Abraham Lincoln and Salmon P. Chase

Abraham Lincoln and Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase was “dignified, able and ambitious, likewise he is the special antipathy of the New York Herald, and the mirror of perfection for the New York Times, whose Washington staff of correspondents are the favorites of Mr. Chase,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. “Mr. Chase is large, fine looking, and his well flattered picture may be found on the left hand end of any one dollar greenback, looking ten years handsomer than the light haired Secretary. He is reserved, unappreciated as to jokes, and has a low opinion of Presidential humor and fun generally…He lives in a moderate style, is a widower, has a beautiful and somewhat airy daughter as the head of his household, and is a regular church-goer.”1 Secretary Chase’s virtues were obvious; his weaknesses were less so.

Chase was born in 1808 in New Hampshire, the son of a farmer-manufacturer. His father died when he was nine and when he was 12, Salmon was sent to Ohio to leave with his Uncle Philander where he was educated at schools his uncle headed. Like Mr. Lincoln, he found farming chores distasteful. He returned to New Hampshire where he entered Dartmouth as a 16-year-old sophomore, graduating when he was 18. Like fellow Lincoln cabinet member William H. Seward, he tried an early stint at teaching while in college. On graduation, Chase went to Washington on his uncle’s recommendation to spend three years as a teacher.

There, Chase also studied law in Washington without much diligence, was admitted to the bar at age 24, and moved to Cincinnati to begin his practice. In Washington, he had became something of a protege of Attorney General William Wirt, who acted as a father figure to him) Chase was perhaps a better editor and writer than attorney and in 1832, he published a edition of the collected laws of Ohio that gained him a legal reputation in Ohio and adjoining states. He subsequently won sufficient bank business to make his legal profession a profitable one. He took on a succession of partners and a parade of legal clerks, who were expected to aid in Chase’s own political pursuits.

In marriage, Chase had less luck than in the law. His first wife died less than two years after their marriage in 1834; their daughter died before she reached five. He had three daughters by his second marriage in 1839; two daughters died as did his wife in 1845. His third marriage in 1846 lasted only six years before this wife died, survived by one of their two children.

Chase had more success in his political efforts. Progressively during the 1830s, Chase was drawn into the association with abolitionists James Birney (a newspaper editor who later moved to New York) and Gamaliel Bailey – and into legal cases on behalf of the abolitionist cause. In so doing, he seems to have been motivated primarily by religious and moral reasons. There certainly was no political advantage to Chase in anti-slavery cases, since Cincinnati was too close to the South to encourage abolitionist thinking. He developed a reputation as the “attorney general of fugitive slaves” – even though he lost all of his cases. 2 Chase recognized a clear moral absolute. He argued repeatedly: “The honor, the welfare, the safety of our country, imperiously require the absolute and unqualified divorce of the government from slavery.”3

In some ways, Chase was caught between his ambition and his sense of duty. Throughout his adult life, Chase suffered from a lack of credibility among his friends. His pursuit of compromise among those who were not accustomed to compromise led to misunderstandings and accusations of betrayal – especially when he was nominated to the U.S. Senate in 1849 and when he sought to replace friend James Birney as the presidential candidate of the Liberty Party in 1848. As biographer John Niven noted: “From that encounter and kindred experiences he learned that one must be very careful with abolitionists, who dealt in moral absolutes. They were a querulous, changeable lot, suspicious and with good reason of political parties many of them Protestant ministers – they were accustomed to exhortation and moral persuasion through the religious press, pamphlets, books and lectures. Most considered themselves missionaries carrying God’s will to a heathen nation.”4 Niven quoted Supreme Court John McLean as observing: “Chase is the most unprincipled man politically that I have ever known. He is selfish beyond any other man, and I know from the bargain he has made in being elected to the Senate, he is ready to make any bargain to promote his interest.”5

Chase’s own political career was checkered. He spent most of the 1830s as a Whig, abandoning the Whigs in 1841 for the Liberty Party, then helping to organize the Free Soil Party in 1848. He became a Democrat with his election to the Senate in 1849 (over Whig Joshua Giddings) and was effectively frozen out of Senate business and the Democratic caucus because of his abolitionist ideas. Chase was also pro-immigrant, pro-land grants, and anti-pork. Along with William Seward he gave one of the great speeches against the Compromise of 1850. He worked during this period to strengthen “free Democracy” without much success. Chase advocated the “denationalization of slavery” – restricting it in all places over which the federal government had control and limiting to slave-holding states. According to Chase, the Constitutional prohibition against deprivation of “life, liberty or property except by due process of law” meant that the Constitution could not be used to justify slavery. Historian Eric Foner wrote: “Chase’s interpretation of the Constitution thus formed the legal basis for the political program which was created by the Liberty party and inherited in large part by the Free Soilers and Republicans…In 1850, Chase wrote to Charles Sumner that his political outlook could be summarized in three ideas:

  1. That the original policy of the Government was that of slavery restriction.
  2. That under the Constitution Congress cannot establish or maintain slavery in the territories.
  3. That the original policy of the Government has been subverted and the Constitution violated for the extension of slavery, and the establishment of the political supremacy of the Slave Power.” 6

Chase was one of the leading constitutional theorists for the anti-slavery movement. Eric Foner wrote: “Chase developed an interpretation of American history which convinced thousands of northerners that anti-slavery was the intended policy of the founders of the nation, and was fully compatible with the Constitution. He helped develop the idea that southern slaveholders, organized politically as a Slave Power, were conspiring to dominate the national government, reverse the policy of the founding fathers, and make slavery the ruling interest of the republic.”7 In January 1854, Chase was responsible for the “Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States” – a strong criticism of Senator Stephen A. Douglas’ proposal to repeal the Missouri Compromise in his Kansas-Nebraska legislation. His appeal was effective rallying northern opinion but failed to prevent his replacement as an Ohio senator.

Chase had been elected to the Senate on February 3, 1860, defeating George Pugh, the Democrat who had been elected to succeed him six years earlier. In the 1860 fight for the Republican nomination, Chase was hurt by his anti-tariff positions.

He was also handicapped in the 1860 maneuvering for the Republican presidential nomination by the absence of a strong political team. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of Chase in 1859: “Failing once again to appoint a campaign manager, Chase had no one to bargain and maneuver for him, no one to promise government posts in return for votes.” 8 Unlike Abraham Lincoln, Chase did not have a solid home state delegation behind him and was never in real contention at the Republican convention in Chicago in May 1860. Chase got 34 of the state’s votes on the first ballot; 12 delegates supported other candidates. He got only 15 votes from other non-Ohio delegates.

Chase had difficulty inspiring warm political allies, but managed to be a mentor to many younger politicians and lawyers like future President James Garfield. But he never put together a real political organization. Biographer Albert Bushnell Hart observed that “in his own lifetime Chase had fewer warm friends and admirers than almost any one of these rivals, and that somehow he repeatedly gave an impression of smallness in small matters, which dimmed his reputation. This came first of all from his measuring himself with Lincoln, and in that unhappy difference he did not show a great man’s appreciation of another great man’s character and personality.”9 Chase was also a good slogan maker. In the Senate, he coined the phrases: “Freedom is national; slavery only is local and sectional” and “Free Soil, Free Labor and Free Men.” Chase wrote President-elect Lincoln in January 1861, advising him to “let the word pass from the head of the column before the Republicans move…the simple watchword – Inauguration first – adjustment afterwards.”10 Later as Treasury Secretary, Chase came up with “In God We Trust.”11

Curiously, Chase was both a moral puritan and an opportunistic politician. Biographer Albert Bushnell Hart wrote: “As a politician, Chase lacked conciliation and alertness; yet he did first and last win many votes for the measures and the men whom he supported. He was in large degree an opportunist. In the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, where his qualities as a man were perhaps more clearly revealed than in any other episode of his life, he did everything that could be done to modify the bill, except to give up the principles upon which his objection was founded:

“Chase saw more clearly than any other public man of his time, except Lincoln, the importance, the necessity, and the moral effect of sticking to a consistent principle. He entered public life as an anti-slavery man, and nothing ever drew him aside from what he conceived to be the right of the bondman, and the parallel right of the community to be freed from bondage.”12

Chase’s relatively high social standing at birth helped to give him a high opinion of himself. According to biographer John Niven, “As a politician he was not trusted even by close associates. His family and his education marked him as an aristocrat in the frontier city where he settled. And even after Cincinnati became a more populous, cosmopolitan urban center in the 1840s and 1850s, Chase’s eastern college background and his Episcopalian faith did not evoke the mass enthusiasm that would have made him more attractive to his political associates.” 13 He also had a strong opinion of his own moral strictures. Ultimately, Chase was a victim of his own ego; he liked flatterers. Senator Benjamin F. Wade said of Chase: “Chase is a good man, but his theology is unsound. He thinks there is a fourth person in the Trinity.”14

