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President Lincoln and his Cabinet

Montgomery Blair

Simon Cameron

William H Seward

Edwin McMasters Stanton

The Members of President Lincoln's Cabinet

The President and his Cabinet, with Lt. Gen. Scott in the Council Chamber at the White House

The Cabinet

Massachusetts Congressman George Ashmun wrote a friend that "Mrs. L. keeps me thoroughly informed of everything, & you may rely upon the existence of the ripest state of inflammation between Mr. L. and Mr. C." Mary Todd Lincoln may not have the most reliable or impartial observer of Cabinet affairs, but she was right that there was frequently a state of inflamation between Mr. Lincoln and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. After a conversation with the President, Ashmun wrote that Mr. Lincoln "thinks that Mr. C. will sufficiently soon force the question, in the mean time, I think he is wise in waiting till the pear is ripe."1

Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet was not composed of friends - at least not initially. It was composed of major Republican figures with whom Mr. Lincoln's personal acquaintance was very limited. The lone friend who had been proposed, Illinois's Norman B. Judd, had been rejected - in part simply because he came from Illinois. Just to select the Cabinet, Mr. Lincoln came close to ruining relationships with future Treasury Secretary Simon Cameron and Secretary of State William H. Seward. With time, Mr. Lincoln repaired and improved most of these relationships.

But if there was one member of President Lincoln's Cabinet with whom he was not particularly friendly, it was Salmon Chase. The Treasury Secretary didn't like being ignored or being overlooked. He complained to Ohio journalist Murat Halstead: "I am not responsible for the management of the war, and have no voice in it, except that I am not forbidden to make suggestions, and do so now and then, when I cannot help it.'"2 Chase complained to New York journalist Horace Greeley: "It seems to me that in this government the President and his cabinet ought to be well advised of all matters vital to the military and civil administration; but each one of us, to use a presidential expression, turns his own machine, with almost no comparison of views or consultation of any kind. It seems to me all wrong and I have tried very hard to have it otherwise - unavailingly."3

Chase complained frequently to others - journalists, generals, politicians, friends. Chase thought he would be a better President than was President Lincoln - and thus Chase had real difficulty overcoming his ambition and jealousy to become Mr. Lincoln's friend. While Seward overcame his own vanity and sense of superiority over time, Chase's vanity and sense of superiority seem to grow. Both men had tried vigorously during the presidential transition in early 1861 to keep the other out of the Cabinet. Both threatened not to enter it.


"Chase never entirely forgave Lincoln the latter's victory at the [1860] Chicago Convention. That a man so markedly his inferior in education and public achievements should have been preferred to him was as grievous to the Ohio statesman's self-love as it was irritating to his sense of equity," wrote Lincoln biographer Alonzo Rothschild. "That this man, moreover when he came to the presidency, should persist in actually running the administration, while his brilliant Secretary of the Treasury - so willing at every turn to relieve him of the burden - remained a mere head of department, hardly allayed the minister's resentment."<4

Mr. Lincoln did not hold Chase's presidential ambitions against him. Illinois Republican Shelby M. Cullom wrote: "I was in Washington when the secret letter written by Senator [Samuel C.] Pomeroy, urging politicians to support the Chase candidacy, came out, and I was among those who urged that Chase be turned out of the Cabinet, and I so expressed myself to the President. He replied: 'Let him alone; he can do no more harm where he is than on the outside.'"5 When Chase offered to resign in the wake of the Pomeroy circular, President Lincoln wrote back: "I have known just as little of these things as my friends have allowed me to know. They bring the documents to me, but I do not read them; they tell me what they think 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."6

Chase had the disturbing habit of mishandling patronage problems and creating political problems for the president. Chase defended a friend, Victor Smith, whom he had appointed Collector of Customs in Washington The problems created by Smith were so serious that President Lincoln replaced him - and Chase wrote out his resignation.

