Abraham Lincoln and Members of Congress

Abraham Lincoln and Members of Congress

Members of Congress

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(Cambridge University, 1989) (Ithaca, NY, 1981)
Even before Abraham Lincoln took office as President, members of Congress loomed large in President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s political planning. Two weeks after the election, President-elect Lincoln met in Chicago with Senators Lyman Trumbull and Hannibal Hamlin. Hamlin would soon give up his Maine Senate seat to become Vice President. Also in the discussions were Illinois Congressman Isaac N. Arnold and William Kellogg as well as Ohio Congressman James Gurley. Over the next several months, most of these men played key roles as Mr. Lincoln determined the composition of his cabinet, sent signals about his presidential intentions, and influenced congressional attempts at compromise with the South. Three of Mr. Lincoln’s Cabinet picks were current or incoming members of the Senate – Secretary of State William H. Seward of New York, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Secretary of War Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania.

“It was my good fortune to know him well during the whole period of his administration as President,” wrote Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley. “He was a many-sided person, and for this reason, perhaps, the estimate by different individuals who had the same opportunities of knowing him, was widely different. Many of the most distinguished men of the country, who were in daily intercourse with him, thought but little of his capacity as a statesman. And while entirely true, it is hardly to believed, that those in both houses of Congress who knew him best had so little confidence in his judgment and ability to administer the government. That very few of the members of the Senate and of the House were in favor of his renomination for the Presidency in 1864.” 1

But Mr. Lincoln studied these men carefully – as he indicated to House Speaker Schuyler Colfax “one night in the telegraph office of the War Department, when he suddenly turned the subject form campaigns and battles to mental idiosyncrasies, discussing the individualities of Thaddeus Stevens, of Charles Sumner, and, last of all, Henry Wilson. After discussing the characteristics of others with a keenness of analysis that strikingly illustrated his own mental powers, he added that a peculiarity of his own life from his earliest manhood had been, that he habitually studied the opposite side of every disputed question, of every law case, of every political issue, more exhaustively, if possible, than his own side. He said that the result had been, that in all his long practice at the bar he had never once been surprised in court by the strength of his adversary’s case – often finding it much weaker than he had feared.”

Not only did Abraham Lincoln study these congressmen, he learned how to work with them to get what he wanted. President Lincoln did not always impart the information that congressmen wanted. One day Democratic Congressman John Ganson of Buffalo went to the White House and told the President: “Though I am a Democrat, I imperil my political future by supporting your war measures. I can understand that secrecy may be necessary in military operations, but I think I am entitled to know the exact conditions, good or bad, at the front.”3

Mr. Lincoln avoided a direct answers but did not avoid Ganson’s gaze, and according to Colonel James Grant Wilson, looked “at him very quizzically, first on one side of his face and then on the other. He paused and said: “John, how close you do shave!” General James Grant Wilson noted: “The result of that was that we all left in the best of spirits…”4

Massachusetts Congressman Henry L Dawes recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln on the morning he arrived in Washington incognito: “I could never quite fathom his thoughts, or be quite sure that I saw clearly the line along which he was working. But as I saw how he overcame obstacles and escaped entanglements, how he shunned hidden rocks and steered clear of treacherous shoals, as the tempest thickened, it grew upon me that he was wiser than the men around him. He never altogether lost to me the look with which he met the curious and, for the moment, not very kind gaze of the House of Representatives on that first morning after what they deemed a pusillanimous creep into Washington. It was a wary, anxious look, of one struggling to be cheerful under a burden of trouble he must keep to himself, with thought afar off or deep hidden which he could not impart even to the representatives of the nation to whose Chief magistracy he had been called and for whom he was to die.”5

Generally President Lincoln did not interfere in the leadership of Congress, but in made an exception after House Speaker Galusha Grow was defeated for reelection in 1862. Lincoln biographer David H. Donald wrote that in 1863: “Lincoln quietly began to campaign for the selection of his old friend Illinois Representative E. B. Washburne as Speaker. After Washburne’s candidacy failed to take off, the President invited Schuyler Colfax to the White House and secured from the slippery Indiana congressman what was not exactly a pledge of support but a promise of neutrality in the upcoming fights in Congress between Radicals and Conservatives.”6

More difficult was managing the relations between generals and Congress. President Lincoln told freedmen commissioner John Eaton: “Well, you know a raid in Washington is different from what you military men mean by a raid. With you it is an attack by the enemy, – the capture of soldiers and supplies; with us it is an attack by our friends in Congress seeking to influence a change in policy. A company of Congressmen came to me to protest that Grant ought not to be retained as a commander of American citizens. I asked what was the trouble. They said he was not fit to command such men. I asked why, and they said he sometimes drank too much and was unfit for such a position. I then began to ask them if they knew what he drank, what brand of whiskey he used, telling them most seriously that I wished they would find out. They conferred with each other and concluded they could not tell what brand he used. I urged them to ascertain and let me know, for if it made fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution.” 7

Historian Allan G. Bogue wrote that members of Congress “had their own ideas of how the war should be fought, different in significant respects from those Lincoln stubbornly maintained. Many of the lawmakers were little trained in the legislative arts…and were undisciplined – disorderly schoolboys,’ as the friends of one Speaker of the House put it.” 8 Disorderly or not, the President had something the congressmen needed – political patronage. Nevertheless, historian William D. Mallam argued that President Lincoln had few friends in Congress: “Perhaps one reason for this absence of a personal following in the House and Senate was that curiously Lincoln seems to have made little effort to conciliate Congress.”9 Mallam wrote: “In the main, the conservative Republicans of 1862 were men of strong convictions, who rather than cast them aside, would, as the event proved, get out of politics. For the most part they were lawyers who felt a devotion to the Constitution amounting almost to awe. Anxious to keep the war one solely to preserve the Union, they were chary of alienating both the Border States and their own antinegro constituents by countenancing emancipation. They considered slavery wrong, but had none of the flaming zeal to abolish it of the true radical. In all of this their views coincided with those of Lincoln, but their convictions were more uncompromising than his. They were more conservative.” 10

It has often been alleged that President Lincoln was alienated from most members of Congress Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens once alleged that Lincoln’s only friend in the House was Chicago Congressman Isaac Arnold, the one-time Democrat from Chicago.”11 Pennsylvania journalist Alexander K. McClure wrote: “I distinctly remember his reference to the fact that of all the Republican members of the House he could name but one in whose personal and political friendship he could absolutely confide. That one was Isaac N. Arnold of Illinois. 12 Ohio Congressman Albert G. Riddle maintained that by March 1863, “there in the House but two men, capable of being heard, who openly and everywhere, defended” President Lincoln in the House of Representatives – Riddle and Arnold. 13 President Lincoln had generally good relations with most Illinois Congressmen – including Arnold, Lovejoy, Elihu B. Washburne and William Kellogg. He appointed two Democratic congressmen from the state – John A. McClernand and John A. Logan as generals.

Unlike many House colleagues, Arnold was particularly steadfast in his support of Lincoln reelection, delivering a speech in the House in March 1864: “Reconstruction: Liberty the cornerstone and Lincoln the architect” which was subsequently distributed as a campaign pamphlet. His theme, noted Rawley, was ” Nobody but Lincoln.” 14 But like many members of Congress, Arnold had his own problems with President Lincoln during his first administration. Arnold had been irate in March 1861 when he found that John Locke Scripps was to be appointed as postmaster in Chicago: “As the immediate representative of the people of Chicago I desire to be heard in regard to the appointment of the Post Master at that place,” Arnold wrote President Lincoln. “The President has the power, and I must of necessity, in such case yield to his decision, But I desire that the President should know that I earnestly wish, and respectfully ask, that the usage should not be departed from, in the Chicago district, and that no distinction which might be regarded as invidious, should be made, to the prejudice of my constituents.” 15 Massachusetts Congressman Charles F. Adams was equally irate when a meeting announcing his appointment as U. S Minister to England was interrupted by President Lincoln to tell Secretary of State Seward that the President had decided on whom to appoint as Chicago postmaster.

Congressman Arnold’s influence was limited, according to Union officer William E. Doster: Arnold found a Union army surgeon, “who had been dismissed from our army for immoral practices” had been found at Washington hotel still wearing his uniform “and still carrying on those practices to the disgrace of the service.” Doster recalled: “Soon Mr. Arnold…appeared at my office and demanded in a haughty tone to be shown the documents on which this outrage had been committed on his friend, the Doctor, who was also a friend of Lincoln’s. Mr. Arnold was told that we had positive orders to show documents to no one except the secretary of War or the President. This angered him, and he threatened to show me what it meant to offend the President, and went away. Soon there arrived an orderly with a letter from Mr. Arnold to Lincoln, stating the circumstances, and demanding redress for the outrage on himself as well as on Dr. X., their mutual friend. On the back of this was endorsed: ‘Will the Marshall kindly bring the documents to my office? A Lincoln.’ Of course, I brought them. The President examined them and said: ‘So you ordered the Doctor’s buttons cut off? I am sorry I cannot approve this sentence,’ whereupon he indicated that it should have been more severe, and, laughing, returned to me the papers.”16

Historian James A. Rawley wrote: “Though disappointed, Arnold remained loyal to Lincoln as well as the Republican Party.” 17 In 1864, Scripps challenged Arnold for renomination and Arnold bowed out of the race rather than split the party. Historian James A. Rawley noted that Arnold’s political future was threatened by difficulties with the German-American vote in his district, particularly with the editors of the IllinoisStaats-zeitung. “Arnold was doubtless conscious that the German American vote figured largely in his constituency. By 1860, German Americans comprised more than a quarter of the adult male population in twenty-five of the twenty-eight townships in Cook County outside Chicago.”