Mr. Lincoln had little personal acquaintance with any of his cabinet before he appointed them in March 1861. But he had knowledge and memories. Salmon P. Chase, however, campaigned for Lincoln in 1858. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “For eight days, traveling to Chicago, Galena, Warren, Rockford, and Mendota, Chase spoke to thousands of on behalf of Lincoln and the Republican ticket in Illinois – a gesture Lincoln would not forget.”15 Springfield businessman John W. Bunn was an active supporter of Mr. Lincoln. “One day after the election had resulted successfully I went over to Mr. Lincoln’s room in the State House, and as I passed up the stairway I met Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio, coming away. When I entered the room I said to Mr. Lincoln, rather abruptly, ‘You don’t want to put that man in your Cabinet, I hope?’ It was an impertinent remark on my part, but Mr. Lincoln received it kindly, and replied to me in a characteristic way, by saying, ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘Because,’ I answered, ‘he thinks is a great deal bigger than you are.’ ‘Well,’ inquired Lincoln, ‘do you know of any other men who think they are bigger than I am?’ I replied, ‘I cannot say that I do, but why do you ask me that?’ ‘Because,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘I want to put them all in my Cabinet.'” 16 New York Republican journalist Henry B. Stanton recalled: “Nothing but the pressure of the civil war and the patience of Mr. Lincoln kept these incongruous materials together for six months. Nor was the harmony of the Cabinet improved when Edwin M. Stanton, nine months after its creation, took the place of Simon Cameron as Secretary of War.”17

There were some superficial similarities between Abraham Lincoln and Chase. Like Mr. Lincoln, he was appalled by mobs; as when mobs threatened newspaper editor James Birney, (similar to the mob which killed Elijah Lovejoy, contributing to the text of Mr. Lincoln’s 1838 “Lyceum” speech).

  • Like Mr. Lincoln, Chase helped found a “Lyceum,” and one of the lectures he delivered was entitled the “Effects of Machinery.”
  • Like Mr. Lincoln, Chase cultivated the support of newspaper editors.
  • Like Mr. Lincoln, Chase was a longtime believer in colonization of emancipated slaves.
  • Like Mr. Lincoln, Chase tred lightly with Know-Nothings in the mid-1850s because he needed their support in his election as governor
  • Like Mr. Lincoln, Chase had trouble helping to provide for his relatives, especially his alcoholic brother Alexander and younger brother William.
  • Unlike Mr. Lincoln, Chase was a firm proponent of repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law.
  • Unlike Mr. Lincoln, he was not a good stump speaker but he was a good writer, especially of political platforms. He was better in small groups than with large audiences.
  • Unlike Mr. Lincoln, he had a traditional Democratic antagonism to banks.

Chase and Mr. Lincoln harbored very different kinds of dignity. Biographer Frederick Blue observed of 1848 Chase “sought high station instead by operating as a manager and organizer, a behind-the-scenes ‘compromiser’ who also turned his private tragedies into deep, uncompromising concerns for the oppressed.” 18 Mr. Lincoln was ambitious but not driven to high station. Treasury official Maunsell B. Fields wrote: “Mr. Lincoln…was entirely deficient in what the phrenologists call reverence. No man who ever lived could be in his presence and dominate him, as the French express it. There is a certain sort of intellectual atmosphere different from, if not higher than that in which he moved, and he troubled himself very little about it, or about those who dwelt in it. At any rate, he instinctively conceded nothing of superiority to any body, and often failed to comprehend those whose mental plane was different from his own. Mr. Chase honestly felt his superiority to Mr. Lincoln in some respects, and could not be reconciled to his undignified manners and strange ways.”19

Chase was an uncompromising moralist who transmitted a sense of moral superiority. Mr. Lincoln was a moralist who understood political realities better than Chase. Chase biographer Blue wrote: “To Chase the war had become a means to his long sought goal of emancipation, whereas to Lincoln emancipation was the means to a successful war and restoration of the Union.”20 Secretary of State William H. Seward’s controversial positions were leavened with sociability; Chase’s were not. Biographer Albert Bushnell Hart wrote: “While Seward said strong things and then tempered them, while men like Henry Wilson sought to find other issues for the Republican party, while Douglas was reelected senator from Illinois on the programme of not caring whether slavery was voted down or voted up, Chase stood out unswervingly as a political abolitionist.” Hart wrote “It was not in Chase’s nature to be persuasive; in all his public life his successes were those of the downright man, convincing without pleasing. Himself a most capable legislator when in the Senate, he had little patience with slow intellects, and less of that urbane yielding of non-essentials which secures the adoption of the larger matters of principle.”21

Seward’s relationship with President Lincoln was a source of irritation to Chase – which led him in 1862 to charge Seward being the root cause of the Administration’s problems. Chase’s conversations with members of the Senate led to a major cabinet crisis. Biographer Hart wrote: “When Chase came to Washington, he expected a more intimate friendship with the President than he ever gained; in after years he felt that perhaps he had made a mistake in choosing a house more than a mile from the White House; for Seward, he thought, lived so near by that he had an opportunity to know Lincoln in an informal good fellowship which was denied to him. But the real cause that kept Lincoln and Chase from coming close together lay much deeper than a separation by a few furlongs. While kindly, genial, and agreeable among his friends, Chase had the misfortune to lack a sense of humor; and a Puritan conception of the gravity and seriousness of his work kept him from really understanding the easier and less strenuous attitude of the born Kentuckian. Chase was also apt to feel that his good counsels were slighted or disregarded, and he was touchy about the conduct of his office; While Lincoln was willing to go to great lengths in order to preserve the peace and keep the machinery of government moving.”22

Chase’s own life did not live up to his expectations. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that “Chase, in contrast to the ever buoyant Seward, possessed a restless soul incapable of finding satisfaction in his considerable achievements. He was forever brooding on a station in life not yet reached, recording at each turning point in his life his regret at not capitalizing on the opportunities given to him.”23 Goodwin wrote: “Chase, unlike Seward and Lincoln, did not make friends easily. A contemporary reporter observed that he knew ‘little of human nature,’ and that while ‘profoundly versed in man, he was profoundly ignorant of men.’ His abstractedness often lent an air of preoccupation, aggravated by his extreme nearsightedness. Both prevented him from gauging the reactions of others. Furthermore, his natural reserve, piety, temperance, and lack of humor made for uneasy relationships. Even his stately proportions and fastidious dress worked against social intimacy.”24 Biographer Albert Bushnell Hart observed: “Though Chase never could learn the quickness and adroitness which made Seward and John Hale such formidable debaters, he knew how to argue, and especially how to state great principles in a popular form.”25

Chase tried to keep William H. Seward and Caleb Smith out of Lincoln’s cabinet in the winter of 1860-1861. While Chase worried about including too many former Whigs in the Cabinet, Seward’s friends worried about including too many Democrats. Seward tried to keep out Chase, Welles and Blair, all former Democrats. Like other members of the Lincoln cabinet, Chase was a busybody who refused to confine his thoughts to his responsibilities. Early in the Civil War, Chase assumed some special responsibilities for overseeing military affairs. Both Irvin McDowell and George B. McClellan were Ohio generals that Chase promoted. At the beginning of the war, Chase also took particular responsibility for affairs in neighboring Kentucky. “Throughout the war Chase kept up his great interest in the conduct of the army, and he maintained close correspondence with many of the commanders,- at first with McClellan, later with Hooker, Lander, H. B. Carrington, Mitchell, Garfield, McCook, W.B. Smith, Benham, and many others. Western officers and politicians were especially fond of seeking his military influence.”26 Chase’s own governmental responsibilities include a trade, revenue, and expenditures as well as some elements of reconstruction.

