March 14, 1861 – Herman Melville Petitions Abraham Lincoln for a Sinecure

Moby Dick had been in print for ten years, and Herman Melville was ready for a little R&R, not to mention some income. The reception for Moby Dick had been disappointing, and his subsequent work wasn’t selling well either. By 1860 Melville had almost no money and was living almost entirely on the generosity of his wife’s father. His brother suggested he ask the new president for a consulship to Florence, then as almost always, a center of art and culture.

Melville’s father-in-law, former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, had contacts, and was surely interested in his son-in-law obtaining a good position. He contacted Senator Charles Sumner. Melville also asked his neighbor to work on his behalf. Julius Rockwell, who lived near him, was a former U.S. Congressman and Senator. Rockwell joined with nine other prominent citizens in Massachusetts to send Lincoln a letter:

Petition of Julius Rockwell and others to Abraham Lincoln
 14 March 1861

Pittsfield, Mass., March 14, 1861.

To His Excellency,
The President of the United States.

We, the Undersigned, respectfully beg leave to recommend Mr. Herman Melville for the office of Consul at Florence.

Mr. Melville has done much to enhance the reputation of our national literature; is a gentleman of the most estimable character, and is highly qualified for the post we earnestly recommend and request may be given him.”

Melville also went to solicit Lincoln in person a week later.

Nevertheless, and although Lincoln was not averse to appointing unqualified people to foreign positions, he had competing pressures from everyone. On March 27, he appointed T. Bigelow Lawrence of Boston as Consul to Florence. Lawrence was actually a seasoned diplomat, having previously served as attaché to the U.S. Legation at London.

Melville eventually did benefit from presidential patronage after all. In 1867 President Andrew Johnson approved his nomination for the Port of New York Inspector of Customs, a post he held for nineteen years.

Herman Melville circa 1860

Herman Melville circa 1860


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