“Before the convention met, Arnold withdrew from the contest. He- explained to his friend Lincoln that the Germans had been divided on his candidacy between the ‘antis’ and ‘ins.’ The antis most violently opposed him; so too did the post office clerks and theChicago Tribune. The president’s call for 500,000 men brought fresh denunciations of Arnold, and the editor of the German paper announced that should Arnold be nominated, he would abandon Lincoln and ‘go for Fremont,’ who had been nominated by a third party made up largely of German Americans. ‘Under the circumstances,’ Arnold confided, ‘although the nomination was in my power I declined.'”18

Mr. Lincoln disliked to see sitting congressmen defeated at the polls because they frequently sought presidential appointment to a patronage job. “During early 1863 the Washington political environment was alive with the sound of lame ducks fluttering to friendly roosts on the federal payroll,” wrote Allan Bogue. 19 Isaac Arnold presented such a problem in the winter of 1864-1865, when fortunately for Mr. Lincoln fewer Republicans had been turned out of office. Arnold first sought a position in the Justice Department, then appointment as Interior secretary, then an appointment with the Court of Claims and settled for a job as a Treasury Department auditor. Such job searches were exhausting for President Lincoln. Having been a one-term member of Congress in the late 1840s, President Lincoln understood the problems that congressmen faced. He even understood the search for political appointment after leaving Congress. The Civil War, patronage concerns, and military problems complicated the lives of members of Congress, according to historian Allan G. Bogue: “To the inconveniences of boardinghouse or hotel life and the unpleasantness of the Washington climate, there was now added the pressure of greatly increased work. The committee rooms and late sessions held the senators in thrall until it was pure ecstasy to ride a horse or drive a buggy out to visit one of the state regimental encampments in company with friends or army offices. Less happy but even more essential were the visits to army hospitals, which became routine once the grim game was begun in earnest across the rolling Virginia countryside.” 20

Historian Hans L. Trefousse disputed the Thaddeus Stevens’ allegations of Lincoln’s isolation from Congress. Trefousse wrote: “Even though Arnold disputed this assertion and responded that he knew many Lincoln friends in Congress, the statement has been repeated through the years. Yet it is far from the truth. Congressman after congressman defended Lincoln against attacks at the time, and the very fact that his renomination was correctly considered certain shows that he was very popular indeed, in and out of Congress.” 21 Even radicals like Pennsylvania’s William D. Kelley, Massachusetts’ George Ashmun or Illinois’s Owen Lovejoy managed to stay on generally friendly terms with him. In Congress, Lovejoy repeatedly came to the defense of the President. In early January 1863, Lovejoy replied to one critic: “The President of the United States is the last man in the world that should be charged with arbitrary power. That gentlemen must know it, as veery man knows it, and as, thank God, the great masses of the people not only believe it, but know it.” 22

Lovejoy had been considerably more radical on the issue of slavery than Mr. Lincoln in the 1850s. Mr. Lincoln had kept his political distance – opposing his nomination for Congress. Some friends blamed Lovejoy’s radicalism for Mr. Lincoln’s defeat for the Senate in 1858. Mr. Lincoln did not. But they had grown closer after President Lincoln was took office. When Lovejoy died of cancer in 1864, President Lincoln wrote an organizer of a Lovejoy tribute in Illinois: “Yours of the 14th Inst. enclosing a card of invitation to a preliminary meeting contemplating the erection of a monument to the memory of Hon. Owen Lovejoy, was duly received. As you anticipate, it will be out of my power to attend. Many of you have known Mr. Lovejoy longer than I have, and are better able than I to do his memory complete justice. My personal acquaintance with him commenced only about ten years ago, since when it has been quite intimate; and every step in it has been one of increasing respect and esteem, ending, with his life, in no less than affection on my part. It can truly be said of him that while he was personally ambitious, he bravely endured the obscurity which the unpopularity of his principles imposed; and never accepted official honors, until those honors were ready to admit his principles with him. Throughout my heavy and perplexing responsibilities here, to the day of his death, it would scarcely wrong any other to say, he was my most generous friend.”23

Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne maintained of the President: “While he is a great statesman, he is also the keenest of politicians alive. If it could be done in no other way, the president would take a carpet bag and go around and collect those votes himself.” 24 Historian Allan Nevins wrote: that President Lincoln “was always ready to manage Congress by giving its members jobs, letting them romp a little with contracts and appropriations, and lending them a hand at logrolling. He specially valued his Congressional spokesmen, like faithful William Kellogg of Illinois and headlong Frank Blair. Nobody showed more consummate skill in dealing with politicians of varied types, often crass, selfish, vain, or corrupt. In time he was to exercise this skill masterfully in handling the ambitious Salmon P. Chase, the unscrupulous Bent Butler, the self-centered Sumner, and the dictatorial, tempestuous Stanton. His magnanimity never failed – he gave even his sleepless rival and frequent detractor, Chase, the Chief Justiceship – but neither did his skill. When he turned from the politicians to the people, however, his attitude was one of deference to a higher power. While he knew that he must take the responsibility for decisive enunciations of policy, and did so, he also knew that he did not manage the people, in the last analysis, the managed him.” 25

Presidential favor was too important for many congressmen to want to be permanently alienated from Mr. Lincoln, no matter how much they differed with his policies. Even a harsh critic like Thaddeus Stevens sometimes need a presidential pardon for a constituent. Allan Bogue wrote: “Although the representatives and senators spent many mornings touring the executive departments on behalf of their constituents, they well understood that troublesome or urgent matters might be resolved more easily if they rallied the president to their aid, or if he could be induced to intervene.”26 Bogue noted that the President was astute enough to have congressmen put their requests in writing so that they would share responsibility for his actions.

Historian Mark Krug wrote that “there is evidence that Lincoln did not usually resent the pressures put on him either by the radicals or the conservatives. This crossfire pressure, often served him well, because it protected his freedom of action. He was not averse to telling the radicals that he had to give consideration to the views of the conservatives and vice versa He made this clear in a letter to the radical faction in Missouri headed by Charles Drake, to whom he wrote: ‘The Radicals and the Conservatives each agree with me in some things and disagree in others. I could wish both to agree with me in all things; for then they would agree with each other, and would be too strong for any foe from any quarter. They, however, choose to do otherwise, and I do not question their right. I, too, shall do what seems to be my duty.'” 27

Mr. Lincoln tried to bridge the divisions between radicals and moderates. Iowa’s John A. Kasson was a moderate who had to walk a fine political line in his service to Mr. Lincoln. At the beginning of the Lincoln Administration, he had served as first assistant postmaster general under Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who was anathema to Radical Republicans. Kasson biographer Ed Younger wrote: “As a friend of the Blairs, who were fanatically loyal to Lincoln, he was a marked man from the beginning. A great bloc of his constituents was conservative, but Republican leaders in Iowa, his Iowa colleagues in Congress, an the soldiers soon to return would be blown into the Radical camp by the shifting winds of events, policy, and party power. Kasson’s wife, his brother-in-law in Congress, and his politically powerful brother-in-law in St. Louis were all more Radical than he. In the House, Kasson was soon to find it difficult to be half-Radical, half-conservative, to work harmoniously with both factions, and to support the mild reconstruction measures of the President.” Back home, Kasson helped orchestrate President Lincoln’s renomination in 1864. In return in early 1864, he asked for two appointments for Lincoln supporters: “If public service and friendship for the President and some reputation as a supporter of the Republican organization, afford any claim to recognition…I trust this request will prove agreeable.”28

Kasson had other political interests. He ceaselessly promoted the military ambitions of Grenville M. Dodge, a military engineer who later played a key role in the building of the Union Pacific Railroad and had considerable experience working in the South. He wrote about Dodge to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair in the fall of 1862: “I want you to see him and I want the President to talk with him.” In 1863, “Kasson unrelentingly jabbed away at Dodge’s military promotion, writing and calling on Lincoln and Halleck, watching for vacancies in the army, and enlisting the aid of Grimes, Blair, and Grant,” wrote Kasson biographer Edward Younger. One Kasson friend wrote Dodge: “Kasson has been indefatigable, worked every day, and he is a tower of strength. He is about the only Lincoln man in our congressional delegation and could therefore do more than all else.” But even Kasson’s loyalty and lobbying was not sufficient to win Dodge’s promotion to major general. It took the intervention of another Lincoln ally, Illinois General Richard J. Oglesby, to persuade the President to make the appointment.29