When Chase submitted his resignation again in June 1864, Mr. Lincoln replied: "Your resignation of the office of Secretary of the Treasury, sent me yesterday, is accepted. 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 can not be overcome, or longer sustained, consistently with public service.'7

Mr. Lincoln told Treasury Department official Lucius Chittenden: "It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to fall into a bad habit. Chase has fallen into two bad habits. One is that to which I have often referred. He thinks he has become indispensable to the country; that his intimate friends know it, and he cannot comprehend why the country does not understand it. He also thinks he ought to be President; he has no doubt whatever about that. It is inconceivable to him why people have not found out; why they don't, as one man, rise up and say so. He is, as you say, an able financier; as you think without saying so, he is a great statesman, and at the bottom, a patriot. Ordinarily he discharges a public trust, the duties of a public office, with great ability - with greater ability than any man I know. Mind, I say ordinarily, for these bad habits seem to have spoilt him. They have made him irritable, uncomfortable, so that he is never perfectly happy unless he is thoroughly miserable, and able to make everybody else just as uncomfortable as he is himself."8

President Lincoln did not hold this behavior against Chase - though he well might have. Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley observed that after Chase left the Cabinet, "he visited some of his old friends in New England - among others, myself. He was exceedingly bitter and denunciatory of Mr. Lincoln, and so open in his opposition that some of his friends rebuked him. They warned him that it would injure his chance for the Chief Justiceship."9 Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: "Even to comparative strangers he could not write without speaking slightingly of the President."10 When Alley and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner later tried to lobby President Lincoln for Chase's appointment, they were distressed to learn how much Mr. Lincoln had heard of Chase's behavior. Hay and Nicolay noted: "Mr. Chase's eyes seemed pretty constantly fixed upon the bench in the intervals of his Presidential aspirations. For a few days after his resignation his feelings against the President were of such bitterness that he appears to have given up that prospect."11

Journalist Noah Brooks recalled visiting President Lincoln after Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had died: "The President, who was in a happy frame of mind, jocularly asked, 'What are people talking about now?' His caller replied that they were discussing the probability of Chase's being appointed Chief-Justice. The smile on the President's face faded, and he said with gravity and sadness: 'My friends all over the country are trying to put up the bars between me and Governor Chase. I have a vast number of messages and letters, from men who think they are my friends, imploring and warning me not to appoint him.' He paused for a moment, and then, pointing to a pile of telegrams and letters on the table, said: 'Now, I know meaner things about Governor Chase than any of those men can tell me; but I am going to nominate him.' Three days after that the appointment was made."12


Mr. Lincoln's handling of his relationship with Chase said a great deal about Mr. Lincoln's notions of relationships in general and friendships in particular. Although he valued friendship, he did not place friendship above the needs of the "public service." What Chase said and what he did were two different sets of facts which needed to be evaluated separately. He did not blindly nominate Chase without evaluating alternatives, nor did he blindly reject him. And he did not place others who were more congenial personally or politically ahead of Chase. Several months before President Lincoln appointed Chase to the Supreme Court, he told aide John Hay that "what Chase ought to do is to help his successor through his installation as he professed himself willing to do in his letter to me: 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."13

Congressman Alley visited the President at the White House one morning in December 1864. "As I entered he made to me this declaration: 'I have something to tell you that will make you happy. I have just sent Mr. Chase word that he is to be appointed Chief-Justice, and you are the first man I have told of it." After Alley expressed surprise at the President's magnanimity, the President replied: "Although I may have appeared to you and to Mr. Sumner to have been opposed to Chase's appointment, there never has been a moment since the breath left old Taney's body that I did not conceive it to be the best thing to do to appoint Mr. Chase to that high office; and to have done otherwise I should have been recreant to my convictions of duty to the Republican party and to the country."14

Newly elected Congressman Shelby Cullom was again at the White House when Chase received the Supreme Court nomination. "I happened to be alone in Mr. Nicolay's room in the White House when Mr. Chase called to thank the President for his nomination. He came into Mr. Nicolay's room first, and inquired of me if the President was in. I told him I did not know, but his room was next to the one we were in, and he might ascertain for himself. Knowing of Chase's disparaging remarks concerning Mr. Lincoln, and of his disloyalty as member of his cabinet, I was very curious to hear what he would have to say to the President. He left the door ajar, and I overheard the conversation. Mr. Chase proceeded to thank the President for his nomination. Mr. Lincoln's reply was brief, merely that he hoped Mr. Chase would get along well and would do his duty. Very few words passed between them, and the interview closed."15


