One thing that would have astonished Lincoln is the relative lack of open patronage and/or corruption in the job appointment process of the federal government and in particular the executive branch. Sure, there are always big campaign donors who wind up with ambassadorships or other plum do nothing posts but as bad as you think it may be now, it is nothing compared to what it was in the late 1800's.
Lincoln’s administration was probably the low water mark of political patronage in this country. Before Lincoln was even nominated by his party, office seekers were lining up outside his hotel room door in Chicago during the 1860 Republican Convention. There was nothing remotely subtle or hidden about their approach. Powerful men and their patrons would demand appointment to specific jobs in exchange for critical political support. Lincoln’s campaign manager, Judge David Davis, was told by Lincoln not to make any binding commitments in his name during the convention. Not only was this directive ignored (probably with a wink from Honest Abe) but Davis often promised the same job to more than one person. This process repeated itself many times including during the run up to the House vote on the 13th Amendment as dramatized in the Lincoln movie.
In truth Abe had little choice, as this was standard operating procedure at the time and not generally frowned upon. The only thing Lincoln really disliked about it was how much of a pain in the ass it was. He was overwhelmed with calls and letters from appointment seekers, almost all of which he addressed or dealt with personally or through his very top advisors. When Lincoln arrived in DC, hoards of office seekers descended on every hotel and boarding house within a 25 mile radius. Many of them were completely unqualified for the post for which they sought appointment and at least half probably had no idea what their duties would be. Nevertheless Lincoln had to meet with them if only to gently dissuade them or steer them into a post where they could do less damage. One famous example was that of George Clark an old friend who bragged that he could have any office he wanted. Clark presented himself at the White House during a reception but was kept away from the President until finally he insisted on seeing his old buddy. Lincoln told Clark: "You don't know how glad I am to see you. The face of an old friend is like a ray of sunshine through dark and gloomy clouds. I've shook hands till I am tireder than I ever was splitting rails." Clark asked to be appointed postmaster of Lawrence Massachusetts, a post for which he was not even remotely qualified. He did not get that appointment but Lincoln gave him a letter to take to the Collector of the Port of Boston instructing him to give Mr. Lincoln's friend George Clark the best position he can fill and that if he failed he should be given another and another until a fit was found.
Historian Allan Nevins wrote this about the situation in Illinois after Mr. Lincoln's 1860 election to the Presidency :
"Every Republican in Congress wished to strengthen his political organization; every editor coveted a post-office connection to swell his subscription list; every jobless politician wanted a salary. The Illinois members, for example, met in conclave to draw up a slate of appointments to be requested of Lincoln. After dividing marshalships, district attorneyships, and territorial posts, they demanded a slice of foreign-service pie. Senator Lyman Trumbull wanted two consulships. Representative Elihu Washburne one, and Representative W.P. Kellogg one. Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune
, meanwhile wished one of his staff made the Chicago postmaster. 'If Mr. Scripps has it,' he explained, 'the country postmasters of the Northwest would work to extend our circulation.' And Illinois was but one State! Three-quarters of the March correspondence of the typical Senator, Representative, or Cabinet member in this hour of crisis pertained to jobs. A clamor of greed and grumbling filled the capital."
While this gives Lincoln a bad reputation among many historians, Lincoln understood that careful and delicate manipulation of the appointment power was necessary if he was to keep the political support and capital to make the tough decisions that lay ahead. Indeed for the first year of his presidency it was even money that he would not even run for a second term. He needed to play the game and he played it well, rewarding those who needed rewarding while avoiding any real disastrous appointments.
Whatever you think of government today, the modern civil service reform era helped to ensure that 99% of the federal workforce would be comprised of persons who had at least demonstrated a modicum of merit and in the case of career appointees were given posts for reasons other than their party or political affiliation. This was unheard of in Lincoln’s time. It was not until the Presidency of James Garfield that things started to change. Like Lincoln, Garfield wanted to control the appointments process and even reform it to a certain extent. Sadly, he, like Lincoln was felled by an assassin’s bullet. A disgruntled office seeker shot and killed Garfield. This paved the way for the first wave of what would become the modern civil service merit reform process. Lincoln would be amazed at how far we have come.