Sometimes, Mr. Lincoln had to moderate among quarreling congressmen. President Lincoln wrote Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy in May 1864: “I wish you and Kansas Senator James Lane would make a sincere effort to get out of the mood you are in. It does neither of you any good. It gives you the means of tormenting my life out of me, and nothing else.” 30 Sometimes, Mr. Lincoln had to moderate among members of his Administration and members of Congress. One lightening rod for congressional criticism was U. S Marshall Ward Hill Lamon. Historian Henry Greenleaf Pearson wrote:”In retaliation for the remarks of [Senator Henry] Wilson and other anti-slavery senators. Lamon issued an order to the effect that no senator unprovided with a permit from him should be allowed to visit the [Washington, D.C.] jail. The President finally intervened in the squabble and forestalled action on the part of Congress by ordering Lamon to clear the jail within ten days of all cases held on suspicion; to receive into custody no fugitives unless upon arrest or commitment pursuant to law; and to retain these not beyond thirty days.” 31 Conflict between members of Congress and Lamon led President Lincoln to say: “I have great sympathy for these men, because of their temper and their weakness; but I am thankful that the good Lord has given to the vicious ox short horns, for if their physical courage were equal to their vicious dispositions, some of us in this neck of the woods would get hurt.” 32

Historian Donald B. Connelly wrote: “The competition for promotion frequently pitted Lincoln and the War Department bureaucracy against the disparate interests of Congress. Lincoln’s recommendations for military promotion were seldom simply rubber-stamped by the Senate. Senators and congressmen attempted to advance their favorites and obstruct their foes. Rank, and especially date of rank, became the object of intense politiciking.” When Iowa Congressman Josiah B. Grinnnell asked him to take action against a low-ranking government clerk, President Lincoln replied: “Don’t ask me to strike so low; I have to do with those whom I despise; for we are at war. Democratic aid we must have if possible, and I conciliate to avoid all friction.” 33

The friction between the President and Congress was natural, reported aide William O. Stoddard. “The United States contained by one President, and he was necessarily dictatorial in war times; and his name was Abraham Lincoln. It was not always pleasant for some other man, strong of will and conscious of capacity and of good purposes towards himself and his country, when brought into sudden contact or collision with an unyielding power he had never felt before.” 34 Historian William E. Gienapp wrote that “it was not just coincidence that Lincoln’s most decisive assertions of presidential power usually occurred when Congress was not in session: the initial call for troops, the institution of the blockade, the revocation of Frémont’s proclamation, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the announcement of the preliminary emancipation.” Gienapp added: “Still, Lincoln’s relations with the legislative branch, while at times strained, never broke down completely, and in particular they were better than under either his predecessor, James Buchanan, or his successor, Andrew Johnson. This more harmonious relationship reflected in part the fact that Lincoln was much more tactful and flexible in his approach.”

Some scholars have argued that the President let Congress take the lead on legislative policy. Historian Gienapp wrote: “Lincoln, despite his forceful leadership in other areas, was not an activist president in the modern sense of the term. While he recommended general policies, he normally did not submit legislation to Congress.” 35 Lincoln biographer David H. Donald maintained that President Lincoln was relatively passive where Congress was concerned. He wrote that “Less than any other major American President did Lincoln control or even influence the Congress. Noting that many of the Civil War congressmen were his seniors and humbly declaring ‘that many of you have more experience than I, in the conduct of public affairs,’ Lincoln bowed not merely to the will but to the caprice of the legislators. In making appointments, he regularly deferred to the Republican delegation from each state. He acquiesced in the Senate’s right to veto appointments by refusing to resubmit any nomination which the Senate had rejected. Even upon a matter so clearly within presidential prerogative as extending recognition to Haiti and Liberia, Lincoln declined to act until Congress assented, because, he declared, he was “Unwilling…to inaugurate a novel policy…without the approbation of Congress.'” 36

The Lincoln Administration, however, was not entirely passive where Congress was concerned. “The evidence indicates that the Lincoln Administration was not as hermetically sealed from Congress as many historian ans presidential scholars would have us believe,” wrote political scientist Jon Schaff. “The Lincoln administration clearly attempted to influence the passage of important pieces of domestic legislation. It had the most profound influence of economic measures, the Legal Tender Act and the National bank Act. On other legislation – the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Revenue Acts of 1861 and 1862 – the administration was largely on the outside looking in.” 37 Lincoln scholars Frank J. Williams and William D. Pederson wrote:”Not only did the Republican Congress back up Lincoln’s actions, its members came to power with a legislative agenda that set precedent for FDR’s historical ‘First Hundred Days’ in dealing with the Great Depression. Based on both the South’s secession and his own broad interpretation of the Constitution, Lincoln signed into law three pieces of legislation in 1862 which are ranked by some among the top ten pieces of Congressional legislation in history. They were legislative landmarks crafted to broad the emerging middle class and assist it in its collective effort to rise in society.” 38 The legislation included the Land Grant College Act, the Homestead Act, and the legislation for the Transcontinental railroad. Historian James A. Rawley observed: “By late 1862 Congress and the president had gone far to reshape the American economic and social structure. Together they had erected the framework for the emergence of modern American and freedom for black slaves.” 39

Important financial and tax legislation was also passed, but historian David H. Donald argued: “Lincoln had little interest in floating bond issues, creating an internal revenue system, inaugurating the first income tax, or establishing a national banking system.” 40 Gienapp noted: “Only Chase’s insistence that the outcome in Congress hinged on presidential action induced Lincoln to lobby personally for passage of the National Banking Act of 1863, one of the few times Lincoln directly intervened to get legislation through Congress.” 41 Historian Bogue wrote: “Although Lincoln did not present vast new legislative programs in his various messages, he was not a passive observer of proceedings at the Capitol. Scattered through his messages are a significant number of passages in which legislation is recommended. Sometimes, as in his messages relative to banking and currency, the recommendations bore particularly upon the problem of the war in the civil sector. In other cases he ranged further afield, as in his call for reconstruction of the government’s Indian policies. Lincoln, it has been argued, gave Chase and Seward free rein to run their departments as they saw fit. Qualifications are in order. The reconstruction of the banking system was Chase’s greatest claim to fame as an executive officer. But, according to John Hay, the president once remarked that the National Bank Act “was the principal financial measure of Mr. Chase in which he [Lincoln] had taken an especial interest. Mr. C. had frequently consulted him in regard to it. He had generally delegated to Mr. C. exclusive control of those matters falling within the purview of his dept. This matter [they] had shared to some extent.” 42

More importantly, President Lincoln took a personal and powerful interest in legislation concerning slavery and reconstruction of the South. His veto of the Wade-Davis reconstruction bill in July 1864 caused an uproar among Republicans. Bogue noted that “Lincoln justified his veto on the basis of expediency – the fact that it would nullify progress already made – rather than on the constitutional location of the power to effect reconstruction.” 43 When the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery came up for a second vote in the winter of 1864-1865, Mr. Lincoln took an active interest in lobbying for its passage in the House working with Ohio Congressman James Ashley, who was a frequent critic of his policies.

As the President’s gatekeeper, John G. Nicolay was in effect in charge of congressional relations. From the vantage point of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Lincoln’s subordinate viewed Congress with jaundice. He did not enjoy the job, writing in July 1862 after Congress adjourned: “I am heartily glad that Congress is at last gone, and am sure I shall enjoy the relief from the constant strain of petty cares and troubles which their presence imposes. They always have a multitude of trivial requirements, which keep me constantly vexed and anxious and constantly busy.” 44

White House aide William O. Stoddard wrote in an anonymous newspaper dispatch in August 1861: “With all due allowances for the inevitable amount of useless talk, where so many professional talking men are brought together, Congress has indeed done well. The Administration is fully endorsed, the army provided for, and the representatives of the people can, most of them, return to their constituents with a pleasant consciousness of having done their duty, and placed the country in a good state of defense against enemies without and within.” 45 In early 1862, Stoddard wrote: “Congress, that inexplicable conglomerate, seems slowly awakening to the financial necessities of the position, and spurred on by the stern common sense of the moneyed community, promises to forget its hereditary dread of taxation, and come forward to the assistance of the exhausted Treasury.” 46

In February 1862, Stoddard wrote “Congress does not change for the better, nor much for the worse, and we may hope to see, in some time, if not in due time, the result of its long cogitation upon the national finances. Perhaps, however, we are wrong to be impatient with our representatives, for they too have a doubtful and serious campaign before them, in the proper care and management of the National credit and resources. They do well to beware of haste, for they are now laying the broad foundation of a system of taxation hitherto unknown to them or their constituents, and upon the justice and equity of which will depend much of its success in creating a revenue, and restoring the damaged credit of the nation. The ‘legal tender’ bill but furnishes a bridge upon which the Treasury can cross the gulf of bankruptcy to the firm ground of just and general taxation.” 47

