Kate Was Too Ambitious


As the wedding came on, Chase for the first time in his life appeared vaguely troubled by that fervent, possessive attachment of his daughter’s that he had indulged for so many years. “It is said that there are fathers who wish to retain the love and duty of daughters even in larger measure [than] that [which] they shall give to their husbands,” he told Sprague. “If there are I am sure I cannot be one of them. I want to have Katie honor and love you with an honor and love far exceeding any due to me and I shall feel happiest when she makes your happiness most complete.” But in his secret heart he must have known that their relationship had taken deep and hidden roots that could not easily be dislodged.

Kate’s wedding was the most spectacular affair held in Washington during Lincoln’s administration. Sixth and E streets outside the Chase mansion were blocked with spectators watching the arrival of the guestsgenerals, members of the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, and finally the President himself, tired and unescorted, haunted as always by thoughts of the battlefield. Prolonged mourning over the death of her son Willie kept Mrs. Lincoln from attending Kate’s triumph, or so it was said. John Hay was there, however, and afterward he wrote in his diary, “Kate looked tired out and languid especially at the end of the evening when I went into the bridal chamber to say good night. She had lost all her old severity and formal stiffness of manner, 8c seemed to think she had arrived.”

The wedding trip of the fortunate young couple was not a success. They left New York City hastily after their hotel caught fire twice during one night, and their arrival in Providence was marred by Kate’s displeasure over the gaudy welcome her mother-in-law had arranged. The flags and emblems, multicolored lights, and banners decorating the Sprague home reminded one member of the wedding party of “preparations for a horse fair.” Kate was horrified by the display of bad taste, and had the decorations removed.

The Spragues cut short their honeymoon and hurried back to Washington. It was a happy homecoming for Kate. The Republican nominating convention was but a few short months away, and the fight that was taking shape suited her exactly. Unlike Chase she was impatient with the issues being debated. What electrified her was the atmosphere—the open, unrelenting warfare between Lincoln’s friends and her father’s camp—and the prize, the presidency. Now, with William Sprague’s money at her disposal, she had no doubts about the outcome.

As Kate and her father began the final phase of their four-year campaign, John Hay warned the President that his secretary of the treasury was making trouble. But Lincoln only laughed off Chase’s “mad hunt after the presidency.” He acknowledged that Chase, “like the bluebottle fly, [will] lay his eggs in every rotten spot he can find.” But, he added dryly, “I have decided to shut my eyes, as far as possible, to everything of the sort. Mr. Chase makes a good Secretary and I shall keep him where he is. If he becomes President, all right, I hope we may never have a worse man. …” With that he folded his long bony fingers over his knee, leaned back in his chair, and smiled. But he kept an eye on Kate and her father, watched them give their parties and dinners, saw delegations come and go, observed the political machinations of the huge Treasury machine.

Until “the pear was ripe,” as one congressman put it, Lincoln had to be patient, making certain that when the final break came, Chase would not take with him a majority of the party and the presidential nomination as well. But a break there would be. According to one Cabinet member, Chase was “the only human being that I believe Lincoln actually hated.”

Mrs. Lincoln, who did not have to consider the trying problem of balancing the Cabinet between moderates and radicals, was not as tolerant of the Chases as her husband seemed to be; and, resolved that she, for one, was not going to assist their entrance into the White House under any circumstances, she omitted their names from the list when planning an official dinner. Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, noticed the omissions and called them to the attention of the President, who ordered the names restored to the list at once. “Whereat there arose such a rampage as the house hasn’t seen in a year,” Nicolay recalled. Mrs. Lincoln eventually relented and apologized for her outburst, but her anger with Kate and her father did not cool. Chase was her husband’s biggest rival, and Kate was her own.

By that winter the mutual dislike of the two women was no state secret. Their differences were more social than political. Kate had made no effort to conceal her contempt for the First Lady and, refusing to recognize her position as head of official society, had tried to usurp that place for herself. Jealously Mrs. Lincoln had watched the young girl set up rival court in the capital, had seen herself put in the shade as Kate’s admirers multiplied and her power grew. The Chases’ Wednesday receptions were always crowded, and Kate became famous for her intimate dinners, flavored always with the confidences of the shrewd and powerful.