Kate Was Too Ambitious


It was May of 1863, and the shadows of war darkened Washington and spread across the land. Hut it was spring, and as the dogwood burst into (lower, the capital turned its attention lor a moment from Chancellorsville and Vicksburg to discuss a romance. Finally, after a tempestuous courtship of two years, the fascinating Kate Chase and Senator William Sprague III were engaged. They were to be married in the fall, “if they both live anil don’t change their minds,” her lather said. Even the crusty old secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, preoccupied as he was with the blockade of the South, could not resist comment. “She is beautiful or, more properly perhaps, interesting and impressive. …” he observed. “Few young men have such advantages as he, and Miss Kate has talents and ambition sufficient lor both.” Washington had been talking about the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase long before her engagement to the multimillionaire Senator from Rhode Island—had been talking, in fact, from the day in 1861 when she and her lather arrived in the capital from Ohio. It was immediately clear that Kate Chase was not awed by her new eminence. Coolly, with superb grace, she had taken her place as her widowed lather’s hostess, at twenty the woman ranking fourth in official society.

Perhaps it was an awareness of her beauty that gave Kate that regal poise remarkable lor one so young. She was tall, slender, and graceful, and she had a way of standing with her head tilted slightly upward, a faint, almost disdainful smile upon her face, as if she were a tilled lady posing in a loi mal garden for Gainsborough. Her copper-colored hair, drawn back severely lroin her face and wound in a Grecian knot at her neck, was a dramatic foil for her eyes—large, dark, in(juiring eyes with long black lashes and crescent eyebrows. But despite her Renaissance coloring, there was something cold and unapproachable about her, a diamond brilliance that was at its heart like the icy grandeur of her father.

Washington soon discovered that Kate had a charm more rare than her cameo beauty. People were frankly amazed at her conversation, intelligent and discriminating, enlivened by a trenchant wit. It was obvious that she had a keen mind, quick and forceful, with a masculine regard for hard logic. But being wise, she knew how to intrigue the most preoccupied politician with the beguiling small talk of society.

Not everyone liked her. To the right people she was always charming, but for the most part women found her arrogant and indifferent: men thought her fascinating but elusive. She had eyes for only one person—her lather.

From her earliest childhood it was he who had dominated her consciousness, it was he who bent low to kiss her gently at night and he who began each morning with a sober reading of the Scriptures. Her mother, like Chase’s first wife, had died soon after their marriage, and lor a time afterward her lather had been entirely hers. When Chase married a third time, and had another daughter, Nettie, Kate had grown jealous and rebellious and had to be sent away to school to keep the family peace. When that wife, too, died, Kate resolved that no one but she would take her place, and thereafter she determinedly supervised her father’s friendships, intercepted his mail, even drove one friend from their home with her rudeness. “But for … the feelings of Katie … who knows what I might not have been tempted to the consenting,” her father once said.

Chase was a solitary man, austerely reserved with his fellow men, but with Kate, as with no other human being, he was at ease. And it was clear that to Kate her father was more than a father. He was her god and her religion, and she devoted herself to him with all the passionate intensity of her nature.

“I shall strive to be first, wherever I may be,” Chase said, and Kate lived only to serve that ambition. Together she and her father watched the national political scene, and together they assayed Chase’s position. In time her father grew dependent on Kate’s judgment, discovering that she knew the arts of politics by instinct.

People marveled at what a handsome and devoted pair they were, and when Kate’s engagement was announced, they were amazed that she had chosen someone so different from Chase. Her father had the handsome Olympian form of a statesman; William Sprague was a slight, nearsighted young man with a drooping mustache. Chase was afire with disciplined energy; Sprague was usually listless, his apathy broken only occasionally by surprising bursts of activity, sporadic and unpredictable. Chase had made his political career a crusade against slavery, and with marble dignity he moved through life sternly recording events in his moral ledger; for Sprague life was no contest of great issues. Like Chase he had once been governor of his state, but he had bought his place; and his 25 million dollars alone explained his arrival in the Senate.

Here was a strange paradox: the much-admired, much-envied, and beautiful belle of Washington, “the prettiest Kate in Christendom,” turning from Chase to the unprepossessing William Sprague. But cynics said it was very simple: Kate meant to use him and his great wealth to make her father President.