In July 1862, Stoddard reported: “A new and wonderful era has been opened by the action of this body of hard-working, mediocre men. The old question of internal improvements is settled forever in favor the proposed improvements. We shall now have them, one after the other, in rapid succession, and our internal strength and resources cannot fail to expand with a swiftness hitherto unknown.” 48

Relations with Congress deteriorated in 1862. By the beginning of December, Stoddard reported: “If only the talking men and the quarrelsome men will let the working ones alone, we may look for a swift series of well-digested and important measures, affecting seriously and permanently our whole social and financial status.” By February 1863, Stoddard reported that Congress was more decorous than it had been in the 1850s; “In Congress the past few days have been a busy time, and in spite of the skirmishing and fillibustering of the opposition, a considerable amount of work has been done. The Conscription bill, the Indemnity bill, the Finance bill, and others, have been discussed and acted on with a great deal of common sense and business tact, though a few men, like Daniel Voorhees, of Indiana, have thought it a good time to make long spread-eagle speeches. There has been a splendid chance, lately, for members to call each other and the Administration hard names; and careful observation for many days compels me to accord them this encomium, that they have improved their opportunities to the full extent allowed by good breeding and parliamentary rule. When, however, we compare the decency and moderation of the present with the ‘plantation scenes’ of the not very remote past, we may well congratulate ourselves of the improvement. It should, however, be made a record of, that the Conscription bill passed the Senate as it did only because the leader of the Copperheads in that body had ‘prepared himself’ for his speech one glass too completely, and his satellites dared not move without him.” 49

Senator Morton S. Wilkinson of Minnesota was a frequent visitor to the White House. He said that he remembered “during the dark days of 1862, during the time when President Lincoln used to tell us that when he got up in the morning it was his purpose and endeavor to do the very best he could and knew how for that day, not being able to foresee, or devise or determine what might be done, or what was best to be done for the morrow, that the Republican Senators used to meet almost every day in caucus, and by caucus conference decide upon the action they would take on pending legislation, so as to leave no chance for hesitation, or division, among themselves, but always to present a united and unbroken front to the Democratic opposition, and so as to furnish the public opinion of the North with no suspicion of division or doubt or despondency in the Republican councils.”

“But it was not always fair sailing even in our Republican caucus. The Senators met in this way one morning when some grave and important measure (which I do not now remember) was about to come up for action, I recollect that on that occasion we regaled by a long statement and speech from Mr. Collamer to the effect that he had about made up his mind that the country would no longer endure the reverse, and the expenses and losses which had occurred. Mr. Fessenden followed in a similar strain. After him came Harris, and then several others.”
“Mr. Wade finally turned to Chandler and I said ‘This is no place for us. The men who have already spoken, if they join their votes with the democrats can defeat the measure. If this kind of feeling is to prevail the question is decided against us. He rose up to go and we followed.'”
“They called him back, and asked him why he was going. He repeated in a short address what he had said sotte voce to us. ‘From the talk I have already heard,’ said he ‘I see that this measure is beaten. Your votes gentlemen, if they agree with your talk will suffice with the help of the Democratic minority to kill the bill. There is no reason why we should stay. You can vote down the measure, and cripple the prosecution of the war, and bring about the ruin of the country, but I warn you that I shall demand the ayes and noes and that you shall go upon the record and take the full responsibility of your action.'”
“We went out there was a short session, and after it there was again a notice to meet in caucus. The fainthearts had canvassed the matter over, and when the discussions began it was altogether in a different tone and temper. The caucus unanimously resolved to put the measure through without delay; and next day the bill was passed. Mr. Fessenden himself making the champion speech in its favor.” 50

Relations between the President and Congress deteriorated at the end of 1862 in the light of Republican defeats at the polls in November and military defeats in the field. By the beginning of December, Stoddard reported: “If only the talking men and the quarrelsome men will let the working ones alone, we may look for a swift series of well-digested and important measures, affecting seriously and permanently our whole social and financial status.” 51 The Lincoln Administration was under attack from within. Lincoln secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote that Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase spread that impression that Secretary of State Seward “adhered too tenaciously to men who proved themselves unworthy and dangerous, such as George B. McClellan; that he resisted too persistently decided measures, and that his influence encouraged the irresolution and inaction of the President in respect to men and measures.”52

Four days after the bloody and unsuccessful Battle of Fredericksburg, congressional frustration boiled over. Senate Republicans caucused late on the afternoon of Tuesday December 16. The senators deliberated for several hours about the desperate state of national affairs and the necessity for them to intervene to save the country. Secretary of Treasury Chase has successfully poisoned many their minds against Secretary of State Seward. According to Senator William Pitt Fessenden: “The meeting was called to order by Mr. Henry Anthony, our chairman, who requested that the object of the meeting might be stated, as it had not been made known to him. Mr. Daniel Clark said he had requested that the meeting might be called, at the suggestion of several senators, but he was not precisely informed as to it object. After a short delay Mr. Lyman Trumbull said he believed it was called to ascertain whether the Republican senators would deem it their duty to take any action, or advise any action by the Senate, with regard to the present condition of the country, that the recent repulse at Fredericksburg had occasioned great excitement, and it had been thought best to ascertain whether any steps could be taken to quiet the public mind and to produce a better condition of affairs.” According to the Fessenden account of the caucus:

“Silence ensued for a few moments, when Mr. Morton S. Wilkinson said that in his opinion the country was ruined and the cause was lost; that the Senate might save it but would not for the reason that Republican senators would not adopt any united and vigorous course; that there were senators who would not support the majority in any plan they might devise for the safety of the country at this crisis, and he thought no good would come of any action that might be proposed. In his judgment the source of all our difficulties and disasters was apparent. The Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, exercised a controlling influence upon the mind of the President. He, Mr. Seward, had never believed in the war – had been averse to it from the beginning, and so long as he remained in the Cabinet nothing but defeat and disaster could be expected. Mr. Wilkinson spoke at some length upon this point.”
“Mr. Lafayette S. Foster said that he did not by any means agree with Mr. Wilkinson that the country was lost. He thought it might be saved if immediate and decided action were resorted to. He did, however, agree with Mr. Wilkinson in the opinion that no improvement could be expected in our affairs so long as Mr. Seward remained in the Cabinet.”
“At this point a senator, I have forgotten who it was, moved that the chairman be instructed to offer in open Senate a resolution expressing a want of confidence in William H. Seward, Secretary of State; but several senators objecting, the motion was withdrawn.”
“Mr. James Grimes then offered a resolution expressing substantially a want of confidence in the Secretary of State, and that he ought to be removed from the Cabinet. Mr. Grimes proceeded to advocate his resolution, expressing the opinion that Mr. Seward exercised a controlling influence upon the President and improperly interfered in the conduct of the war, and in a manner injurious to the success of our arms.”
“Mr. Benjamin F. Wade followed in a speech of some length, supporting the resolution offered by Mr. Grimes, expressing his own want of confidence in the Secretary of State, commenting upon the manner in which the war had been conducted, and particularly censuring the Executive for placing our armies under the command of officers who did not believe in the policy of the government and had no sympathy with its purposes.”
“Mr. Collamer said, substantially, that he believed the difficulty was to be found in the fact that the President had no Cabinet in the true sense of the word; that the theory and practice of our government recognized a Cabinet council. It was notorious that the President did not consult his cabinet councilors, as a body, upon important matters. Indeed, he, Mr. Collamer, had understood the President to have expressed the opinion that it was best to have no policy, and let each member of the Cabinet attend to the duties of his own department. Mr. Collamer believed this to be unsafe and wrong and he thought measures should be taken to bring about a different state of things.”
“Mr. Fessenden said it was plain to him that the time had arrived when the Senate should no longer content itself with the discharge of its constitutional duties. A crisis had arrived when its duty required an active interposition. From the nature and constitution of the body it could speak potentially. It should, however, proceed cautiously and with unanimity or its action would alarm the country and weaken the hands of the Executive without effecting any ultimate good. He had been opposed, hitherto, to any action by the Senate, for the reason that unanimity could not be expected, and without it any action would be unavailing and injurious. We should make an effort to see whether anything can be proposed which will receive unanimous concurrence. It had been said that there was a secret influence which controlled the President. He, Mr. Fessenden, had been told by a member of the cabinet that there was a back-stairs influence which often controlled the apparent conclusions of the Cabinet itself. The same official had told him, Mr. Fessenden, within a day or two, that until within a few days he had supposed the Banks expedition was to cooperate with General Burnside, and was astonished when he found that was not the case.”
“Mr. Jacob Howard interrupted Mr. Fessenden and inquired if the named of that back-stairs influence was William H. Seward?”
“Mr. Fessenden replied that no name was given; senators might draw their own conclusions. At all events, he, Mr. Fessenden, had no doubt that measures should be taken to make the Cabinet a unity and to remove from it any one who did not coincide heartily with our views in relation to the war.”
“Mr. Richard S. Field also addressed the meeting at considerable length, expressing the opinion that it was the duty of Republican senators to take some decided action in the present crisis of affairs. Other senators spoke briefly to the same effect, and the vote was apparently about to be taken, when Mr. Dixon said he could not vote for the resolution; that thought it was well known he, Mr. Dixon, did not think well of Mr. Seward, still he could not sent to single out him or any other member of the Cabinet by name, and pass a vote of censure upon him.”
“Mr. Timothy Howe spoke to the same effect. We should not proceed upon mere rumor. First ascertain the fact whether Mr. Seward did exercise an injurious influence upon the mind of the President. At present there was no proof of the fact.”
“Mr. James R. Doolittle thought that any vote would be unwise in the present condition of affairs, and that a committee should be appointed to take the whole subject into consideration and perhaps ask an interview with the President before proceeding further.”
“Mr. Preston King expressed substantially the same views. He thought the passage of such a resolution hasty and unwise – unjust to Mr. Seward, as it was predicated on mere rumors. As a senator from New York, he must protest against such a proceeding at this time. It would be much better to raise a committee who might have an interview with the President.”
“Mr. Edgar Cowan and Mr. Orville Browning each said a few words, rather expressing a want of readiness to act upon so important a resolution than any opinion on the subject. No senator present, however, expressed his individual confidence in Mr. Seward, and all appeared to concur in the opinion that some action should be had.”
“It was replied by several senators that the resolution was merely intended to test the opinion of those present. It was not designed for the President or for the public eye. Mr. Fessenden observed that we must take a vote on some definite proposition or it would not be known how far we agreed and without entire unanimity our action would not only be without force but productive of evil. It was plain to him that the proposition now before the meeting did not receive anything like a unanimous concurrence, and should not therefore be adopted if it could be. He doubted if any proposition would find universal acceptance.”
“Other conversation followed, in which it was said that any vote we might pass would be known to the public, as experience had always proved. The necessity and propriety of keeping our proceedings secret was discussed, and it was so specifically understood and agreed.”
“A motion was then made to adjourn the meeting for further consideration until to-morrow to meet immediately after the adjournment of the Senate which was agreed to, sixteen to thirteen. I voted in the affirmative.”53

