broaden its base after the war when the Democratic label was equally burdensome; his tentative consideration of a merger with the National Union movement; his initiation of a dialogue with the Liberal Republicans which culminated in a coalition candidate and platform; his all-out effort to turn a popular mandate into an electoral majority after the 1876 election — all these were cogent decisions consonant with his dedication to the continuing existence of a Democratic entity."2

Most of Belmont's life concerned money — making it for himself and others and raising it for Democratic candidates. When he first met August Belmont, New York attorney George Templeton Strong thought that August Belmont was "quite disposed to be pleasant and free from any offensive millionaire-isms."3 Although Belmont was a gracious and cultivated man with many interests, it was money with which most New Yorkers associated.

"He wore side whiskers, owned ponies and enjoyed horse races, collected rare porcelains and masterpieces of painting. And Belmont had anger and courage, for in 1841 he had fought, because of a woman, a duel at Elkton, Indiana, with William Hayward of South Carolina, took a bullet wound and thereafter walked through life with a limp," wrote Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. "The New York financier "helped raise and equip the first regiment of German troops enlisted in New York City. As a Union may through the war he had run somewhat the course of Governor Seymour of New York."4

Belmont was "sensitive to the ferment around him, but generally speaking what concerned him were the practical effects of disunion, not the moral and humanitarian aspects of human slavery. As a consequence, Belmont found the 'dangerous' implications of southern secessionist oratory and the 'irrepressible conflict ideas of New York Republican Senator William H. Seward equally upsetting. The banker felt the nation's stability could best be maintained by convincing the South that most northerners were hostile to the tenets of abolitionism," wrote biographer Irving Katz.5

August Belmont was born in Germany in 1813 of relatively prosperous Jewish parents. As a teenager of 15, he went to work for the Rothschilds in Frankfurt, quickly becoming a travelling secretary for one of the firm's partners — exposing him to art as well as business throughout Europe. In 1837 in the midst of a U.S. financial panic, he was sent by the Rothschilds to Havana to represent their interests. He stopped in New York and stayed on to salvage the Rothschilds' interests there — becoming their American agent and starting the firm of August Belmont and Company. In the process, August Belmont became an Episcopalian and a very wealthy man.

From 1844 to 1850 he also served as American Consul General of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the early 1850s, Louisiana Senator John Slidell recruited Belmont to help advance the presidential interests of Pennsylvania's James Buchanan in New York. When Buchanan lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin Pierce, Belmont worked for the election of Pierce. Hoping to be rewarded with a diplomatic post, Belmont advanced ideas for the annexation of Cuba through negotiation with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Belmont was named instead, however, to represent the United States in the Netherlands. From that post, he maneuvered to produce the Ostend Manifesto signed by the American Ministers in Paris, London and Madrid that signalled a purported American intention to take over Cuba.

James Buchanan's subsequent election in 1856 raised Belmont's hopes for a posting to Madrid. Instead, he was offered only a renewal of his posting to the Hague. He declined, ostensibly for reasons of his wife's health, and returned to the U.S. When the Madrid post opened up again, he lobbied John Slidell to help him get it. When Buchanan declined to send Belmont to Spain where he could continue his Cuba scheming, Belmont severed relations with both Slidell and Buchanan and joined the political camp of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Like Douglas, Belmont was more concerned with Union than slavery and specially anxious to reconcile the South with the North.

Because Belmont favored Douglas for President in 1860 and the Mozart Hall faction of the New York party headed by Fernando Wood did not, Belmont became identified with the Tammany Hall faction and became the leader of the Douglas faction at the Charleston convention in 1860. After the Baltimore Convention, Douglas requested Belmont be selected to represent New York State on the Democratic National Committee; Belmont was immediately named its chairman and served in that position for the next four years — presiding over the selection of four Democratic presidential nominees. Belmont, nicknamed the "Douglas National Chairman," urged Douglas to eschew tradition and campaign on his own behalf. He also sought to create fusion slates of Bell-Douglas-Breckinridge slates in the North. In a Cooper Institute address in October 1860, Belmont charged the Republican Party with "holding principles incompatible with the sacred obligations of the Constitution and arrayed in open and unrelenting hostility against the property and the institutions of the fair portions of our common country."6

One of Belmont's primary responsibilities was fund-raising. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: "Of unmistakable significance were the difficulties which the Douglas organization encountered in raising funds. Belmont, impaneling a weighty committee and making an initial gift of a thousand dollars himself, hoped for a generous response in New York. Yet despite urgent entreaties, the steamship magnate George Law flatly declined to contribute and the New York Central men who in Belmont's opinion could well afford to pay $100,000 to help gain the State were almost equally indifferent. Important merchants were fearful lest they offend Southern customers by supporting Douglas."7

With Douglas' defeat, Belmont concentrated on promoting compromise and averting a collapse of the Union. Historian David M. Potter wrote that "August Belmont urged peaceable separation, because he believed that it would give free play for a Unionist reaction which would result in an 'early reconstruction.'"8 But with the surrender of Fort Sumter, Belmont switched to active support of the Union. His role grew in importance with the death of Douglas in June 1861 and in the absence of other strong Democratic leaders to assume Douglas' leadership role.