Mr. Lincoln attempted to make use of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the members of his cabinet. He knew, for example, that Salmon P. Chase had an incurable lust for the presidency. He knew that motivated Chase. But what motivated his Cabinet members was less important than what they did. President Lincoln placed particular importance on the missions of Chase and War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton - but he spent much more time with Stanton on the war effort. As Stanton biographer Fletcher Pratt observed, after President Lincoln announced "that he was 'going to see old Mars quell disturbances,' he would stroll over to the War Office to stand silently, watching the human drama flow past."16

The Lincoln Cabinet was full of strong personalities - who frequently were barely on speaking terms with each other. The first feud was in April 1861 between Gideon Welles and William H. Seward over preparations to resupply Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pickens in Florida. Seward himself staged a one-man, one-day mutiny with an April 1 memo suggesting that he take over key presidential functions. Montgomery Blair feuded with Edwin M. Stanton and Salmon P. Chase - and anyone else he thought a Radical or incompetent. Stanton once led a revolt against the President when he was considering the reappointment of George B. McClellan as head of the Army of the Potomac at the beginning of September 1862. It was a difficult crew in a difficult period of American history.

Mr. Lincoln respected the stuffy Gideon Welles, his Secretary of the Navy, but called him "Neptune" behind his back. The President was more likely to socialize with Welles' deputy, Gustavus V. Fox, who had married into the Blair family. Mr. Lincoln was friendly with the entire Blair clan; it would have been dangerous not to since the Blairs had been Washington fixtures since the administration of Andrew Jackson and maintained their Washington residence across Lafayette Park from the White House. The Blairs were social creatures as well as savvy fighters.

Like Welles, Attorney General Edward Bates was a stuffy creature whose diary did not reveal a social relationship with the President. His department was the smallest in government and although he was called on for legal opinions, but his opinion seemed lightly valued. James Speed, Bates' successor, came from a family that Mr. Lincoln had known for nearly three decades and promised to have more influenced. He, however, had been in office for only four months when Mr. Lincoln was assassinated.

A similar situation occurred in the Interior Department. Caleb Smith was the first Secretary, lasting less than two years. His nomination had not been highly acclaimed and his departure was not highly mourned. His assistant, John Palmer Usher, took his place as Indiana's representative in the Cabinet and although he appeared to have had more interaction with the President, he was not highly lamented when it was announced he would leave the government by the end of April 1865. His replacement, James Harlan, would have had more influence. He was a Senator, a Methodist, and the father of the young woman whom Robert Todd Lincoln was courting and would eventually marry. But Harlan's term began after President Lincoln's assassination.

The Treasury Department was a revolving door after Chase left. Maine Senator William P. Fessenden lasted just eight months before returning to the job he loved in the Capitol. Mr. Lincoln sought to recruit a New Yorker before using the Treasury slot for Indiana and appointing Treasury official Hugh McCulloch to the Secretary's post in March 1865. Again, their terms overlapped by only five weeks. Had Mr. Lincoln not been assassinated, the relationship with this new group of Cabinet members might have differed from the first group of Cabinet appointments - most of whom were prominent political leaders in their own right and several of whom thought they were more prominent than the President. But these were changes which Mr. Lincoln himself made; he was careful to deny to anyone else the right to push a man out of his Cabinet.

Only four long-term Cabinet members could really have been termed "friends." One, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, deepened his friendship only in the last two years of the Presidency - long after he had resigned from his post. Another, Montgomery Blair, spent much of his time as the whipping boy for Radical Republicans who wanted him ousted and giving them ample reasons to whip him. A third, William H. Seward, came to be Mr. Lincoln's favorite social companion in the Cabinet but a political outcast among many Radicals. And the fourth, Edwin M. Stanton, was hated by virtually everyone because of his talent for saying "no" in the most obnoxious possible way.

Stanton had personality quirks which interfered with his relationship with Mr. Lincoln. Like Stanton, Salmon Chase disliked the humor that Mr. Lincoln so appreciated. But unlike Stanton, Chase did not appreciate the qualities of Mr. Lincoln's leadership and compassion. Many politicians tried to drive a wedge between President Lincoln and his Secretary of War. If they sought leniency, they went to the White House. If they sought discipline, they went to the War Department. Sometimes, the President would use the difference in their roles to his advantage. Sometimes, he joked about their relationship. Sometimes, he did an end run around Stanton. Sometimes, he overruled the Secretary of War. But he never would simply overrun Stanton. For Edwin M. Stanton, President Lincoln had respect.

