Stephen Augustus Hurlbut was a lawyer from Belvidere in Boone County, Illinois, about 67 miles west-northwest of Chicago. He and Lincoln had been political associates ever since they campaigned together for Zachary Taylor in 1848. Hurlbut devoted a significant amount of time to Lincoln's presidential campaign in 1860.
Hurlbut was born in South Carolina and had started his legal and political career there. He had many friends and acquaintances who still lived in Charleston. He had associated with them in the military, in social events, and in politics.
Hurlbut's father, Martin Luther Hurlbut, was a political Unionist with little sympathy for Nullification politics in South Carolina. When Robert J. Turnbull published his famous protest against the federal tariff in South Carolina, the elder Hurlbut published a learned reply with a competent analysis of constitutional law.
Steve Hurlbut had studied law and served Charleston lawyer James L. Petigru as a law clerk for several years. Petigru was a life-long friend of Hurlbut's father. When the senior Hurlbut died, Petigru took the younger Hurlbut under his care and instruction. Petigru had represented the federal government in tariff-related litigation during the nullification crisis. There were few, if any, men in South Carolina who knew more about that state's law and politics than Petigru.
After his inauguration, Lincoln sent Hurlbut to Charleston on an intelligence mission. Under the guise of a last visit to his sister who still lived there, he took the train to Charleston. He interviewed Petigru who was still a committed Unionist, just about the only one left. He also saw a number of acquaintance of his youth, now influential leaders and businessmen, regarding political feelings in the state.
Among the leaders Hurlbut met were three he mentioned by name: William. D. Porter, A. H. Brown, and William. H. Trescot. As President of the South Carolina State Senate, Porter presided over secession deliberations. Brown was one of the more active members of the Secession Convention. Trescot was Assistant Secretary of State in the James Buchanan administration and enjoyed a good working relationship with the President. The South Carolina secession convention appointed Trescot one of four commissioners to present the ordinance of secession to the Federal Government and afterwards voted him special recognition for the "very important aid rendered to our Commissioners in advancing the object of their mission."
Based on the quality of just his named contacts, Hurlbut's report carries great weight.
Lincoln asked Hurlbut to prepare a written report. Hurlbut complied. Later, Lincoln told him that he had shown the document to his cabinet.
On page 12 of the report, Hurlbut completely dismissed the notion that slavery was a cause of secession. "They have not gone out on the negro question," said Hurlbut, "their leaders in frank conversation do not say so." Better information on the question is difficult to imagine.
On page 5, Hurlbut explained to Lincoln why they did go out. "False political economy, diligently taught for years has now become an axiom and merchants and businessmen believe and act on the belief that great growth of trade and expansion of material prosperity will and must follow the establishment of a southern republic. They expect a golden era when Charleston shall be a great commercial emporium and control for the South as New York does for the North."
"False political economy" was a derogatory expression that the Republicans used to describe the doctrine of free trade. To them, free trade was anathema. It was the opposite of tariff protection. Tariff protection, however, destroyed most of southern cotton revenue which was mostly dependent on foreign trade.
On page 16, Hurlbut affirmed that secession was "an industrial rather than political affair." He advocated that the federal government "encourage" the growth of cotton in other countries.
On page 11, Hurlbut recognized that the "two Revenue Systems must clash at the Border and up and down the Mississippi, . . .." Measures would have to be taken to prevent foreign goods from coming in. "Increase of Effectiveness at the Custom Houses of the Interior on the Mississippi and Ohio, the control of imports by Rail Road from the South as well as by the Rivers, are among necessities to be provided for soon," he warned Lincoln, "or we shall be flooded from the South with goods imported under their Tariff."
Lincoln soon made Hurlbut a general in the Union Army and later promoted him to major general. After the war, Hurlbut returned to the practice of law in Belvidere and served in the state legislature. He was one of the founders of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Army Civil War veterans, and served as its commander in chief in 1866-1868. He was, after several tries, elected for a term to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served from 1873 to 1877. He was appointed minister to Peru where he died in 1882.
What Hurlbut told Lincoln was, in fact, the essential and important truth about the cause of the war. American historians, however, have failed to mention it in the history textbooks, probably because it contradicts the long-established academic dogma. It is instructive to look in the many admiring Lincoln biographies, to say nothing of all the history textbooks, and note the absence of the quoted words where they would normally be expected to appear in a discussion of Hurlbut's report of his visit to Charleston. The historians do not mention those words, even to dispute them. They have swept them under the rug and pretended they did not exist.
There is an exception to the general practice of historians to omit mention Hurlbut's assessment of cause. Professor Ludwell Johnson, a Civil War historian at the College of William and Mary, wrote an article published in South Atlantic Quarterly in 1985 in which he quoted Hurlbut's key words. Johnson deserves respectful recognition for looking carefully into the original report. For his views, however, Johnson has been called a "Neo-Confederate."
Hurlbut biographer Jeffrey Norman Lash, like most other historians, omits to report Hurlbut's key language. His biography of Hurlbut, however, contains a wealth of interesting information on the man and his career. It is worthwhile to know more about the character of this man who carried important information to Lincoln.