The New York leader reached out to Secretary of State Seward — via Thurlow Weed — to offer his diplomatic advice, information, perspective and assistance. He also supported the sale of Union bonds and discouraged the European-based Rothschilds from financing the Confederacy. Although related by marriage to Confederate diplomat John Slidell, he himself helped Union cause with European connections. He was particularly helpful with his British and French contacts and made a tour of Europe in late summer and fall of 1861. According to biographer David Black, "August had been insinuating his counsel into the White House, advising the President on economic strategy. The President had responded positively to August's advances, and August was tempted to extend the range of his advice."9

According to historian Allan Nevins, Belmont "wrote [William H.]Seward from Paris in the fall of 1861 that Napoleon wished to recognize the Confederacy at once. He was so assured both in London and Paris. Thus Napoleon would stop the derangement of industry and trade caused by the war, made doubly disastrous by the total failure of French grain crops. But British cooperation was essential, and the British hung back. 'The fact is,' Belmont noted, 'the feeling between the English and French people is at the moment anything but friendly, whatever efforts their governments may make."10

The ill health of Belmont's wife forced him to remain in Europe until the spring of 1862. Belmont wrote President Lincoln from Paris on May 9 about the attitude of European leaders and the advisability of reopening the cotton trade with Europe:
You received me with such kind consideration, when I had the honor to wait upon you last July that I feel emboldened to take the liberty of addressing you this confidential communication & suggestions.

They are based upon the impressions & convictions of highplaced & wellfavored parties in England & here and are prompted by an ardent desire for the success of the holy cause of the Union.

Already last summer I had the honor to point out to Mr. Seward the dangers of foreign interventions under the pressing necessities of the Cotton interest, which was suffering severely by our blockade. Wise & just counsels in the Cabinets of St James & the Tuileries presented at the time so fatal & unjust a policy, and there is every reason to believe that the success of our arms contributed a good deal to this course. Within the last 3 or 4 weeks there are however strong evidences that under the pressure of the necessities for Cotton & the daily increasing suffering of the working classes in France & England the two governments will ere long find themselves obliged to have recourse to an armed intervention having for its object the opening of the Southern ports & the consequent recognition of the Confederacy. The recent speech of the M [William E.] Gladstone & the tone of the English press point evidently in that direction.

The only plausible ground upon which such an interference could be justified is the vital importance of the Cotton supply for the suffering working classes, and I must confess that this reason would be found acceptable by thousands of enlightened Europeans, who otherwise are entirely in favor of the North.

We hold at this moment several of the best ports on the Atlantic & in the Gulf, nearly all of them very well adapted as outlets for Cotton & other Southern produce, and it is to be hoped that before many days we may also get possession of Savannah & New Orleans.

It seems to me that under authority of Congress you have full power to appoint Collectors to all these ports & open them again to Commerce under the tariff of the United States.

You would then allow the Southern planters & factors to bring their produce to market, & exchange it against foreign productions & Gold & silver, only excluding of course Contraband of war. The influx of the precious metals in the Southern Country, while it might alleviate individual suffering would not help materially the resources of the Rebel leaders for carrying on the war. If, as it is probable, the Richmond Congress & Executive should pass laws against the sending of Cotton into the ports held by our forces & opened to trade, the Governments of France & England would find it very difficult to justify before their own people & the civilized world at large the intervention by arms in favor of the South, after our Government had given so striking a proof of its desire to limit the calamitous effects of this wicked rebellion by a concession, which even might protract the conflict & enforce additional sacrifice upon the devoted defenders of our Institutions. The onus of withholding the means of livelihood from the starving manufacturers of Europe would then necessarily rest upon the Rebel government alone & no possible argument or sophism of our antagonists could lay it at our doors.