Like other Lincoln cabinet members, Secretary Chase was anxious to extend his patronage power and made frequent recommendations to President Lincoln. Biographer Hart wrote: “Chase got appointments in other departments for his old law partner, Ball, for his brother, and for other kinsmen, and he himself appointed many other old friends; but the evidence shows that he made it a principle to recognize merit and efficiency, and was glad to find it among his own friends and adherents, all of whom were of course Republicans or strong war Democrats.”27 But while Chase engaged in the mundane matters and feuds of government, he felt himself to be above them. Treasury official Maunsell Field wrote: “Upon one occasion, I remarked to the Secretary that I supposed he had kept a diary, or at least memoranda, of everything that had occurred at Cabinet meetings since the incoming of the Administration. He told me, in reply, that during several months in the beginning he had very faithfully done so; but that very soon the personal relations between some of his colleagues became so inharmonious, and so much unworthy bickering, and even quarreling, was indulged in upon these occasions, that he discontinued making a record, and destroyed the notes which he had already taken. He said that a truthful statement of these occurrences, if ever published, would bring disgrace upon the country, and that they had better be buried in oblivion.”28

Newspaperman Charles A. Dana recalled that Chase “was an able, noble, spotless statesman a man who would have been worthy of the best days of the old Roman republic. He had been a candidate for the presidency, though a less conspicuous one than Seward. Mr. Chase was a portly man; tall, and of an impressive appearance, with a very handsome, large head. He was genial, though very decided, and occasionally he would criticize the President, a thing I never heard Mr. Seward do. Chase had been successful in Ohio politics, and in the Treasury Department his administration was satisfactory to the public. He was the author of the national banking law. I remember going to dine with him one day I did that pretty often, as I had known him well when I was on the Tribune and he said to me: ‘I have completed to-day a very great thing. I have finished the National Bank Act. It will be a blessing to the country long after I am dead.'”29

Chase had essentially an elitist notion of reform. Historian Allan Nevins wrote that Chase “had gone into the Cabinet with the reputation of an unflinching radical, the doughtiest champion of those whom Charles F. Adams called the ramwells that is, the diehards. But at the moment it was actually true that, as Greeley’s Washington correspondent wrote, he was no extremist, but ‘moderate, conciliatory, deliberate, and conservative.’ One important factor in his hesitation was his fear that a war would be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to finance. He was under pressure from Eastern bankers who had warned him that they would not take his pending eight-million-dollar loan unless the government pursued a peace policy. Now he wrote Lincoln that if relieving the fort [Sumter] meant enlisting huge armies and spending millions, he would not advise it. It was only because he believed that the South Might be cajoled by full explanations and other conciliatory gestures into accepting the relief effort without war that he supported it. That is, he was for relief only with careful explanations.”30

Biographer Hart wrote that Chase was handicapped: “To deal with Congress Chase needed lieutenants, and he never had them. Senator Fessenden of Maine was sincerely interested in financial questions, and was as helpful as any member of Congress; but Chase had few personal friends in either house and fewer spokesmen.”31 Historians Harry J. Carmen and Reinhard H. Luthin wrote: “For his assistant Secretary of the Treasury Chase chose George Harrington, whose long experience in the Treasury Department under other administrations peculiarly qualified him for the added responsibility of planning a financial program for a nation about to be plunged into civil war. However, by 1860 Harrington had become a strong disciple of Republican doctrine and had served as a delegate from the District of Columbia to the convention that nominated Lincoln for President. Chase, with Lincoln’s help, prevailed upon a Democrat, John J. Cisco, Assistant Treasurer at New York who had served with distinction under Presidents Pierce and Buchanan to continue in his position, despite the fact that Cisco had opposed Lincoln’s election and was reluctant to accept Chase’s proffer. Another excellent appointment by Chase was that of Elisha Whittlesey, of Ohio, as First Comptroller of the Treasury. Whittlesey, a former Whig, had served under President Taylor in the same position and had even been continued by President Pierce, a Democrat. Whittlesey’s selection for the position, through which checks were issued in payment of government services, was lauded even by the Democratic press. His appointment, commented the New York Herald ‘is rather unwelcome news to the sharks hereabouts, who expect to fatten off this administration. James Madison Cutts, a Democrat and Stephen A. Douglas’s father-in-law, whom Buchanan had appointed as an auditor in the Treasury Department in an effort to pacify Douglas, was promoted to the second comptrollership.”32

President Lincoln left administration of the Treasury Department virtually completely in Chase’s hands – to Chase’s consternation. Historian Gabor S. Boritt wrote: “The free hand given to the Treasury by Lincoln was viewed with skepticism by Chase most of all when it came to raising taxes. It also incited the Secretary’s political ambitions. To an Ohio ally he wrote: ‘I fancy that as President I could take care of the Treasury better with the help of a Secretary than I can as Secretary without the help of the President.'”33 Historians Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen wrote that “Salmon P. Chase proved to be the right man in the right office at the right time.” 34 Meanwhile, Chase increasingly disapproved of President Lincoln’s style of leadership. Ohio editor Joseph Barrett wrote of his friend Chase in his biography of President LIncoln “Almost from the very beginning of his Cabinet service he had, in private conversation and correspondence, indulged in rather free criticisms of the President – no doubt really apprehending that under Lincoln’s guidance or lack of guidance affairs were tending badly.”35 Chase wrote: “The President, from the purest motives, committed the management of the war almost exclusively to his political opponents; it said to the delay and anxiety which have marked the past, but I am confident that it will not characterize the future.”36

If President Lincoln delegated the responsibilities of the Treasury Department to Chase, Chase in turn delegated responsibilities to many subordinates. George S. Boutwell, who in 1862 set up the first Internal Revenue Office of the Treasury Department, recalled: “Mr. Chase’s mental processes were slow, but time being given, he had the capacity to form sound opinions. Not infrequently, when I called at his office for conference, he would say: ‘My mind is preoccupied – you must either decide for yourself, or call again.’ As a result, he never gave an opinion or tendered any advice in relation to the business of the Internal Revenue Office while I was at the head of it. Mr. Chase had only a limited knowledge of the business of the department. Indeed, only a very extraordinary man could have administered the business of the department systematically, with a daily or frequent knowledge of the doings of the man heads of bureaus and divisions, and at the same time have matured and put into operation, the financial measures which were required by the exigencies of the war.”37

The nation’s financial problems mushroomed in the spring of 1861 and Chase struggled to adapt to the new financial realities the country faced in funding the Civil War. Biographer Albert Bushnell Hart wrote: “The errors in Chase’s finance were, then, due partly to inexperience, partly to want of apprehension of the tremendous task thrust upon him, and partly to the hurry and rush of a desperate time…However much he groaned over the difficulties of his place, he met those difficulties firmly day by day, and he did not deceive or cajole. Nor did he protect dishonest men; his immediate subordinates were trustworthy and efficient, and justified his confidence; indeed, the average character of the treasury official was higher than in any other department of the public service except perhaps the Navy.”38

Chase’s problems with President Lincoln were not over policies, but politics. Chase came into repeated conflict over patronage with President Lincoln and showed a distinct reluctance to compromise. There was a May 1863 crisis on the appointment of Victor Smith (to whom Chase owed money) as collector of Puget Sound. Lincoln removed Smith after charges of corruption erupted. “For the charges there seems to have been no sufficient ground, but Lincoln notified Chase that his mind was made up to remove Smith on the ground that ‘the degree of dissatisfaction with him there is too great for him to be retained.’ Finally, in Chase’s absence the President did remove him, whereupon Chase wrote a solemn letter claiming the right to be consulted must be on the appointment of persons ‘for whose action I must be largely responsible.’ He protested against the appointment of the successor of Smith, and ended with saying: ‘If you find anything in my views to which your own sense of duty will not permit you to assent, I will unhesitatingly relieve you from all embarrassment, so far as I am concerned, by tendering you my resignation.’ The President felt the matter to be so serious that he went himself to Chase’s house; as he told a friend afterwards: ‘I went directly up to him with the resignation in my hand, and, putting my arm around his neck, said to him, ‘Chase, here is a paper with which I wish to have nothing to do; take it back and be reasonable.’ I told him that I couldn’t replace the person whom I had removed – that was impossible – but that I would appoint any one else whom he should select for the place. It was difficult to bring him to terms; I had to plead with him a long time, but I finally succeeded, and heard nothing more of that resignation.” Smith took the matter better than did his superior, and accepted his removal with good nature; but the continued strain of these differences between the President and secretary was beginning to tell upon the good humor of both, and the question of the nomination of 1864 now came in to sow still greater dissensions.”39

As 1864 approached, so did the pace of Chase’s efforts to position himself to succeed President Lincoln. Historian James M. McPherson, wrote: “Chase was a man of inordinate ambition. He wanted very much to become president. Since early 1862 he had been building an organization of loyal supporters in the patronage-rich Treasury Department. Several abolitionists participated in this activity.”40 Historian David Long wrote: “Chase vehemently denied that he had used his position to further his ambitions. ‘I should despise myself if I felt capable of appointing or removing a man for the sake of the Presidency,’ he wrote. Yet, his appointments revealed a different story, as on March 5, 1864, George Dennison, a Case appointee in New Orleans, wrote, ‘We are forming a Chase Club here and meet for organization next Monday. It will comprise some of the best men of the city of different interests and political affinities. I believe we can control the election of delegates to the National Convention.”41