Even President Lincoln’s longtime friend, Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, took up the criticism of the President’s administration. A lame duck by virtue of Republican losses in the Illinois legislature in November, Browning was disturbed with the President – even though his own politics were much more conservative that the President’s radical critics. Historian David H. Donald wrote: “Browning’s part in the caucus was hardly heroic. According to his diary, he told the senators that Seward ought to be removed if he was guilty of the offenses with which he was charged, but that he did not believe he was guilty.” 54

Illinois’s other senator, Lyman Trumbull, was even more critical.

At the second Republican Caucus, New York Senator Harris offered a substitute resolution which sought to soften the attack on Secretary of State Seward: “Resolved, that in the judgment of the Republican members of the Senate, the public confidence in the present administration would be increased by a reconstruction of the Cabinet.” 55 According to Fessenden: “Mr. Harris supported his resolution with a few remarks, and several senators expressed their willingness to adopt it if it should be found acceptable to all. Among these were Mr. Wade and Mr. Fessenden. Mr. Doolittle expressed his preference for a committee, as did Mr. King. It was replied that unless some definite action was had, the committee, if raised, would not know how far the Republican senators were agreed – that any resolution was not, necessarily, to be communicated to the President, or any one else, but would be simply an expression of opinion among ourselves.” Other Senators objected to a complete turnover in the Cabinet. ” Mr. Sherman suggested that the resolution of Mr. Harris, as it stood, might be construed as an expression of opinion that all members of the Cabinet should go out. He presumed this was not desired. No one wished Mr. Chase to leave the Treasury, which he had managed so ably. Mr. Sherman further said that he doubted whether changing the Cabinet would remedy the evil. The difficulty was with the President himself. He had neither dignity, order, nor firmness. His (Mr. Sherman’s) course would be to go directly to the President, and tell him his defects. It was doubtful if even that would do any good.” Eventually, Harris’ resolution was amended to read “by a change in and partial reconstruction of the Cabinet” and adopted by the caucus.56

Nicolay and Hay wrote: “As a matter of taste and expedience this resolution later in the evening was withdrawn and another adopted in its place requesting the President to reconstruct the Cabinet, in which, although Mr. Seward’s name was not mentioned, the intention of the Republican Senators remained equally clear.57

All but one Republican senator, New York’s Preston King, voted for the resolution, while two Republican senators were absent.

Nicolay and Hay wrote: “A committee was appointed to present the sense of the cause to the President, but before this was carried into effect Senator Preston King of New York, meeting the Secretary of State, acquainted him with these proceedings, and he, with his son, the Assistant Secretary of State, at once offered their resignations to the President.” 58 Seward biographer Taylor wrote: “Seward, who appears to have had no warning of what was afoot, took paper in hand. ‘They may do as they please about me,’ he snapped, ‘but they shall not put the President in a false position on my account.’ He penned a one-sentence letter of resignation and told Fred to do the same. King took the two notes to the White House, while Seward returned to his reading and his cigar. Later that evening Lincoln walked across the street to the Seward residence. There was a slightly awkward exchange. Seward kept a stiff upper lip, insisting that it would be a relief to be free of his official cares. ‘Ah, yes, Governor,’ Lincoln replied, ‘that will do very well for you, but I…can’t get out.” 59 Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote that “Lincoln saw this at once as a challenge to his own authority, not Seward’s. If he could only have a cabinet that the caucus approved, he might as well hand over most of his administration into their control or, even worse, hand over the powers they were vaguely accusing Seward of exercising to Chase. Lincoln needed the caucus and he needed Chase, but he had no intention of letting them wrench the reins of the executive branch out of his hands. ‘It was very well to talk of remodelling the Cabinet, but the caucus had thought more of their plans than of his benefit,’ Lincoln remarked, and he promised Browning that he would teach them ‘that he was master.'”60

The next day, Thursday, December 18, Vermont Senator Jacob Collamer sent a note to President Lincoln: “A committee of the Republican Senators desire an interview with the President, at as early an hour, after Six o clock this evening, as may Suit his convenience.” Maurice Baxter, biographer of Illinois Senator Browning, wrote: “On the afternoon of the 18th Browning saw Lincoln and told him what had happened in the caucus. Lincoln was very troubled that the Radicals were proceeding on what he considered to be a lying misrepresentation of the characters of his high civil and military officers. Browning counselled him to be firm in the crisis; but despite the fact that he had defended Lincoln and Seward in the caucus, Browning suggested that perhaps replacing some of the cabinet members might be advisable.” 61 That afternoon, the Senate delegation caucused and agreed that Senator Collamer would read a statement embodying the senators’ views. The statement prepared by Collamer read:

A meeting of the Republican members of the Senate of the United States at which they were all present but two, after full consultation, came unanimously to the following conclusion (one present not voting):
First. The only course of sustaining this government and restoring and preserving national existence, and perpetuating the national integrity, is by a vigorous and successful prosecution of the war, the same being a patriotic and just war on the part of this nation, produced by an rendered necessary suppress a causeless and atrocious rebellion.
Second. The theory of our government, and the early and uniform political construction thereof is, that the President should be aided by a cabinet council, agreeing with him in political principles and general policy, and that all important public measures and appointments should be the result of their combined wisdom and deliberation. This most obviously necessary condition of things, without which no administration can succeed, we and the public believe does not now exist, and therefore such be made as will secure to the country unity of purpose and action, in all material and essential respects, more especially in the present crisis of public affairs.
Third. The Cabinet should be exclusively composed of statesmen who are the cordial, resolute, unwavering supporters of the principles and purposes first above stated.
Fourth. It is unwise and unsafe to commit the direction, conduct, or execution of any important military operation or separate general command or enterprise in this war to any one who is not a cordial believer and supporter of the same principles and purposes first above stated.
The Republican senators of the United States, entertaining the most unqualified confidence in the patriotism and integrity of the president, identified as they are with the success of his administration, profoundly impressed with the critical condition of our national affairs, and deeply convinced that the public confidence requires a practical regard to the above propositions and principles, feel it their duty, from the positions they occupy, respectfully to present them for executive consideration and action.” 62

At 7 P.M., President Lincoln met with the nine-member Senate delegation including Jacob Collamer of Vermont, William P. Fessenden of Maine, Ira Harris of New York, James Grimes of Iowa, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, Jacob Howard of Michigan and Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas. Historian Charles Jellison wrote: “After Chairman Collamer had read a paper which embodied the views of the Republican caucus, the individual members of the committee proceeded to express their own feelings on the administration’s conduct of the war. Wade complained that the war was being entrusted to men who had little sympathy with the Union cause. Grimes and Howard singled out Seward for attack, both declaring their complete lack of confidence in the Secretary of State. Sumner was of the same opinion.” 63 As Senator Fessenden related his own presentation, he “began by expressing the confidence of the Senate in the patriotism and integrity of the president and disclaiming any wish on the part of senators to dictate to him with regard to his cabinet. They claimed, however, the privilege, as his constitutional advisers, to tender him their friendly counsel when, in their judgment, it was rendered necessary by an emergency of sufficient importance – such as the present. The paper read covered all the points suggested by the Republican senators as a body. Mr. Fessenden had no new points to suggest, but would state some matters by way of illustration.