But besides this there would be another immense advantage obtained by such a measure, viz; the certainty of an early & powerful antagonism to be called up in the midst of the Southern people against their leaders. When the planters would find that the Richmond Government alone stands between them & the trade of the world & prevents them to exchange their produce at the present high prices against Gold & silver (which has become certainly a most desirable commodity in Jeff Davis's dominions) there can be no doubt but what it would create among a very large number an intense feeling of dissatisfaction, & might even sow the seeds of a rebellion in rebeldom powerful enough to throw the whole Richmond Cabinet overboard. It would be treating the mortal disease from which the South is now suffering, upon homeopathic principles & I have no doubt it might prove successful.

Excuse my liberty in having submitted these suggestions to your consideration, but the danger of a foreign intervention, under the plea of obtaining supplies of Cotton is in my humble opinion very great and I think that by adopting the plan, which I have pointed out, we would have a very good chance to avoid it. 11


Once back in New York City, August Belmont resumed his letters to Republican boss Thurlow Weed — with advice aimed at President Lincoln. According to biographer Black: "August assumed Weed would show his letter to Lincoln. Little by little August had been insinuating his counsel into the White House, advising the President on economic strategy. The President had responded positively to August's advances, and August was tempted to extend the range of his advice."12 Belmont wrote Weed on July 20, 1862 after General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign broke down:

Our National affairs are in a most critical position, more so than they have been at any time since the beginning of this unfortunate war

What frightens me more than the disasters in the field is the apathy and distrust which I grieve to say I meet at every step even from men of standing and hitherto of undoubted loyalty to the Union-

You know my own feelings & convictions on the subject of our national troubles, & I am sure I can speak to you in all candor without the fear of having my thoughts mis-construed, though you may perhaps not share my views.-

My firm conviction is that any other solution to our present difficulties than a reconstruction of but one Government over all the states of our Confederacy would entail upon us & our children an inheritance of the most fearful consequences which must end in the utter disintegration & ruin of the whole country.-.

There are only two modes by which to prevent such a calamity, which is certainly at this moment more threatening than it has ever been before.-.

The one is by an energetic & unrelenting prosecution of the war to crush the rebellion, the other would be to negociate with the leaders of the Rebellion, (to which it would be madness to with[h]old the character of a gigantic revolution) and to see whether it may not yet be possible to reestablish a federal Union-

Both alternatives present difficulties of the gravest nature & which they did not posses[s] in the same degree at the beginning of the contest-13


Belmont concluded his letter: "Before we enter upon a new phase in this terrible war, which must carry with it horrors & misery far greater than what we have witnessed yet, I cannot but think that patriotism & humanity alike call for an earnest effort towards reconciliation & peace.14 Replying to the plea for North-South negotiation from a Mississippi planter, President Lincoln questioned whether Southerners knew that "Broken eggs cannot be mended; but Louisiana has nothing to do now but to take her place in the Union as it was, barring the already broken eggs. The sooner she does so, the smaller will be the amount past mending."15 President Lincoln wrote:
You send to Mr. W[eed] an extract from a letter written at New Orleans the 9th instant, which is shown to me. You do not give the writer's name; but plainly he is a man of ability and probably of some note. He says: 'The time has arrived when Mr. Lincoln must take a decisive course. Trying to please everybody, he will satisfy nobody. A vacillating policy in matters of importance is the very worst. Now is the time, if ever, for honest men, who love their country to rally to its support. Why will not the North say officially that it wishes for the restoration of the Union as it was?'

And so, it seems, this is the point on which the writer thinks I have no policy. Why will he not read and understand what I have said?

The substance of the very declaration he desires is in the inaugural, in each of the two regular messages to Congress, and in many, if not all, the minor documents issued by the Executive since the inauguration.

Broken eggs cannot be mended; but Louisiana has nothing to do now but to take her place in the Union as it was, barring the already broken eggs. The sooner she does so, the smaller will be the amount of that which will be past mending. This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt. If they expect in any contingency to ever have the Union as it was, I join with the writer in saying, 'Now is the time.'
How much better if would have been for the writer to have gone at this, the protection of the army at New Orleans, than to have sat down in a closet writing complaining letters northward!16


Belmont responded to President Lincoln with a long letter on August 10 in which he persisted in pursuing some kind of negotiated settlement with the South.
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your esteemed favor. The contents bear the stamp of that statesmanship & patriotism, which I know to have guided all your actions in all the trials, which this wicked rebellion has brought upon this once so happy country.