Historian David Long noted: “As secretary, Chase could seek the support of financial leaders. His business relations with the Cooke brothers, Henry and Jay, were cordial and Henry Cooke had been a political ally in Ohio. He had devised the bond subscription that financed the war, and Chase could claim him as a tutor in finance and a supporter in politics. He also enjoyed the support of C.H. Ray, a prominent Chicago business executive and part owner of the Tribune; John Austin Stevens, president of the bank of Commerce of New York; and William P. Smith of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroaded. Because the Legal Tender Act of 1862 empowered Chase to select certain banks as depositories for public funds, he could curry the favor of major banking interests.”42

Journalist Henry Villard visited Washington in November 1862 and renewed his “former acquaintances in higher circles.” He wrote in his memoirs: “Secretary Chase I saw frequently, as of old. He spoke very freely of the past and present, and in confidence criticised without stint the mistakes that had been made in the civil administration and the conduct of the war. It was very evident that he was too confident of his own superiority, mental and otherwise, to get along smoothly with the head of the Government, and that sooner or later there would be an open breach.” 43 The anomaly of his situation escaped the secretary of the Treasury. “It did not seem to occur to Chase that his maverick candidacy showed any disloyalty to Lincoln. In his mind, the field was clear and open, and the job should by all rights be his anyhow; he had been born for it,” wrote Lincoln chronicler John Waugh. “This self-assurance amounting to self-ordination, which most politicians found as myopic as his eyesight, continued to amaze some and amuse others.” 44 Chase’s criticisms of President Lincoln’s administration were freely shared with members of Congress. After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, those criticisms led Republicans senators to demand the resignation of Secretary of State William H. Seward and a reorganization of the Cabinet. Seward resigned, but President Lincoln also maneuvered Chase into resigning as well; then President Lincoln rejected both resignations. Chase was chagrined but not chastened. Nor were his presidential ambitions diminished in 1863.

“Out of Congress the radicals generally began to look for a suitable Presidential candidate to replace Lincoln,” wrote Historian William B. Hesseltine. “The Secretary of the Treasury was not a humble man, and he realized his own transcendent qualifications for the Presidency. His own view of his merits was shared by banker Jay Cooke, while Horace Greeley hopefully toyed with the idea of endorsing Chase.”45

His Treasury agents – and their banking allies – went to work on his behalf. Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote that Chase “remained the darling of the Radicals, and he still controlled, as secretary of the Treasury, the largest patronage network in the federal government (some 11,000 wartime Treasury workers nationally and 1,200 alone in the New York customs house). Gideon Welles was sure that he intended to use ‘the Treasury machinery’ to ‘press his pretensions as a candidate’ by organizing ‘Chase clubs’ and dominating delegate elections to the next Republican convention. ‘There is no doubt that Mr. C. is desperately bent on supplanting the President,’ Republican national chairman George Ashmun wrote. ‘You may rely upon the ripest state of inflammation between Mr. L. and Mr. C.'”46

Pennsylvania editor Alexander K. McClure wrote: “I never saw Lincoln unbalanced except during the fall of 1863, when Chase was making his most earnest efforts to win the Republican nomination. The very widespread distrust toward Lincoln cherished by Republican leaders gave him good reason to apprehend the success of a combination to defeat him. Scores of national leaders were at that time disaffected, by when they were compelled to face the issue of his renomination or Republican defeat, they finally yielded with more less ill grace, and supported him. Lincoln saw that if the disaffected elements of the party should be combined on one strong candidate, his own success would be greatly endangered. It was the only subject on which I ever knew Lincoln to lose his head. I saw him many times during the summer and fall of 1863, when the Chase boom was at its height, and he seemed like one who had got into water far beyond his depth. I happened at the White House one night when he was most concerned about the Chase movement, and he detained me until two o’clock in the morning. Occasionally he would speak with great seriousness, and evidently felt very keenly the possibility of his defeat, while at other times his face would suddenly brighten up with his never-ending store of humor, and he would illustrate Chase’s attitude by some pertinent story, at which he would laugh immoderately. After reviewing the situation for an hour, during which I assured him that Chase could not be the Republican candidate, whoever might be, and that I regarded his renomination as reasonably certain, I rose at midnight, shook hands with him, and started to go. He followed me to the end of the Cabinet table nearest his desk, swung one of his long legs over the corner of it, and stopped me to present some new phase of the Chase battle that had just occurred to him. After he had gotten through with that I again bade him good-night and started to the door. He followed to the other end of the Cabinet table, again swung his leg over the corner of it, and started in afresh to discuss the contest between Chase and himself.”

“It was nearly one o’clock when I again bade Lincoln good-night, and got as far as the door, but when just about to open it he called me and with the merriest twinkling of his eye, he said: ‘By the way, McClure, how would it do if I were to decline Chase?’ I was surprised of course at the novel suggestion, and said to him, ‘Why, Mr. Lincoln, how could that be done?’ He answered, ‘Well, I don’t know exactly how it might be done, but that reminds me of a story of two Democratic candidate for Senator in Egypt, Illinois, its early political times. That section of Illinois was almost solidly Democratic, as you know, and nobody but Democrats were candidates for office. Two Democratic candidates for Senator met each other in joint debate from day to day, and gradually became more and more exasperated at each other, until their discussions were simply disgraceful wrangles, and they both became ashamed of them. They finally agreed that either should say anything he pleased about the other and it should not be resented as an offense, and from that time on the campaign progressed without any special display of ill temper. On election night the two candidates, who lived in the same town, were receiving their returns together, and the contest was uncomfortably close. A distant precinct, in which one of the candidates confidently expected a large majority, was finally reported with a majority against him. The disappointed candidate expressed great surprise, to which the other candidate answered that he should not be surprised, as he had taken the liberty of declining him in that district the evening before the election. He reminded the defeated candidate that he had agreed that either was free to say anything about the other without offense, and added that under that authority he had gone up into that district and taken the liberty of saying that his opponent had retired from the contest, and therefore the vote of the district was changed, and the declined candidate was thus defeated. I think,’ added Lincoln, with one of his heartiest laughs, ‘I had better decline Chase.’ It was evident that the question of inducing Chase to decline was very seriously considered by Lincoln. He did not seem to know just how it could be done, but it was obvious that he believed it might be done in one way or another, and what he said in jest he meant in sober earnest.”47

President Lincoln had reason to be concerned about Chase’s candidacy. Radical Republicans in Congress were searching for an alternative Republican candidate. “Chase had at least two advantages in any quest for the presidency,” wrote historian Larry T. Balsamo. “He was generally popular with Radicals and as Secretary of Treasury he had influence over some 15,000 employees of the department such as tax assessors, revenue collectors, and clerks.” 48 Lincoln scholar John Waugh wrote: “It was commonly believed that Chase had mobilized his huge army of treasury agents and officeholders into a political machine. In effect, he had at his disposal more than 10,000 political mercenaries in his patronage domain. John Nicolay called them the ‘treasury rats.’ Noah Brooks called them ‘the Chase impracticables.’ But it offended Chase that it was thought he made appointments with politics in mind. ‘I should despise myself if I felt capable of appointing or removing a man for the sake of the Presidency,’ he said.” 49 Chase even put his picture on the dollar bill. When questioned, he explained: “I had put the President’s head on the higher priced notes, and my own, as was becoming, on the smaller ones.”50

Indeed, Mr. Lincoln was reasonably tolerant of Chase’s ambitions. In a conversation with New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond, President Lincoln asked him if he was indeed brought up on a farm. When Raymond replied in the affirmative, Mr. Lincoln said: “Then you know what a chin-fly is. My brother and I were once plowing corn on a Kentucky farm, I driving the horse and he holding the plow. The horse was lazy, but on one occasion rushed across the field so that I, with my long legs, could scarcely keep pace with him. On reaching the end of the furrow, I found an enormous chin-fly fastened upon him, and knocked him off. My brother asked me what I did that for. I told him I didn’t want the old horse bitten in that way. ‘Why,’ said my brother, ‘that’s all that made him Go.’ Now, if Mr. Chase has a presidential chin-fly biting him, I’m not going to knock him off, if it will only make his department go.” Raymond apparently got some details of the story wrong since Mr. Lincoln left Kentucky when he was just seven, but the story is vintage Lincoln.51

Lincoln secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote that Chase “felt himself alone in the Cabinet. He looked upon the President and all his colleagues as his inferiors in capacity, in zeal, in devotion to liberty and the general welfare. He sincerely persuaded himself that every disaster which happened to the country happened because his advice was not followed, and that every piece of good fortune was due to his having been able, from time to time, to rescue the President and the rest of the Cabinet from the consequences of their own errors. He kept up a voluminous correspondence with friends in all sections of the country, to which we should hesitate to refer had it not been that he retained copies of his letters, and many years afterwards gave them into the hands of a biographer for publication. These letters are pervaded by a constant tone of slight and criticism towards his chief and his colleagues. He continually disavows all responsibility for the conduct of the war.”52