A belief existed in the community that the cabinet were not consulted as a council, in fact, that many important measures were decided upon not only without consultation, but without the knowledge of its members. It was believed, also, that the Secretary of State was not in accord with the majority of the Cabinet and exerted an injurious influence upon the conduct of the war. Such was common rumor. The Republican senators believed that if such a state of things existed it could not fail to be attended with evil consequences.
Again, it was thought that the war was not sufficiently in the hands of its friends. Perhaps at the outset this was unavoidable, as the officers of the regular army had little sympathy with the Republican party. They were largely pro-slavery men and sympathized strong with the Southern feeling. It was singularly unfortunate that almost every officer known as an anti-slavery man had been disgraced. He instanced Generals Frémont, Hunter, and Mitchell, and others. It was time to change this condition of affairs. The war should be conducted by its friends. The administration must protect itself. It was evident that it had nothing to expect from the Democracy. General McClellan had been used for party purposes and was now busy in making an attack upon the government, as was obvious from his statement in the Irvin McDowell case. The government had the power to show the falsity of his statements, and it was due to the country and the party that the government should make known the true state of the facts.
At this point the president rose and said the explanation was very simple. Mr. Fessenden stopped speaking, and the president produced a large bundle of papers and read several letters to General McClellan, showing that he had been sustained by the government to the utmost of its power. Some half hour was thus spent, and Mr. Fessenden did not resume his remarks. 64

Seward biographer John Taylor wrote: “The meeting. focused on Seward, who was roundly condemned by Sumner, Grimes and Trumbull. Sumner complained about Seward’s handling of foreign affairs, especially the letter to Dayton in which Seward had equated abolitionists with the rebels.” 65 According to Fesssenden, “The President said it was Mr. Seward’s habit to read his dispatches to him before they were sent, but they were not usually submitted to a Cabinet council. He did not recollect that to which Mr. Sumner alluded.” 66

Historian Taylor wrote: “Trumbull took Seward to task for his ‘little bell.’ Grimes insisted that he had ‘no confidence whatever’ in the secretary of state. But when Lincoln asked bluntly whether all present wanted Seward out of the cabinet, only Pomeroy of Kansas joined the trio of Sumner, Grimes and Trumbull. New York’s Ira Harris said that Seward’s influence in New York was such that his departure from the cabinet would injure the party, while the others were noncommittal.” 67 Historian Jellison wrote: “Shortly after ten o’clock the meeting came to an end. No plan of action had been arrived at or even discussed, but the committee had the President’s assurance that he would give careful thought to the issues that had been raised. ‘While they seemed to believe in my honesty.’ Lincoln remarked not long after the visit, ‘they also appeared to think that when I had in me any good purpose or intention Seward contrived to suck it out of me unperceived.” 68

Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “In making its demands on Lincoln, the committee offered an amazing new interpretation of the Constitution. As phrased by Collamer, whose study history should have taught him better, it ran: ‘The theory of our government and the early and uniform construction thereof, is, that the President should be aided by a cabinet council, agreeing with him in political theory and general policy, and that all important public measures and appointment should be the result of their combined wisdom and deliberation. This was a thrust at the coalition character of Lincoln’s Cabinet. As if Washington, balancing Jefferson against Hamilton, had not possessed a similar Cabinet. As if Washington, balancing Jefferson against Hamilton, had not possessed a similar cabinet! The committee asked for changes that would bring about unity at once, but it wanted unity on its own lines, and actually proposed that the President should make appointments only after submitting names to the Senate and getting its approval. No wonder that ex-Governor Dennison of Ohio wrote:

“Is it not a dangerous innovation fo Senators to interfere in Cabinet matters in caucus form? Will it not be a precedent that may in future completely subordinate the Executive to the Legislative branch of the govt., and thus virtually destroy the whole theory of our political system? Will not the next step be for Congress to vote its want of confidence in the President and so embarrass as to compel to resign? Was not some such purpose in the Senatorial caucus?”69

Historian T. Harry Williams noted: “There were profound and dangerous constitutional implications in the Cabinet imbroglio. The assumption that the senators of the majority party could force the president to remove an adviser whose opinions did not square with the senators ideas of correct party dogma was a startling innovation in the American scheme of government. Fessenden recognized the he and his colleagues were stepping outside the sphere allotted them by the Constitution. ‘The story of the law few days will make a new point in history,’ he wrote, ‘for it has witnessed a new proceeding – one probably unknown to the government of the country. Many observers thought the senators must have confused the American system with the British and tried to establish the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy and the responsibility of the executive to Congress. ‘The Constitution confers upon them no more right to demand the resignation of an obnoxious secretary than to appoint a mayor for New York city,’ objected Harper’s Weekly. A conservative correspondent of John Sherman’s declared that the Senate had the right to confirm men appointed to office by the president, but it possessed no power to ‘confirm them out again.'” 70

On the morning of Friday, December 19, President Lincoln met with his Cabinet to discuss the crisis caused by the Senate’s actions and Seward’s resignation. He laid out what the senators had said in detail. Navy Secretary reported that the previous “evening was spent in a pretty free discussion and animated conversation. N9 opposition was manifested towards any other member of the cabinet than Mr. Seward. Some not very friendly feelings were shown towards one or two others, but no wish that anyone should leave but the Secretary of State. Him they charged, if not with infidelity, with indifference, with want of earnestness in the war, with want of sympathy with the country in this great struggle, and with many things objectionable, and especially with a too-great ascendancy and control of the President.” Mr. Lincoln added “that the cabinet had selected in view of impending difficulties and of all the responsibilities upon him; that the members and himself had gone on harmoniously; that there had never been serious disagreement, though there had been differences; that in the overwhelming troubles of the country which had borne heavily upon him he had been sustained and consoled by the good feeling and the mutual and unselfish confidence and zeal that pervaded the cabinet. 71

Historian Allan Nevins wrote that up until that point “the President had worn the air of a man who held a losing hand, but suddenly he placed an ace card on the table. He proposed that the Cabinet meet with him and the committee that night; thus he would have the support of his associates in facing Wade, Sumner, Fessenden, and the rest, and would put Chase in a spot where he would have to show whether he stood with the President or with the radicals. Though neither Chase nor Bates liked the idea, Welles and Blair spoke so heartily in favor it that finally everyone acquiesced. Both were anxious to see Chase forced to show his true colors; for every perceptive person in Washington now believed the Ohioan was at the bottom of the whole movement. Lincoln’s intentions were becoming plain. He did not think a Senatorial junta should be permitted, at the height of a terrible civil war, to dictate Cabinet membership and Administration policies to the President; and he did not think that anyone in his Cabinet should be allowed to play the traitor. He did not object to one unimportant change in his official family, the long-contemplated resignation of the colorless Caleb B. Smith of Indiana.”72

At 7:30 that night, President Lincoln with both the senatorial delegation and members of his Cabinet to discuss the Seward Crisis. Historian Charles Jellison wrote that “Fessenden was surprised to discover that all the members of the President’s Cabinet, except Seward, were also on hand.”73 Fessendem wrote: “The President opened with a speech, admitting that the Cabinet had not been very regular in its consultations, but excusing it for want of time. He thought that most questions of importance had received a reasonable consideration was not aware of any divisions or want of unity. Decisions had, so far as he knew, received general support after they were made. He thought Mr. Seward had been earnest in the prosecution of the war, and had not improperly interfered – had generally read him his official correspondence, and had sometimes consulted Mr. Chase. He called on the members of the Cabinet present to say whether there had been any want of unity or of sufficient consultation.”

It was remarkable that in the course in the course of his speech, which was quite long, the President, while averring that there had been a sufficient reasonable consultation, stated several instances in which most important action was had not only without consultation with his Cabinet, but without the knowledge of several: such as the appointment of McClellan and Halleck, the sending for General Halleck to act as commander-in-chief, placing the army under McClellan’s command after his return from the Peninsula and the Banks expedition.

Historian Nevins noted that President Lincoln “launched into a defense of his Cabinet relations. He did not pretend, of course, that the Cabinet had decided all policies, for everyone knew that he made the critical decisions.” 74 Fessenden recalled: “After the President had concluded, Mr. Chase said that he should not have come here had he known that he was to be arraigned before a committee of the Senate. He went on to say that questions of importance had generally went on to say that questions of importance had generally been considered by the Cabinet, though perhaps not so fully as might have been desired, and that there had been no want of unity in the Cabinet, but a general acquiescence on public measures; no member had opposed a measure after it had once been decided on.”