I share entirely your views with regard not only to the duty but the policy of the revolted states to return to their allegiance without allowing their unequal struggle against the power of the United States to increase in violence & exasperation as it necessarily must. Still I think that we might perhaps find means to remove the difficulties, which the miseries of civil war & the terrorism conjured up by the leaders of the Rebellion have placed in the way of conservative men; who otherwise would most gladly return to the Union. The words conque[s]t & subjugation have been used to good effect by our opponents. They are words repugnant to the American ear, & while the Rebel leaders can keep up to their misguided followers the delusion that the North means conquest & subjugation I fear there is very little hope for any Union demonstration in the revolted States however great the dissatisfaction against the Richmond government might be.

My own conviction has always been, that sooner or later we would have to come to a National Convention for the reconstruction of our Government over all the States. I cannot see by what other means, even after a complete defeat of the Rebel armies, a restoration of the Union can be effected.

My impression is that such a solution would at the proper time prove acceptable to the majority of the Southern people, and I sent the letter, which procured me the honor of receiving your note, for the very reason to Mr Weed, because I saw in it an indication of the writer's desire for a reconstruction of the Union. He is a very wealthy & influential planter, and I have every reason to believe that a large number of his class share his views.

A few weeks ago & previous to the receipt of that letter I had written to Mr Weed, giving him my candid views upon our present situation, and the means which I thought the Government ought to adopt. I do not know whether he communicated to you my letter, but as you have been kind enough to evince a flattering confidence in the earnestness of my intentions, which must plead for the shortcoming of my judgment, I take the liberty of enclosing you herewith copy of my letter to Mr Weed, hoping that you may deem it worthy of your perusal.

The present moment may perhaps not be a propitious moment one for carrying out a negociation [sic] in the manner, in which I suggest. As soon however as we shall have again a large army in the field, such as we are sure to have under your energetic measures for recruiting; then I hope that you may find in your wisdom the means of opening negociations with our misguided fellow citizens of the South. They must become convinced that we are fighting only for the Union & that we cannot in our own self defence as a Nation admit any other solution but the Union & I am certain that ere long reason must prevail over sectional passion provided that your strong hand will equally crush the secessionists of the South & the fanatic disorganizers of the North, who are both equally dangerous to the Country & its institutions. 17


On September 4, Belmont wrote President Lincoln to share negative correspondence from Europe and to urge the reinstatement of General George B. McClellan as head of the army: "The people are ready to bring every sacrifice for the restoration of the Union, but right or wrong they have lost confidence in the head of the War department. They have seen the fearful results of the intermeddling of civilians in military affairs & they want to see an experienced soldier at the helm."18

Although he was anxious to help President Lincoln in Europe, Belmont was also anxious to help the Democrats win the elections of 1862. He did this in part through part-ownership of the New York World edited by colleague Manton Marble. After Democrats won the governorship in 1862, Belmont organized the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge to disseminate propaganda against Emancipation and the Lincoln Administration. "In addition, in his capacity as Democratic Party national chairman, Belmont began growing the cashiered General George McClellan to challenge Lincoln in 1864," wrote historians Edward G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. "After being fired, McClellan moved to New York City and began working with Chairman Belmont on building a presidential candidacy. He took with him as his aide Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, who now received his first introduction to the financial, political and journalistic elite of the metropolis."19

McClellan was not the only candidate whom Belmont considered for the Democratic nomination.. "To oppose the President, Belmont thought seriously, at one time or another, of Secretary Chase, Governor Seymour, James Guthrie, and General Nathaniel P. Banks and George B. McClellan," wrote biographer Irving Katz. Ironically two of those — Chase and Banks were Republicans although both were former Democrats. In 1862, Belmont began a campaign to recruit, nominate and elect George B. McClellan as the Democratic candidate for President. "On January 12, 1864, Belmont held a national committee meeting at his Fifth Avenue home, the first since the summer of 1860. Most of the twenty-three members attended, only the weather accounted for the absence of some westerners," wrote Katz.20 Belmont sided with those committee members who wanted a late Democratic national convention — in July.

John Waugh wrote in Reelecting Lincoln: "Belmont opened the meeting and told his colleagues that the Democratic congressional delegation in Washington, at his request, had wired a preference for the time and place of the party's nominating convention. They had picked Cincinnati in May. Several committeemen, including Belmont, objected. Too early, they argued. If anything was working for the party it was time, the more of it the better — time to let further defeats on the battlefield, heavier taxes, and Lincoln's conscription policies take their toll on the Republican incumbent. So the committeemen fixed on July 4 for the convention instead of May, a late date for a convention, but full of pregnant meaning. They also overruled the congressmen on place, choosing Chicago over Cincinnati, a tribute to [the late Stephen] Douglas."21

The Democratic convention was subsequently postponed until late August in order to take maximum advantage of the whatever political situation the battlefield situation created. Belmont sought to unite the Democratic Party but ended up nominating a pro-war candidate with an anti-war platform — making the lives of Democrats generally and Belmont specifically very difficult. Belmont backed the Democratic campaign generously — with donations and with his own wagers. He was oblivious to the contradictions of his own political position — hoping for a restoration of the South to the status quo ante in a nation that had irreversibly changed.