Nevertheless, Chase had tried to maintain ethical standards, according to his own lights, in his political difficult situation. Biographer Hart wrote: “The confidential reports of several of Chase’s agents are still in existence, and they show his own earnest desire that business should be done honestly, and at the same time the impossibility of carrying it on at such a distance without fraud and corruption.” Hart wrote: “Though the Treasury was defeated in its effort to keep the trade in proper channels, it would be unjust to hold the secretary culpable. Chase could and did remove delinquent agents; but he could not guarantee that their successors would be proof against the temptations of their unrivaled opportunities.” 53

Historian William Frank Zornow, wrote: “When someone implored him once for an appointment on the ground that it would help his campaign for the Presidency, Chase wrote with much repugnance, ‘I should despise myself if I felt capable of appointing or removing a man for the sake of the Presidency.’ Yet on many occasions he betrayed much interest in the matter of making proper appointments for political reasons, and Edward Bates confided in his diary that ‘Mr. Chase’s head is turned by his eagerness in pursuit of the presidency. For a long time back he has been filling all the offices in his own vast patronage with extreme partisans and contrives also to fill many vacancies properly belonging to other departments.'” Zornow wrote:

Whether Chase made his appointments to foster his presidential hopes can be considered a moot question, but one fact if irrefutable; it was the treasury appointees who did the most to keep his chances alive. Of Chase’s most active managers the following were a few who held appointments from his departments: ‘Thomas Heaton, Mark Howard, William Mellen, George Dennison, Richard Parsons, and James Briggs. Welles wrote in 1864 that Chase intended to press ‘his pretensions as a candidate, and much of the Treasury machinery and the special agencies have that end in view.’ George Dennison reported from New Orleans, ‘We are forming a Chase club here and meet for organization next Monday I believe we can control the election of delegates to the National Convention.’ Ben Wade heard from a friend in Ohio that ‘a great effort is now being made in this state in the interests of Mr. Chase for the next Presidency. Those holding positions under him are doing their very best.’54

Washington politicians were frequently irritated with President Lincoln and his policies. But that did not mean that Republican leaders or the grassroots were ready to replace him. Mr. Lincoln’s patronage base in the Republican Party was far deeper, more loyal and more politically skillful. Historian William Frank Zornow wrote: “Chase personally overrated his support. To one well-wisher he wrote that he was gratified by the preference many showed for his candicature, ‘for those who express it are generally men of great weight, and high character and independent judgement.’ Chase committed two basic errors in estimating his position: first, he assumed that these expressions of preference in his favor were shared by the American voters; and second, he erred in assuming that his support came from ‘men of great weight.’ Actually, as James K. Hosmer wrote, ‘He had no strength with the people, nor was there a single public man of prominence who actively favored his candidacy.’ The prominent men who wrote him letters expressing their good wishes never were willing to go to the point of offering him public support. Their language remained equivocal; and well it should have, for they were intent upon learning the popular reaction of Chase’s boom before openly committing themselves. As long as Lincoln remained the obviously popular choice, there was little likelihood that Chase’s candidacy would receive the wholehearted support of the party leaders.” 55

Chase, a victim of his own wishful political thinking, himself took the initiative in launching his campaign. “In October he went out to Ohio and took part in the state election by making a series of excellent speeches. Greeley took up his cause, and in private correspondence expressed the hope that he would be nominated,” wrote Chase biographer Albert Bushnell Hart. “The motives in Chase’s mind are well expressed in an intimate letter of November 26, 1863. ‘I doubt the expedience of reelecting anybody, and I think a man of different qualities from those the President has will be needed for the next four years…I can never permit myself to be driven into any hostility or unfriendly position as Mr. Lincoln. His course toward me has always been so fair and kind; his progress toward entire agreement with me on the great question of slavery has been so constant, though rather slower than I wished for, and his general character in so marked by traits which command respect and affection, that I can never consent to anything which he himself could or would consider as incompatible with perfect honor and good faith, if I were capable – which I hope I am not – of a departure from either, even where an enemy might be concerned.” 56 Historian Zornow wrote: “Chase returned to the capital with a radiant confidence that he had served himself well by his junket into Ohio and the Hoosier State. When John Brough carried the Ohio gubernatorial election against Vallandigham, many of his advisors and workers assured the Secretary that it was conclusive proof of his powers in that state. Others pointed to the heartfelt reception accorded him in Indiana as additional evidence. Chase, who needed only a modicum of persuasion, fell in with their line of reasoning and admitted candidly that he was highly pleased with and impressed at the spontaneity of the demonstrations which were accorded him wherever he went. It seemed a propitious omen for the future.” 57

President Lincoln watched and tolerated these campaign efforts even while disapproving of them. On October 18, 1863, President Lincoln told aide John Hay that Chase’s presidential politicking “was very bad taste, but that he had determined to shut his eyes to all these performances: that Chase made a good Secretary and that he would keep him where is: if he becomes Presdt., all right. I hope we may never had a worse man. I have all along clearly seen his plan of strengthening himself. Whenever he sees that an important matter is troubling me, if I am compelled to decide it in a way to give offense to a man of some influence he always ranges himself in opposition to me and persuades the victim that he has been hardly dealt by and that he (C.) would have arranged it very differently. It was so with Gen. Fremont with Genl. Hunter when I annulled his hasty proclamation with Gen. Butler when he was recalled from New Orleans–with these Missouri people when they called the other day. I am entirely indifferent as to his success or failure in these schemes, so long as he does his duty as the head of the Treasury Department.” 58

While professing his personal desire that President Lincoln would be reelected. Chase still played coy about his ambitions. He wrote Rhode Island senator William Sprague, who had married his daughter Kate: “I doubt the expediency of reelecting anybody, and I think a man of different qualities from those the President has will be needed for the next four years. I am not anxious to be regarded as that man; and I am quite wiling to leave that question to the decision of those who agree in thinking that some such man should be chosen.” 59 Relations between President Lincoln and Secretary Chase deteriorated in the first half of 1864 as Chase and his supporters maneuvered to get him the Republican presidential nomination. In January, Chase’s congressional friends organized themselves into a committee to promote his candidacy. Biographer Frederick Blue wrote: “Exactly when Chase was informed of the organization of the campaign group is not known, but in mid-January he wrote that a number of ‘the clearest headed and most judicious men here…have determined to submit my name to the people in connection with the next Presidency.’ Moreover, he ‘consented to their wishes.’ Several of the members had personal grievances against Lincoln in addition to political differences.” 60

Chase encouraged but did not actively participate in the activities of his campaign supporters. They printed and distributed two manuscripts in support of his candidacy. The first on “The Next President Election” denounced the Lincoln Presidency without mentioning Chase. The second document became known as the “Pomeroy Circular” after Chase’s campaign chairman, Kansas Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy. It lambasted President Lincoln and supported Chase by name – stating that he was “a statesman of rareability and an administrator of the highest order.” 61 The documents were printed in northern newspapers and sent through the mails under the congressional frank of Chase’s supporters. Chase biographer Albert Bushnell Hart wrote: “The circular asserted that Chase had ‘more of the qualities needed in a President, during the next four years, than are combined in any other available candidate;’ but it also declared that ‘the cause of human liberty and the dignity of the nation’ suffered from Lincoln’s tendency toward compromise; and that the growth of the patronage of the government demanded a one-term principle.” 62 The Pomeroy Circular went on to charge that reelection of President Lincoln was “practically impossible” and that ‘Hearty cooperation” was necessary to nominate Chase. 63

Lincoln loyalists sent the President copies of the document. One federal Indiana tax collector, De Witt C. Chipman, sent his comments along as well: “This circular has been forwarded to the Collectors in Indiana, but at a meeting of several of them at Indianapolis on the 23 instant when this state Instructed for you, every one of them declared for you. It was understood then and there that Secretary Chase would remove all who did not actively take the field for him and against you. But they did not and could not believe that Chase was a party to this affair. His high character hitherto, and his spotless integrity precluded the suspicion of it. But whether he did or did not the threat of removal hanging over them in terrorum did not make a single one falter I said then and stand by it now, that my official head might be elevated as high as Hamans Galows before I would be driven to the support of any man I knew you 20 odd years ago in Tazewell Co Illinois as a Lawyer, and do not propose to be bamboozled or driven from my preferinces.” 64 Lincoln loyalists in Indiana outmaneuvered Chase’s supporters on February 23 and secured a reelection endorsement for the President.

The Pomeroy Circular proved an embarrassment to Chase, both personally and politically. After its publication, Chase wrote President Lincoln on February 22: “It is probable that you have already seen a letter printed in the Constitutional Union Saturday afternoon, & reprinted in the Intelligencer this morning, written by Senator Pomeroy, as Chairman of a Committee of my political friends.

