Kate Was Too Ambitious


Chase’s position as head of the Treasury Department insured him of a voice in the inner councils of state, a vantage point he was using to rival Lincoln as leader of the Republican party. As the war dragged on without conclusion, more and more people joined his friends, the radicals, in criticizing the President’s moderate policies. The radicals looked to Chase as their spokesman, and he nourished their regard with the sweet waters of patronage. In 1865 he and Kate meant to enter the White House, to gain what they felt should have been theirs in 1861.

All that the grand design lacked was money. Ambition was costly, as Kate and her father knew, and Chase had little money and no way of getting any that would not prove embarrassing politically. William Sprague appeared to be a nearly perfect solution.

It seemed clear enough why Sprague should want to marry Kate. Money had bought him power, but it was respect he wanted. For a time it had appeared that war was to bring it to him, but his spectacular career as Rhode Island’s fighting boy governor soon came to an end. The North cheered when he rushed his troops to the defense of the capital during the first dark days of the war and praised his bravery in the front ranks at the First Battle of Bull Run, but politicians more powerful than he became major generals. Refusing anything less, Sprague gave up his efforts to be a hero and, taking off his ornamental uniform and yellow-plumed hat, returned to politics and business. For consolation he had a seat in the Senate—and the attentions of Kate Chase. She had won the capital, and to Sprague’s surprise he found that he had won her. He did not appear to wonder why.

Sprague was ten years older than Kate and had traveled widely in Europe before beginning his political career, but he did not feel superior to the young girl, fresh from finishing school and a season as hostess of Ohio’s governor. Kate possessed an almost mystical self-assurance, which neither money nor liquor nor travel nor politics had brought William Sprague.

Like Kate he had his secret reasons for wanting the marriage and, as in the case of Kate, Chase was the central figure in his plans. Sprague hoped that the Secretary of the Treasury, soon to become his fatherin-law, would save him from being exposed as a traitor.

Cotton held the Sprague textile empire togethercotton that Sprague had always bought in the Southland when Congress passed its edict allowing southern ports to be closed, he found himself faced with financial ruin. Knowing that the North needed cotton, Lincoln and his Cabinet tried to hammer out a way to regulate trade, but the result of much argument was only a vague policy allowing cotton to be brought out of the South if trading were done with loyal Union men and no aid or comfort were given to the enemy—a policy for which Salmon P. Chase, as head of the customhouses, was responsible lor administering.

In the fall of 1862, when he was courting the Secretary’s daughter, Sprague fell in with a devious Texan named Harris Hoyt, who persuaded him to use his influence on behalf of certain mysterious southerners wanting to bring cotton north. Sprague represented Hoyt’s proposition to Chase as an effort to aid the loyal Union men of Texas and asked for a permit for him to pass the naval blockade without inspection. Despite the fact that the Treasury Secretary wisely refused that curious request, Sprague and a few friends went ahead with their plans to finance Hoyt’s trading mission, confident that the Senator could eventually persuade Chase to come around.

When their first ship sailed south in December, 1862, its hold bulged with arms, ammunition, and other contraband of war to be exchanged with the Confederates for Texas cotton. From the outset Sprague had been under no illusions about the real nature of Hoyt’s plan, but he had been willing to go along with it anyway. The risk was death for treason; the stakes, immense wealth and power.

For a time everything went well. Sprague’s men operated through Matamoros, Mexico, on the Rio Grande, and what cotton they did not bring to that port by an overland route they managed to slip through the blockade without detection. But Sprague was anxious to give the dangerous Texas adventure a protective cloak of legality; and after the engagement was official, he pressed his request for a trade permit on Chase, arguing that “the cotton is of more value to us than money to the enemy.” Eventually, according to Sprague’s partners, the Senator and Kate quarreled about his insistence in the matter, but Chase could not be persuaded to change his mind.

Preoccupied with politics and the romance in his household, Chase ignored pleas to investigate the brisk sea trade between Matamoros and northern ports. Neither he nor Kate knew of Sprague’s involvement, but surprisingly neither showed any doubts about him in spite of what they did know of his other question- able activities in business and politics and of disturbing rumors about his interest in wine and women in the past.

It was singular that Chase, a man noted for religious profession, should be easily won to his future son-inlaw. Perhaps the reason was that the closer he came to ultimate success, the less clear were the moral distinctions he had once been so fond of observing. A man obsessed with his own fortunes, he had developed over the years a blindness to the character of others. Now there were only the useful and the discarded; and when Chase found a man useful he refused to believe ill of him.