Mr. Fessenden then said it should be understood what the positions of senators was, and repeated what he had before told the President with regard to the desire to offer friendly advice, and not to dictate to him, or interfere with his prerogative. In answer to what Mr. Chase had said about being arraigned, Mr. Fessenden stated what had previously being arraigned, Mr. Fessenden stated what had previously occurred between the President and the committee on the subject of meeting the Cabinet. It was no movement of ours, nor did we suspect or come here for that purpose. Mr. Fessenden further said that he thought all important questions should be discussed in Cabinet council, though the President was not bound by any decision made by his Cabinet, but might act on his own judgment.
Mr. Blair followed in a long and somewhat rambling speech, in which he contended that the Cabinet had and ought to have no voice except when the President called for it. He might require their opinions in writing. That was General Jackson’s notion. He, Mr. Blair, had differed much with Mr. Seward, but believed him as earnest as any one in the war: thought it would be injurious to the public service to have him leave the Cabinet, and that the Senate had better not meddle with matters of that kind.
Mr. Grimes followed with some comments on Mr. Seward, expressing his entire want of confidence in him, and the belief that his presence in the Cabinet was injurious to the public interests.
Mr. Sumner again spoke of Mr. Seward as a diplomatist, and condemned his correspondence in very strong terms.
Mr. Grimes followed with some comments on Mr. Seward, expressing his entire want of confidence in him, and the belief that his presence in the Cabinet was injurious to the public interests.
Mr. Sumner again spoke of Mr. Seward as a diplomatist, and condemned his correspondence in very strong terms.
Mr. Trumbull called attention to the fact that that from the President’s own admissions most important questions had been decided without sufficient consideration.
Mr. Collamer said a few words in support of the views of Republican senators, or rather in explanation of the paper submitted.
Whereupon Mr. Bates entered into a constitutional argument to show that the President need not consult his Cabinet unless he pleased. Mr. Bates spoke of himself as a ‘garrulous old man,’ and I think there was a general acquiescence in the correctness of the description.
The President made several speeches in the course of the evening, and related several anecdotes, most of which I had heard before. In remarking upon the Proclamation with regard to emancipation, he said that Mr. Seward fully concurred after it had been resolved upon by him (it appeared without previous consultation with his Cabinet) whereupon
Mr. Chase called his attention to the fact that Mr. Seward had suggested amendments which strengthened it, such as the pledge to maintain the freedom of those emancipated.
After a long conversation the president desired senators present to give him their opinions upon the point whether Mr. Seward ought to leave the Cabinet, and to advise him what their constituents thought about it, observing that all the senators present had not given him their opinions on that point.
Mr. Collamer said he did not know what his constituents thought about it, and he was not prepared to go beyond the paper submitted.
Mr. Grimes said he had already given his opinion.
Mr. Harris made a speech in which he said that considering the state of parties in New York, and Mr. Seward’s influence and friends, he thought his removal would be injurious, and he advised against it.
Mr. Pomeroy said he had thought highly of Mr. Seward, studied law in his office; but he had lost confidence in him, and so had his constituents, and thought he ought not to remain.
Mr. Fessenden: “I believe I am the only member of the committee who has not expressed an opinion.”
The President: “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Howard: “No, sir; I have not.”
The President: “I believe I understood Mr. Howard’s opinion.”
Mr. Howard: “Not from anything I have said this evening. I do not feel called upon to express an opinion here.”
Mr. Fessenden: “I was about remarking that subject has not, that I am aware of, been discussed in Maine, and I cannot answer for my constituents. I believe, however, that many who were formerly most zealous friends of Mr. Seward have lost their confidence in him. As to myself, I do not think this is the time or place to discuss the subject. Before doing so, I should wish to know whether the President means to follow the wishes of the republican senators when ascertained. If so, and he desires it, I am willing to try and ascertain what those wishes are. At present I am not instructed to answer for them. Nor do I think it proper to discuss the merits or demerits of a member of the Cabinet in the presence of his associates, especially when I am not informed how far our opinions would be regarded. That is precisely my position.”
Whereupon Mr. Chase said, “I think the members of the cabinet had better withdraw.” And they did so.
After some further conversation Mr. Collamer and Mr. Harris also left, and it was continued between the President and the senators remaining. Then Mr. Fessenden said to the President, “You have asked my opinion upon Mr. Seward’s removal. There is a current rumor that Mr. Seward has already resigned. If so, our opinions are of no consequence on that point.”
The President: “I thought I told you last evening that Mr. Seward had tendered his resignation. I have it in my pocket, but have not yet made it public or accepted it.”
Mr. Fessenden: “Then, sir, the question seems to be whether Mr. Seward shall be requested to withdraw his resignation.”
The President: “Yes.”
Mr. Fessenden: “As the fact of his resignation cannot be concealed, and its cause cannot but be well understood, my opinion is that all the harm which can be done in dividing the Republicans of New York has been done. The breach has been made and the withdrawal of his resignation will not heal it. Under these circumstances I feel bound to say that as Mr. Seward has seen fit to resign, I should advise that his resignation be accepted. Mr. Seward lost my confidence before he became secretary of state, and had I been consulted I should not have advised his appointment.”
The President: “I have no opportunity to consult you.”
Mr. Fessenden: “No, sir; but my opinion at the time was, as expressed to Mr. Trumbull, that before forming your Cabinet you should come to Washington, where you could advise with senators. I am sorry you did not do so. Do you wish us to advise with our fellow-senators on the point suggested?”
The President: “I think not.”
We then withdrew, at one A.M. Saturday morning.
It was observed by senators that the President did not appear to be in so good spirits as when we left him on the preceding evening, and the opinion was expressed that he would make no change in his cabinet. He said that he had reason to fear ‘a general smash-up’ if Mr. Seward was removed, and he did not see how he could get along with an entire change in his Cabinet. To an inquiry as to the grounds of his apprehension, he replied that he thought Mr. Chase would seize the occasion to withdraw, and it had been intimated that Mr. Stanton would do the same, and he could not dispense with Mr. Chase’s services in the Treasury just at this time. It was replied that everybody in Congress and out was entirely satisfied with Mr. Chase, and if he withdrew it would be because he desired a pretext for doing so.75

President Lincoln “was determined to have a thorough and frank discussion, so that, hereafter, neither in his Government nor in the Senate should it be possible to say that there were any points between them concealed or unexplained. The President stated the case and read the resolutions of the Senators, commenting upon parts of it with some gentle severity,” wrote Nicolay and Hay. A general discussion then took place, marked with singular frankness, both in the attack and the defense. Collamer and Fessenden speaking with more mildness than the others, but Grimes, Sumner and Trumbull attacking the cabinet generally, and Mr. Seward particularly, with considerable sharpness. The Cabinet defended themselves in general and their absent colleague with equal energy but unruffled temper.”76

Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “Bates and Montgomery Blair with rambling prolixity came to the defense of Lincoln, insisting that no President need consult his Cabinet unless he pleases; and Chase did Seward the justice of recalling that he had offered suggestions which strengthened the emancipation proclamation. But Lincoln, making several speeches and lightening the occasion by deft anecdotes, was his own best advocate. Near the end he brought the Senators up to the point of responsible action by asking them bluntly whether they still wished Seward to leave the cabinet, and whether this step would please their constituents. Grimes, Trumbull, Sumner, and Pomeroy answered yes. But Fessenden, Collamer, and Howard declined to commit themselves, while Harris said that Seward’s influence in New York was so great that his departure would hurt the party. Fessenden, still in irritable mood, declared that while he could not answer for his constituents, he believed that many who had formerly been zealous friends of Seward had lost their confidence in him. As for himself, he did not wish to discuss the subject until he learned whether the President meant to follow the wishes of the Republican Senators; if so, he would try to ascertain these wishes. 77

Secretary Chase had been isolated by President Lincoln, he either had to contradict the President and the rest of the cabinet or contradict his own previous assertions to the senators. Chase biographer Frederick Blue wrote: “Put on the spot, Chase hesitated and them stammered a weak endorsement of Lincoln’s interpretation. He even admitted that Seward had faithfully supported the war effort, including the emancipation policy. Chase had been trapped in his own scheme and could only squirm in embarrassment. Humiliated in the presence of his supporters, Chase complained that he would not have come ‘had he known that he was to be arraigned before a committee of the Senate.” 78 Historian Jellison wrote: “The Secretary of the Treasury was caught in an unpleasant situation. His voice had been among the loudest in condemning Lincoln’s haphazard attitude toward the Cabinet and in denouncing his colleague Seward, and he was in a sense the star witness upon whom the disgruntled Republicans had built their case. But he was also a member of the President’s official family and to speak out openly against his chief, in the presence of his chief, would be most assuredly both embarrassing and unwise. So it was that he chose the less hazardous path. No, he was not aware that here had been any lack of unity in the Cabinet. Yes, he thought that matters of importance had generally ben submitted to the Cabinet for consideration, and that there had been a general ‘acquiescence’ on public measures.79

Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “The unhappiest man that evening was Chase. Fessenden was angry at him for his double-dealing; Stanton commented that he was ashamed of the way Chase had lied about the manner of doing business in the Cabinet, he would not have done it, for the Senatorial charges were true; Caleb Smith said later that he had been strongly inclined to contradict Chase on the spot. Doubtless Chase passed a sleepless night. Conscious that his duplicity had been discovered, that the President was indignant, and that if the radicals forced Seward out the conservatives would demand his own head, he saw that he must write his resignation. Yet no more than Seward did he wish to leave; no more than Seward did he think he could safely be spared; and much more than Seward, he thought he would make a good Presidential replacement in 1864.”80

Republican senators were angry and confused by Chase’s performance. Several, Grimes, Sumner and Trumbull were still urging Seward’s removal. But the focus has been shifted to Chase. Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “With that flat contradiction of Chase’s backstage whisperings, the committee’s case against Seward collapsed, and their rage was transferred to Chase. Going out the door, Lyman Trumbull stopped to tell Lincoln that ‘the Secretary of the Treasury had held a very different tone the last time he had spoke with him.’ 81 Historian Blue wrote: “When Senator Orville H. Browning later asked Collamer how Chase could have so changed his earlier view that ‘Seward exercised a back stairs and malign influence upon the President and thwarted all measures of the cabinet,’ Collamer responded, ‘He lied.’ In Fessenden’s view, ‘he will never be forgiven by many for deliberately sacrificing his friends to the fear of offending his and their enemies.”82 According to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, the meeting ended “in a milder spirit than it met.”83

Helen Nicolay wrote: “Afterward Mr. Lincoln told his son Robert that as the meeting was breaking up Senator Trumbull came to him with eyes blazing and said to him, ‘Lincoln, somebody has lied like hell!’ To which the President replied quietly, ‘Not tonight.'”84 After the confrontation ended, John G. Nicolay penned a newspaper article in which he implored: “Republicans of Congress, and of the country! If you presume to sit in judgment upon individuals, every officer of the Government, including yourselves, will be wanting in the wisdom, the faith, and the patience adequate to the crisis! If, on the contrary, you will review the acts of the Administration and of the party, while you may find the fraction to condemn, you will as surely find the great aggregate to praise, and to be proud of.”85

Secretaries Nicolay and Hay wrote in their Lincoln biography: “The news of this stormy meeting quickly transpired, and the next morning there was great discussion and excitement in the town. The resignation of Seward was regarded as irrevocable, and all the amateur Cabinet-makers were busy in the preparation of a new Administration. The hopes of all the enemies of the Government were greatly stimulated by this indication of divided counsels, and the partisans of General McClellan in particular thought they saw in this conjuncture the occasion for his return to power. In fact, they felt so sure of his speedy restoration to command that they began to stipulate as the price of their adhesion to him that he should dictate his own terms on his return; that he must insist upon the disposal of all the important commands in the army. They imagined that the President would be so helpless that the friends of McClellan might demand any terms they thought good.”86

The next day, Fessenden “called at the War Department, and had an interview with Mr. Stanton. He remarked that the interview of the evening before was the most impressive scene he had ever witnessed, and that he was particularly struck by the dignity and propriety exhibited by the senators and disgusted with the Cabinet; that what the senators had said about the manner of doing business in the Cabinet was true, and he did not mean to lie about it; that he was ashamed of Chase, for he knew better.” Fessenden added: “At an interview with Secretary Smith some time afterwards, he confirmed Mr. Stanton’s statements, and said he had felt strongly tempted to contradict Mr. Chase on the spot, but as he expected to leave the Cabinet very soon, concluded to be silent. Secretaries Stanton, Smith and Welles did not say a word during our interview with the President.”87

At a Cabinet meeting that morning, Secretary Chase offered his resignation. Without waiting for Chase to hand it to him, President Lincoln snatched it from Chase’s hand and then adjourned the meeting. According to Nicolay and Hay: “He afterwards said, that from the moment when he saw Mr. Chase holding his resignation in his hand, his way was clear before him. He immediately sent an identical note to the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State, saying: ‘You have respectively tendered me your resignations as Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. I am apprised of the circumstances which may render this course personally desirable to each of you; but after most anxious consideration my deliberate judgment is that the public interest does not admit of it. I therefore have to request that you will resume the duties of your Departments respectively.” 88 When journalist John W. Forney pressured the President to refuse both the resignation of Chase and Seward, he replied: “If one goes, the other must; they must hunt in couples.”89

Nicolay and Hay wrote of their boss: “The untrained diplomatist of Illinois had thus met and conjured away, with unsurpassed courage and skill, one of the severest crises that ever threatened the integrity of his Administration. He had to meet it absolutely unaided: from the nature of the case he could take no advice from those who were nearest him in the Government. By his bold and original expedient of confronting the Senators with the Cabinet, and having them discuss their mutual misunderstandings under his own eye, he cleared up many dangerous misconceptions, and, as usually happens when both parties are men of intelligence and goodwill, brought about a friendlier and more considerate feeling between his Government and the Republican leaders than had ever before existed. By placing Mr. Chase in such an attitude that his resignation became necessary to his own sense of dignity he made himself absolute master of the situation; by treating the resignations and the return to the Cabinet of both ministers as one and the same transaction he saved for the nation the invaluable services of both, and preserved his own position of entire impartiality between the two wings of the Union party.”

“The results of this achievement were not merely temporary. From that hour there was a certain loosening of the hitherto close alliance between Mr. Chase and the Republican opposition to the President, while a kind of comradeship, born of their joint sortie and reentrance into the Government, gave thereafter a greater semblance of cordiality to the relations between the Secretaries of State and of the Treasury. But above all, the incident left the President seated more firmly than ever in the saddle. When the Cabinet had retired, and the President remained with the resignation of Mr. Chase in his hands, he said to a friend who entered soon after, in one of those graphic metaphors so often suggested to him by the memories of his pioneer childhood, and which revealed his careless greatness perhaps more clearly than his most labored official utterances, ‘Now I can ride; I have got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.'”
“Nearly a year later he said in a conversation relating to this matter: ‘I do not see how it could have been done better. I am sure it was right. If I had yielded to that storm and dismissed Seward the thing would all have slumped over one way, and we should have been left with a scanty handful of supporters. When Chase gave in his resignation I saw that the game was in my hands, and I put it through.'” 90

The crisis with the Senate had passed, particularly important because the Senate could be recalcitrant in exercising its powers of presidential confirmation. Secretary Seward wrote out a statement for journalists on the resolution of the conflict: “The president on Saturday acknowledge the reception of the resignations of the Secretary of State and the Treasury and informed them that after due deliberation he had come to the conclusion that an acceptance of them would be incompatible with the public welfare, and thereupon requested them to resume their respective functions. The two Secretaries have accordingly resumed their places as Heads of their Departments.” 91 The criticism, however, continued. Senator Chandler wrote Michigan Governor Austin Blair: “Old Abe promises to stand firm & I think he will. We shall get rid of his evil genius, Gov. S., eventually if not now. Without him Old Abe is naturally right.” 92 President Lincoln, meanwhile, moved on never seeming to hold a grudge against fellow Republicans who had presented such a direct threat to presidential power.

A year later, Lincoln aide John G. Nicolay wrote at the beginning of the congressional session in December 1864: “Congress, following its usual habits of indolence and of letting everything take its own time at the beginning of a session, adjourned over from Wednesday afternoon until tomorrow, the Monday following.” 93 Sometimes, President Lincoln may have wished they adjourned more often.


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  3. Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years, p. 59.
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  5. Abraham Lincoln: Tributes from His Associates, pp. 4-5.
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  11. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 311.
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  13. Albert G. Riddle, Recollections of War Times: Reminiscences of Men and Events in Washington, 1860-1865, p. 218.
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  19. Allan G. Bogue, The Congressman’s Civil War, p. 38.
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  27. Mark Krug, Lyman Trumbull, p. 198.
  28. Edward Younger, John A. Kasson: Politics and Diplomacy from Lincoln to McKinley, p. 158, 166.
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  35. James M. McPherson, editor, “We Cannot Escape History” Abraham Lincoln and Presidential Leadership, p. 71.
  36. David H. Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 194.
  37. Robert Watson, editor, , p.42 (Jon Schaff (“The Domestic Lincoln: White House Lobbying of the Civil War Congresses”)
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  39. James A. Rawley, The Politics of Union: Northern Politics During the Civil War, p. 112.
  40. David H. Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 194.
  41. James M. McPherson, editor, “We Cannot Escape History” Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth (William E. Gienapp, “Abraham Lincoln and Presidential Leadership”), p. 71.
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  46. Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard (January 13, 1862), p. 52.
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  82. Frederick J. Blue, Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics, p. 193.
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  84. Helen Nicolay, “Lincoln’s Cabinet” , The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume V, No. 5, March 1949, p. 287 (From a conversation with Robert Todd Lincoln, April 3, 1930).
  85. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, Editorial, December 23, 1862, p. 97.
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