‘I had no knowledge of the existence of this letter before I saw it in the Union.

‘A few weeks ago several gentlemen called on me & expressed their desire, which, they said, was shared by many earnest friends of our common cause, that I would allow my named to be submitted to the consideration of the people in connexion with the approaching election of Chief Magistrate. I replied that I feared that any such use of my name might impair my usefulness as Head of the Treasury Department & that I much preferred to continue my labors where I am & free from distracting influences, until I could honorably retire from them. We had several interviews. After consultation, and conference with others, they expressed their united judgment that the use of my name as proposed would not affect my usefulness in my present position, and that I ought to consent to it. I accepted their judgment as decisive; but at the same time told them distinctly that I could render them no help, except what Might come incidently from the faithful discharge of public duties, for these must have my whole time. I said also that I desired them to regard themselves as not only entirely at liberty, but as requested to withdraw my name from consideration wherever, in their judgment the public interest would be promoted by so doing.

‘The organization of the Committee, I presume, followed these conversations; but I was not consulted about it; nor have I been consulted as to its action; nor do I even know who compose it. I have never wished that my name should have a moment’s thought in comparison with the common cause of enfranchisement & restoration or be continued before public a moment after the indication of a preference by the friends of that cause for another.

‘I have thought this explanation due to you as well as to myself. If there is anything in my action or position which, in your judgment, will prejudice the public interest under my charge I beg you to say so. I do not wish to administer Treasury Department one day without your entire confidence.

‘For yourself I cherish sincere respect and esteem; and, permit me to add, affection. Differences of opinion as to administrative action have not changed these sentiments; nor have they been changed by assault upon me by persons who profess themselves to spread representations of your views and policy. Your are not responsible for acts not your own; nor will you hold me responsible except for what I do or say myself.

‘Great numbers now desire your reelection. Should their wishes be fulfilled by the suffrages of the people I hope to carry with me, into private life the sentiments I now cherish, whole and unimpaired.’ 65

Mr. Lincoln responded the next day – letting Chase twist for a while in the wind: “Yours of yesterday in relation to the paper issued by Senator Pomeroy was duly received; and I write this note merely to say I will answer a little more fully when I can find the leisure to do so.” 66 Historian Daniel J. Ryan wrote: “Chase now had ample reason to resign; the manly course, after determining to be a candidate against his chief, would have been to leave the Cabinet. On this question, however, he followed the judgment of his sponsors. They knew the value of the Treasury Department in a political campaign; they knew that in its army of spies, special agents and deputies there was already a splendid Chase organization.” 67 Instead, Chase’s candidacy was undone by an unrelenting series of endorsements by Republican state legislators of President Lincoln’s reelection – including one from Chase’s own state of Ohio. Chase biographer Blue wrote: “The president had skillfully used his own patronage to build up his support and retain the backing of most party leaders. The ill-timed, intemperate appeal of the Chase committee thus precipitated a rush of politicians to join the Lincoln bandwagon and urge his renomination.” 68

Six days after his first note to Chase about the Pomeroy Circular, Mr. Lincoln provided a longer response: “I would have taken time to answer yours of the 22nd sooner, only that I did not suppose any evil could result from the delay, especially as, by a note, I promptly acknowledged the receipt of yours, and promised a fuller answer. Now, on consideration, I find there is really very little to say. My knowledge of Mr. Pomeroy’s letter having been made public came to me only the day you wrote; but I had, in spite of myself, known of it’s existence several days before. I have not yet read it, and I think I shall not. I was not shocked, or surprised by the appearance of the letter, because I had had knowledge of Mr. Pomeroy’s Committee, and of secret issues which I supposed came from it, and of secret agents who m I supposed were sent out by it, for several weeks. I have known just as little of these things as my own friends have allowed my to know. They bring the documents to me, but I do not read them — they tell me what they think fit to tell me, but I do not inquire for more. I fully concur with you that neither of us can be justly held responsible for what our respective friends may do without our instigation or countenance; and I assure you, as you have assured me, that no assault has been made upon you by my instigation, or with my countenance.” He added: “Whether you shall remain at the head of the Treasury Department is a question which I will not allow myself to consider from any stand-point other than my judgment of the public service; and, in that view, I do not perceive occasion for a change.” 69

Chase sought to repair his reputation by publishing the Lincoln-Chase exchange over the Pomeroy Circular. President Lincoln sought to dissuade him, writing Chase on March 4, 1864: “In consequence of a call Mr. Villard makes on, me, having a note from you to him, I am induced to say I have no wish for the publication of the correspondence between yourself and me in relation to the Pomeroy Circular–in fact, rather prefer to avoid an unnecessary exhibition yet you are at liberty, without in the least offending me, to allow the publication, if you choose.” 70

Chase had proved an inept candidate. “Lincoln would not needlessly alienate the more liberal [factions] by allowing Chase to resign. Moreover, he considered Chase too effective a Treasury secretary to permit his removal at this time,” wrote Frederick J. Blue. 71 Historian Daniel J. Ryan maintained that Chase “had a restless desire for the presidency; it became an obsession, and destroyed his judgment and even his high sense of honor.” 72 That also was the President’ private opinion of Chase. That fall, he reported said “Mr. Chase is a very able man. He is a very ambitious man, and I think on the subject of the presidency a little insane.” 73 The President himself continued to maintain a dignified public silence. He wrote Secretary Chase on March 4: “In consequence of a call Mr. Villard makes on, me, having a note from you to him, I am induced to say I have no wish for the publication of the correspondence between yourself and me in relation to the Pomeroy Circular – in fact, rather prefer to avoid an unnecessary exhibition – yet you are at liberty, without in the least offending me, to allow the publication, if you choose.” 74

Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard contended: “The letter of Secretary Chase, withdrawing his name from the list of candidates for the Union nomination for President, was not altogether unexpected. It would have come earlier with a better grace, but it has been well done now – with dignity, and without presumption or unnecessary words. The contest is greatly narrowed by this withdrawal, for there are not many men on our side of the House who will have the vanity to urge their personal claims, when Mr. Chase himself has seen and said that he cannot patriotically do so. I can think of a man who will not be so retarded; but I imagine him to be so determined to run, that he will ‘go it alone,’ with little reference to propriety or consequences. How far such a man can run remains to be seen, but his course may take what has politely been called ‘an agricultural turn.'” 75

A February-March resignation was averted, but eventually Chase threatened one too many times to resign. Relations between President Lincoln and Secretary Chase worsened during the spring. On April 27, 1864 Congress Frank Blair, brother of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, attacked Chase in a speech in the House of Representatives – as he had done in February. Historian Daniel J. Ryan wrote: “Lincoln’s attitude was friendly enough towards the Blairs that in April, Chase, thoroughly infuriated, still again threatened to resign and to go to Ohio to rally opinion against Lincoln and the Blairs. He was, however, persuaded by Governor John Brough to withhold his resignation.” 76

Patronage disagreements finally drove Chase out of the Cabinet. Secretary Chase had fought repeatedly with the Seward-Weed faction in New York Republican politics. He politicized the New York customs house enough to annoy Mr. Lincoln and his opponents but not enough to control it effectively. Hiram Barney had been appointed by Chase as collector of the port of New York – despite the opposition of the Seward-Weed group. Even Chase’s own political allies also opposed the nomination. Hart wrote: “An unusual self-abnegation on Chase’s part might have prevented a rupture, but that self-abnegation he did not show, for even after the nomination he felt injured and sore. Another cloud now arose in the New York Custom House. On June 6, the President called on Chase, and pressed for the removal of Hiram Barney, to whom he had previously offered a diplomatic position. This personal conference removed the difficulty for the time being; there is some reason to suppose that Chase again threatened to resign, and that the President again gave way.” 77

About the same time, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury John Cisco, based in New York, resigned. President Lincoln had insisted that Cisco’s replacement be one that New York’s leading Republicans – especially Senator Edwin Morgan – approved. Chase could not agree to any of Morgan’s preferred candidates and Morgan could not agree to Chase’s, Treasury official Maunsell Field. Too late, Cisco was persuaded by Chase to stay on. Chase wrote President Lincoln on June 29: “I have just received your note and have read it with great attention. I was not aware of the extent of the embarrassment to which you refer. In recommendations for office I have sincerely sought to get the best men for the places to be filled without reference to any other classification than supporters and opponents of your administration. Of the latter I have recommended none; among the former I have desired to know no distinction except degrees of fitness.

‘The withdrawal of Mr. Cisco’s resignation, which I enclose, relieves the present difficulty; but I cannot help feeling that my position here is not altogether agreeable to you; and it is certainly too full of embarrassment and difficulty and painful responsibility to allow in me the least desire to retain it.