"It has often been asserted that Secretary Stanton ruled Mr. Lincoln," wrote Congressman George W. Julian. "This is a mistake. The Secretary would frequently overawe and sometimes browbeat others, but he was never imperious in dealing with the President. This I have from Mr. [Peter] Watson, for some time Assistant Secretary of War, and Mr. [William] Whiting, while Solicitor of the War Department. Lincoln, however, had the highest opinion of Stanton, and their relations were always most kindly."17


In May 1862, the President ordered Stanton to promote Lt. Colonel George Montagu Hicks to colonel. Stanton refused, according to Hicks raising "the inference that the highest power in this country is not vested in its President." Over two weeks later, President Lincoln wrote an endorsement on a complaining letter from Hicks: "This note, as Col. Hicks did verbally yesterday, attempts to excite me against the secretary of war and therein is offensive to me."18

President Lincoln respected Stanton's position and his personality: "As to Stanton - you know that it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks," he wrote to James R. Gilmore in May 1863. "He is terribly in earnest; and he does not always use the [most]conciliatory language. He very sensibly feels the need we have of victories, and he would take almost any means to get them. And the fact is, unless we have them soon the war the war is likely to be prolonged indefinitely."19

Mr. Lincoln didn't seek change Stanton so much as to work with his personality. Stanton held information very closely - sometimes even withholding telegrams from the President. But not for long according to telegraph office operator David Homer Bates: "Lincoln's keen eyes soon discovered that there was undue reticence in our attitude toward him, and without criticizing our course, he would ask us occasionally, with twinkling eyes, whether the Secretary of War did not have some later news, or if there were not 'something under the blotter.' Of course we could not deceive him and he would then go to the adjoining room and ask Stanton if he had anything from the front. Sometimes he addressed Stanton as 'Mars,' but while the stern Secretary gave no indication of displeasure at this playful allusion to his official character, he did not, on the other hand, allow a smile to brighten his face."20

President Lincoln also appreciated Secretary Stanton's solicitude for his security - even if he chafed under it. On July 4, 1864, Mr. Lincoln wrote to Stanton: "I believe I need no escort, and unless the Sec. of War directs, none need attend me."21 On April 3, 1865, Secretary Stanton wrote the President Lincoln in Richmond : "Allow me respectfully to ask you to consider whether you ought to expose the nation to the consequences of any disaster to yourself in the pursuit of a treacherous and dangerous enemy like the rebel army. If it was a question concerning yourself only, I should not presume to say a word. Commanding Generals are in the line of their duty in running such risks. But is the political head of a nation in the same condition[?]"22

 

Footnotes

  1. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 413.
  2. Robert B. Warden, An Account of the Private Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase, p. 549 (Letter to Murat Halstead).
  3. Horace Bushnell Hart, Salmon Portland Chase, p. 293.
  4. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 182.
  5. Shelby M. Cullom, “Lincoln and His Relations with Congress,” in Nathan William MacChesney, editor, Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of a Century, 1808-1909, p. 503..
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 213 (Letter to Salmon P. Chase, February 29, 1864).
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 419 (Letter to Salmon P. Chase, June 30, 1864).
  8. Lucius Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, p. 378-379.
  9. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 580 (John B. Alley).
  10. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 389.
  11. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 388.
  12. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 436.
  13. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 217 (July 1, 1864).
  14. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 581-582 (John B. Alley).
  15. Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service, p. 95.
  16. Fletcher Pratt, Stanton: Lincoln’s Secretary of War, p. 143.
  17. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 56 (George W. Julian).
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 206, 229 (Letter to Edwin M. Stanton, May 5, 1862, and Memorandum: Appointment of George Montagu Hicks, May 22, 1862).
  19. James R. Gilmore, Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, p. 155.
  20. David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 400.
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Second Supplement, p. 98.
  22. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 384-385 (Letter from Edwin M. Stanton, April 3, 1865).