Kate Was Too Ambitious


Eventually the Chases exceeded even Lincoln’s boundless tolerance. With Chase’s encouragement the sleek, unctuous Senator Pomeroy of Kansas organized a committee of Republican malcontents to secure the party’s presidential nomination for the Secretary of the Treasury. And, as Kate had planned, William Sprague was one of the primary financial backers of this final effort. When the committee issued a public manifesto bitterly attacking Lincoln and urging Chase as his successor, there was a tremendous public uproar. Chase, who had given the statement his secret approval beforehand, had reason to regret his imprudence as his followers listened to the furor and then quietly crept away from his side. Neither he nor Kate could have failed to observe Sprague’s silence when Chase was attacked, nor have been unaware that he suddenly stopped his financial help. Kate and her father had warning: the Senator was not the pawn he had seemed.

A deluge of reproach broke over the Secretary’s head, and Lincoln’s friends, with the President’s encouragement, took the opportunity to publicize the scandals that riddled the Treasury Department, staffed with Chase’s political followers, many of whom were, unfortunately, crooks. The clarion call for Chase for President started a landslide for Lincoln. Chase was urged to fall into step, but he was only contemptuous of his fainthearted friends whose political ambitions taught them political agility. They managed to jump from his caravan before the crash; but Chase, the driver, never hesitated as he careened toward disaster.

Kate understood the full measure of their defeat long before her father, and that spring she gave way to a long, enervating illness that left her thin and listless. While she was convalescing in Rhode Island the catastrophe occurred: her father, piqued at Lincoln over a matter of Treasury patronage, haughtily tendered his resignation, as was his custom when put out. To his surprise, the President accepted it. But to insure that Chase would not have an entirely free hand in the coming campaign, Lincoln at the same time dropped several broad hints that Chase was being considered for the post of Chief Justice, then occupied by the ailing Roger B. Taney.

And so it was that, when the tides of war and politics turned in Lincoln’s favor late in the summer of 1864, Chase, who had been sulking in New Hampshire, came down from his mountain and set out upon a vigorous campaign for the President’s re-election.

And how did Kate react to this strange spectacle? Her father could return to politics inspirited by the prospect of being Chief Justice, but she had no consolation for their failure. If he were willing to accept something less than the presidency, what would be left for her? Tradition dictated that the Chief Justice was to be justice incarnate—eyes blindfolded, hands holding an impartial scale. What use would Kate be to him?

She loved strife and barter, the confusion of the political market place—and its rewards. Now she seemed about to have everything slip through her fingers. Her father “was not to be set aside by a place on the bench,” she declared, and word of her anger reached the White House.

Chase saw no immediate reason for disappointment at the prospect of receiving the highest judicial position in the land. Chief Justice for life, he was insured of a future of power, service, and security; and if he were to find that he was not satisfied, no President would be able to stop his political adventures by removing him from office.

Chase kept his part of the unspoken agreement, and Lincoln, albeit reluctantly, kept his. All during the fall Chase tirelessly made campaign speeches, and on December 6, 1864, he was nominated to be Chief Justice of the United States.

On that same day one of Sprague’s partners made a full confession of the Texas Adventure to the army.

Shortly afterward William Sprague learned that he was in mortal danger: one of his ships had been captured trying to slip through the blockade, and his partners had been placed under military arrest. Only a miracle could save him from exposure.

How would his family take the news? Sprague must have realized that the knowledge that his household was dishonored would break Chase’s heart; it was possible that he might not become Chief Justice if the scandal became public. No matter that Chase himself was not involved! With the misuse of his office already lying heavily against his good name, Chase would be damned by two simple facts: he had been in charge of trade with the seceded states, and his son-in-law had somehow managed to continue his vast textile operations in spite of the blockade.

And what about Kate? Sprague’s arrest would provide a blissful climax indeed to the first year of their marriage. Their relationship had trembled between ill-natured truces and violent quarrels. It was bad enough that the Senator had failed to get the presidency for Chase, but now if he were to embroil him in a scandal involving treason his marriage would be over. No, he could not let Kate know. She was expecting a baby in a few months.

These thoughts may have been in Sprague’s mind as he sat down to write a difficult letter to the general in charge of investigating the Texas Adventure. Claiming that the whole affair was a politically inspired attack upon his friends, he requested that “the case might be conducted with as little publicity as possible.” Then he set about using his vast influence to make certain that the general would comply.