‘I think it my duty therefore to enclose to you my resignation. I shall regard it as a real relief if you think proper to accept it; and will most cheerfully tender to my successor any aid he may find useful in entering upon his duties.’ 78

When President Lincoln accepted Chase’s resignation the same day, his response demonstrated the practical and benevolent nature of his character: “Of all I have said in commendation of your ability and fidelity I have nothing to unsay, and yet you and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relation which it seems cannot be overcome or longer sustained consistently with public service.'” 79 Hart wrote:” Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Maunsell Field’s remembrance of the President’s account to him of the whole transaction is characteristic and probably not far from correct. ‘The Republican party in your State is divided into two factions, and I can’t afford to quarrel with them. By accident rather than by any design of mine, the radicals have got possession of the most important Federal offices in New York. Had I under these circumstances consented to your appointment, it would have been another radical triumph, and I couldn’t afford one.'” 80 But having made the decision to accept the resignation, President Lincoln was firm. Ohio Governor John Brough volunteered to try to mediate the impasse, but President Lincoln told him: “I know you doctored the matter up once, but on the whole, Brough, I reckon you had better let it alone this time.” 81

President Lincoln told California Senator John Conness that he was not able to “appoint Maunsell. He had only recently at a social gathering of ladies and gentlemen, while intoxicated, kicked his hat up against the ceiling, bringing discredit upon us all and proving his unfitness.” He added that “he had not objection to the candidacy of Mr. Chase – he had right to be a candidate – but there had grown such a state of feeling that it was unpleasant for them to meet each other; and now Mr. Chase had resigned, and he had accepted the resignation.” 82

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “In his misery, Chase searched for reasons why Lincoln had so abruptly accepted his resignation. His answers betray an unwillingness to take the slightest responsibility for his own missteps.” 83 Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote at the time: “Now that Chase is gone out of power, it is astonishing how few there are who ‘ever thought him anything of a financier.’ Let us be generous, if not just; he had much to contend with, and he strove nobly, earnestly, patriotically to do well for his country. He labored early and late, during all fortunes, careless, seemingly, of praise or blame. Admitting that he may have done some things unwisely, that he had some prominent faults as a financier, let us add that he now well deserves respect and affection from everyman who ever really wished him to succeed in caring for the national finances.” 84

President Lincoln moved swiftly to replace Chase, first offering the position to former Ohio Governor David Tod. When Tod declined for reasons of health, President Lincoln nominated Maine Senator William P. Fessenden, who was pressured into accepting the position against his will. After meeting with Fessenden on July 4, Chase wrote in his diary: “Had the President in reply to my note tendering his my resignation expressed himself as he did now to Mr. F–n, I should have cheerfully withdrawn it. Why did he not? I can see but one reason, that I am too earnest, too antislavery, and, say, too radical to make him willing to have me connected with the Admn., just as my opinion that he is not earnest enough; not antislavery enough; not radical enough, but goes naturally with those hostile to me rather than me, – makes me willing and glad to be disconnected from it.” 85 The real reason for the Chase resignation was expressed by Chase in a private conference with Ohio journalist Whitelaw Reid: “He supposed that the root of the matter was a difficulty of temperament. The truth is that I have never been able to make a joke out of this war.’ At first he could not believe that he was actually out of the administration. And when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner suggested that he might be recalled as Necker had been in France a century earlier, he replied that Lincoln was no Louis the Sixteenth.” 86

Out of office and out of presidential contention, Chase was agitated. Chase family biographers Thomas Graham Belden and Marva Robins Belden: “Grimly Chase set himself to the task of being ‘willing and glad’ to be disconnected from the administration. He was particularly irked that he had been allowed to withdraw over an undramatic issue; and in rationalizing his resignation, he soon elevated it to a high moral plane by dropping the patronage question entirely.” They wrote: “There was still another possibility: he could support the President. Lincoln saw the various avenues leading away from the Treasury Department; and, deciding that he would help Chase choose the one which also led away from the White House, he told John Hay, “what Chase ought to do is to help his successor through his installation…go home without making any fight and wait for a good thing hereafter, such as a vacancy on the Supreme bench or some such matter.’ And to make certain that Chase got wind of the bait, Lincoln dropped several broad hints to Chase’s friends that he was being considered for the post of Chief Justice.” According to the family chroniclers, “Chase had been insisting that any reconciliation with Lincoln would have to be initiated by the President; but after weighing the matter over in his mind, he decided that he had better grab on to Lincoln’s coattails or be lost.” 87

After Chase visited the White House in September 1864, he wrote daughter Kate Chase Sprague that the President “evidently intended to be cordial and so were his words: and I hear of nothing but good will from him. But you know he is not at all demonstrative either in Speech or Manner – not at all in these respects what I like. I feel that I do not know him, and I found no action on what he says or does.” 88 Radical Republicans exacted a bit of revenge for Chase’s dismissal by insisting that President Lincoln dismiss Postmaster General Montgomery Blair as well. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles added in a footnote to his diary of September 1864: “At a subsequent period the President informed me that Mr. Chase had many friends who felt wounded that he should have left the Cabinet, and left alone. The Blairs had been his assailants, but they remained and were a part of the Administration. This Mr. Chase. and his friends thought invidious, and the public would consider it a condemnation of himself and approval of the Blairs. If Montgomery Blair left the Cabinet, Chase and his friends would be satisfied, and this he the President thought would reconcile all parties, and rid the Administration of irritating bickerings. He considered both of them his friends, and thought it was well, as Chase had left, that Blair should go also. They were both in
his confidence still, and he had great regard for each of them.” 89

Blair behaved better than Chase that fall, campaigning actively for the President’s reelection, but Blair had fewer friends in Washington. Historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote. “Montgomery’s conduct and that of Chase after ‘decapitation’ bring out into bold contrast the characters of the two men. Chase had retired to New England, cultivating his grievances, and watching the political outlook for any sign that might be turned to his personal account. From June to early September – which comprised the time when Lincoln needed all the assistance he could get from his friends – he kept silence, showing no disposition to assist the cause. Montgomery Blair left the cabinet and immediately took the stump for the Lincolnian ticket. In a letter to his wife, written immediately after penning his resignation, he expresses a natural regret that the ‘President has given himself and me too an unnecessary mortification in this matter; but then I am not the best judge and I am sure he acts from the best motives’ and ‘it is the best all around.'” According to Hendrick, “If he could have followed his own personal inclinations, he would have selected Blair but the idea was utterly impracticable. No man in the administration except Seward had been so unpopular with the Senate as Blair; there was no likelihood of his confirmation.” 90

The opportunity for a fresh understanding arose in October 1864 when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died. Congressman Josiah B. Grinnell called at the White House in the fall of 1864 to urge that Salmon Chase be appointed to the Supreme Court. “Are you sure the seat of a chief justice will not heighten rather than banish political ambition? It ought to banish it; so high and honorable a place should satisfy and engross any American.” Mr. Lincoln added that “I must do the right thing in this critical hour.” 91 President Lincoln had apparently decided to appoint Chase to the Supreme Court, however, even before Chase resigned from his Cabinet in June. “On the very day he resigned, Congressman Samuel Hooper from Massachusetts dropped into his office with arresting news. Lincoln had recent expressed regrets to the Congressman that his relations with Chase were not free from embarrassment. Expressing esteem for him, the President had gone on to say he intended, in case of a vacancy in the Chief Justiceship, to offer it to Chase; for he remembered that no long after he became Secretary of the Treasury he had said he would rather be Chief Justice than another other officer in the government. Hooper said he had the feeling that Lincoln told him about his intentions so that he could repeat them to Chase. Chase could not conceal his distress at this tardy news. Plaintively, he said, “it was quite possible had any such expressions of good will reached me, I might, before the present difficulty arose, have gone to him and had a fresh understanding, which would have prevented it” 92

Historians Harry. J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin noted: “Chase, however, was not the only one who aspired to this high office. In fact there was no dearth of candidates. Mr. Justice Noah H. Swayne was desirous of promotion to the Chief Justiceship and was vigorously urged by Lincoln’s personal friend, Mr. Justice David Davis, and by Postmaster General Dennison. Davis himself was being pushed editorially for the position by James Gordon Bennett in the columns of the New York Herald. Judge William Strong, of Pennsylvania, had hopes. Secretary of War Stanton also had supporters. ‘I think that the President owes it to you,’ Mr. Justice Grier wrote Stanton. Mrs. Stanton enlisted the support of Lincoln’s friend, United States Senator Orville H. Browning, of Illinois, in her husband’s behalf. Browning visited Lincoln, telling him the virtues of Stanton for the cherished Chief Justiceship. ‘He Lincoln, Browning record in his diary, ‘said nothing in reply to what I urged except to admit Stanton’s ability and fine qualifications.’ Lincoln further informed Browning that Attorney General Edward Bates had personally solicited the Chief Justiceship for himself. Weed, representing the conservative faction of the party, strongly commended the legal light of the New York Republican organization, William M. Evarts.'” 93