But it was not just the Democratic peace plank and Democratic presidential candidate that came under attack. The New York Times attacked the Democratic National Chairman viciously: "Let us look at a few undeniable facts...The notorious undenied leader of the Democratic Party at Chicago was the agent of the Rothschilds. Yes, the great Democratic Party has fallen so low that it has to seek a leader in the agent of foreign Jew bankers."22 But, according to biographer Black, Belmont's problems extended beyond anti-Semitic Republicans:
"The Democrats, having thrown away their chance to regain the White House in 1864, now seemed ready to throw away their national chairman too. August was attacked by Peace Democrats as having been too prowar; he had fought against nominating [George H.] Pendleton as vice-president and had influenced McClellan to make a statement toning down the party platform. And if that were not enough, August was also attacked by the War Democrats as having been too conciliatory toward the South. A rumor, noted by [George Templeton] Strong, was circulating that McClellan had 'allowed Barlow and Belmont to strike out of his letter of acceptance a vigorous sentence declaring an armistice with armed rebels out of the question.23


Belmont served both as a strategist and a fund-raiser for the campaign. According to biographer Black: "August worked some minor magic and recruited Democrats representing a wide spectrum of party opinion onto a Central Executive Campaign Committee. August supplemented the committee's fund-raising efforts by contributing additional money when and where needed: $500 for Ohio, $10,000 for Maine, and a rumored $15,000 for New Hampshire."24

On Election Day, New York attorney George Templeton Strong stood for two hours in a line to vote: "A little before me was Belmont, whose vote was challenged on the ground that he had betted on the election. The inspector rejected it unwillingly, and Belmont went off in a rage. Very few men would have been challenged on that ground, but this foreign money-dealer has made himself uncommonly odious, and the bystanders, mostly of the Union persuasion, chucked over his discomfiture..."25

With McClellan's defeat and retirement of politics, political leadership in the Democratic Party once more reverted to Belmont. But he continued to be the butt of conspiracy rumors — including one that Belmont had been behind Mr. Lincoln's assassination. "Many people believed that he had led the conspiracy, and this belief forever after shadowed him and affected how he was viewed in public and private life. To some he was a hero, the defender of the Republic; to others he was a traitor," wrote biographer Black.26 In 1870, Belmont privately published A Few Letters and Speeches of the Late Civil War in order to vindicate his patriotism and demonstrate his support of the Union cause. Belmont died in 1890 — and played an active role in presidential politics through 1880.

Belmont had a more lasting impact on thoroughbred horse races that Democratic political races. The final race in the "Triple Crown" is held at the Belmont racetrack in New York City. August Belmont's Long Island thoroughbred farm is now a New York State park.

 

Footnotes

  1. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 681.
  2. Irving Katz, August Belmont: A Political Biography, p. 278.
  3. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 172-173.
  4. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 580.
  5. Irving Katz, August Belmont: A Political Biography, p. 62.
  6. Irving Katz, August Belmont: A Political Biography, p. 82.
  7. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861, Volume II, p. 292.
  8. David Morris Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, p. 236.
  9. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 217.
  10. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863, p. 258-259.
  11. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from August Belmont to Abraham Lincoln, May 9, 1862).
  12. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 217.
  13. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. ( Letter from August Belmont to Thurlow Weed, July 20, 1862).
  14. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. ( Letter from August Belmont to Thurlow Weed, July 20, 1862).
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 350-351 (Letter to August Belmont, July 31, 1862).
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 350-351 (Letter to August Belmont, July 31, 1862).
  17. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from August Belmont to Abraham Lincoln, August 10, 1862).
  18. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from August Belmont to Abraham Lincoln, September 4, 1862).
  19. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, p. 886.
  20. Irving Katz, August Belmont: A Political Biography, p. 125.
  21. John Waugh, Reelecting Lincoln, p. 88.
  22. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 257.
  23. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 260.
  24. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 253.
  25. Allan Nevins, editor, Diary of the Civil War, 1860-1865: George Templeton Strong, p. 510 (November 8, 1864).
  26. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 267.

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