Chase tried to ingratiate himself with President Lincoln during the fall. He wrote the Chief Magistrate after the October elections: “All right in Indiana and Ohio large gains in Congressmen.” 94 After the November elections, he wrote President Lincoln: The returns just received from New York and San Francisco assure you an almost unanimous vote in the Electoral College. Accept my most cordial congratulations on this most auspicious result.” 95

Mr. Lincoln kept his counsel during this period – particularly when Montgomery Blair’s father, Francis P. Blair, Sr., went to see the President on behalf of the candidacy of Montgomery Blair for the Supreme Court. Mrs. Lincoln had spoken to the elder Blair about the pressure being exerted on President Lincoln by the friends of Salmon P. Chase. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “When Mrs. Lincoln mentioned to Francis P. Blair, Sr., that the pressure of lawyers was giving Chase the advantage, the old politician hurried to the White House to lobby for his son. Montgomery himself tried to enlist Senator E. D. Morgan. ‘There is one consideration which I hope you will bring to the President’s attention to prevent Chase’s appointment,’ he wrote. ‘He is known to be so vindictive towards me for supporting the President that no one would employ me as counsel to the Court if he were Chief Justice. Now the President cannot consent not only to turn me out of his Cabinet, but to drive me from the bar for life, because I supported him for the Presidency.'” Nevins noted: “Montgomery Blair’s wire-pulling was neither honest nor dignified.” 96 Father Blair subsequently related his tactics and meeting:

On ‘this hint I spoke,’ went up to the office and told the President that if he would make one of his Ex-Cabinet men a Judge, I thought Montgomery was his man, that he had been tried as a Judge and not found wanting, that his practice in the West had made him conversant with our land law, Spanish law, as well as the common and civil law in which his university studies had grounded him, that his practice in the Supreme Court brought him into the circle of commercial and constitutional questions. That, besides on political issues he sustained him the President in every thing, on the proclamation he had been quoted even by Sumner as authority to prove that it put the emancipation of the Slaves beyond the reach of Judicial or legislative power, State or national. This was the vital question for the races and the Government. Then when Chase and every other member of Cabinet declined to make war for Fort Sumter, Montgomery stood by him declaring it betrayal to surrender it without defence; and held his resignation in his pocket to hand him, if overruled. Chase was ready to let the Union go, give half the continent to Slavery, resign a wronged race to eternal bondage, and sacrifice our whole cause to rebellion to promote his ambition to rule in the North.”

Lincoln told me he must soon act in the matter but would not, in advance, commit himself. Adverting to his wishes in the matter, he said those of others must be consulted. His idea was forcibly expressed in another good thing. “Although I may be stronger as an authority yet if all the rest oppose, I must give way. Old Hickory who had as much iron in his neck as any body, did so some times. If the strongest horse in the team would go ahead, he cannot, if all the rest hold back.” I replied to these delphic hints, ‘I dislike, Mr. President, to trouble you with the importunities of friends to show that they would give me their support. It might not be satisfactory to you either.” He said “I would not consider the trouble. It would be satisfactory if I were not called on to direct the course you propose.” From the tenor and manner of his remarks I infer that he is well disposed to appoint Montgomery.” 97

“Chase’s warmest friend and most effective supporter was Sumner, who thought that months earlier he had secured a promise for his friend from Lincoln, and he did not cease to press his candidate,” wrote Chase biographer Albert Bushnell Hart. “On the other side there was a strong objection to Chase from leading Republicans the country over; delegations appeared form Ohio, and protests were filed. Lincoln had no longer any personal rivalry to fear, but those who were nearest to him were at the time convinced that he hesitated because he feared that Chase would make the bench a stepping stone to the White house; when Ohio Congressman Albert G. Riddle, at Chase’s urgent request, waited on Lincoln to urge his claims, the President asked him whether Chase would be satisfied to remain chief justice. His own recent differences with his imperious secretary, and even the reports of Chase’s exasperation comments, made so little impression on Lincoln that on December 6 Chase was nominated for the chief justiceship and forthwith confirmed by the Senate without reference to committee. He accepted the appointment in a very warm note, assuring Lincoln that he prized his confidence and good-will more than any nomination to office.” 98 President Lincoln still harbored doubts about Chase. “Mr. Chase will make a very excellent judge if he devotes himself exclusively to the duties of his office don’t meddle with politics,” President Lincoln told a Senator on the day that Chase was confirmed. “But if he keeps on with the notion that he is destined to be President of the United States, and which in my judgment he will never be, he will never acquire that fame and usefulness as a Chief Justice which he would otherwise certain attain.” 99

There was an expectation that on the bench, Chase would act to uphold controversial war measures taken by the Lincoln Administration – especially measures which he himself had advocated. In a conversation with Congressman Riddle, President Lincoln had asked if Riddle would “have me pack the Supreme Court, Mr. Riddle?” Riddle replied, “Would you appoint a man with no preconceived notions of the law?” 100 President Lincoln intended the Chase appointment to reassure the nation and the world about American economic and monetary policies. Journalist Noah Brooks reported: “A few days after the appointment of Chief Justice Chase the President was visited by the members of the Electoral College of Maryland, who, in the course of the interview, expressed their satisfaction with the act of the President in elevating Mr. Chase to the Supreme Bench. In reply the President said that he trusted the appointment would be for the best. The country, he added, needed some assurances on two points of great national importance; and there was an assurance that could be better given by the character and well-known opinions of the appointee than by any verbal pledges. By the appointment of Mr. Chase all holders of United States securities in America and Europe felt assured that the financial policy of the Government would be upheld by its highest judicial tribunal. In sustaining that policy, Judge Chase would be only sustaining himself, for he was the author of it. The other point to which Lincoln referred was that relating to the constitutionality of the emancipation policy of the Government. He said that other distinguished gentlemen had been named as competent to undertake the great trust now borne by Judge Chase; but these did not bear the same relations to those important issues that Chase did, although they were doubtless equally sound. When we reflect that the financial policy of the Government, so far as it was involved in the legal-tender law, was subsequently disapproved by the distinguished author of it, we may well wonder what Lincoln would have thought if he had lived to read the Chief Justice’s decision thereupon.” 101

Brooks reported that the President responded to the “gratification” of a visiting delegation by saying “that he trusted that the appointment was for the best. The country, he said, needed some assurances in regard to two great questions, and they were assurances that could better be given by the character and well known opinion so the appointee than by any verbal pledges. In the appointment of Chase, all holders of Government securities in America and Europe felt assured that the financial policy of the Government would be sustained by its highest judicial tribunal. In sustaining that policy, Judge Chase would only be sustaining himself for he was the author of it. His appointment also met the public desire and expectations as regarded the emancipation policy of the Government. His views were well known upon both of these great questions, and while there were other distinguished gentlemen whose names had been suggested for this great trust, whose views he believed were sound upon these important issues, yet they did not hold the same relations to them as did Chase.” 102

Ironically, Chase found his new judicial job boring, Ohio Senator John Sherman later observed: “From my long and intimate acquaintance with Chief Justice Chase I am quite sure that the duties of the great office he then held were not agreeable to him. His life had been a political one, and this gave him opportunity to fro travel and direct communion with the people. The seclusion and severe labor imposed upon the Supreme Court were contrary to his habits and injurious to his health.” 103 As chief justice, Chase supported the extension of suffrage but opposed military rule in the South and even voted to strike down the country’s income tax.

As Chief Justice, Chase proved unable to refrain from meddling in politics just as President Lincoln had feared. Chase had not lost the presidential bug, but his ambitions were never realized despite an attempt to switch parties in order to achieve them. Historian Herman Belz wrote that “Chase was deficient in the virtue of prudence that guides the application of principle in the actions of the statesman.” 104 Convinced of his own moral superiority, Chase was occasionally blind to the ways that ambition warped his principles and his judgment.


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  4. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 89.
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  6. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War, p. 87.
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  11. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois ( Letter from Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, January 28, 1861)
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  14. John Waugh, Reelecting Lincoln, p. 38.
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  96. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, p. 118.
  97. Charles M. Segal, Conversations with Lincoln (Letter from Francis P. Blair, Sr., to John A. Andrew, November 19, 1864), pp. 360-361.
  98. Albert Bushnell Hart, Salmon P. Chase, p. 321.
  99. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays (Conversation with Lafayette Foster, October 23, 1878), p. 53.
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  103. John Sherman, Recollections of Forty Years, Volume I, p. 345.
  104. Herman Belz, “Review Essay: Salmon P. Chase and the Politics of Racial Reform”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1996, p. 31.