Kate Was Too Ambitious

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On December 13, 1864, Sprague and Kate joined a distinguished assemblage in the Supreme Court to see Salmon Portland Chase sworn in as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States. Other members of the audience may have envied that celebrated family, now becoming the second official family in the nation. Chase was receiving one of the highest tributes his country could bestow; in time his son-in-law was to be re-elected to a second term in the Senate, and before his daughter lay a supposedly brilliant future as the country’s leading political hostess. They seemed to have everything one could wish for—honors, wealth, social position, power. Anyone knowing what lay behind their success—the petty schemes and duplicity, the ruthlessness, even treason—would have thought them fortunate indeed, for it seemed that they had escaped punishment for their deeds. But in the end justice would be served, the kind of moral justice in which Chase himself believed.

Probably it was mainly to please Kate that Chase, seeing the Republicans turn toward Grant, made his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in 1868. It was a serious mistake. By reaching for the nomination from the Supreme Court bench, he broke a sacred unwritten law of American politics, and he paid for his offense by losing much of the respect and veneration that should have been his consolation when forced to give up his dream of the White House. Nor did his conduct of the trials of Jefferson Davis and Andrew Johnson add luster to his name.

Kate’s failure as his campaign manager at the Democratic convention was not the greatest disappointment she caused her father. Her marriage, the marriage that had once promised the presidency, bore tragedy instead, and Chase saw his family, the pride and comfort of an old man, destroyed. Kate had been able to tolerate Sprague in the first place only because he seemed a necessary part of the Chases’ presidential plans. But he failed them in 1864, and four years later, rebelling against Kate’s obsession with her father, he failed them again, even refusing to give them his financial support. Then Sprague had to bear the full weight of Kate’s bitterness and regret. He was driven back to his sullen pleasures of old—liquor and other women—and when his resentment finally boiled out of control, he made a series of sensational speeches in the Senate in which he insulted his father-in-law and implied that his wife was unfaithful. Chase tried to act as peacemaker, but to his sorrow he found that time had created a distance between him and his daughter that nothing could bridge. The final blow was the public exposure of Sprague’s treasonable activities during the war. Legal technicalities saved the Senator from being brought to trial, but not even the whitewash of a senatorial investigation could keep him from being ruined, a political and social outcast, who lived on, an eccentric relic of the past, until 1915.

Not long after the senate investigation, the Chief Justice died of a heart attack. How much he blamed himself for what had happened, for the disastrous failure of Kate’s marriage, and the disgrace of his household, no one will ever know.

A few months after Chase’s death the 1873 depression swept away Sprague’s entire gaudy financial structure, but Kate was only indifferent. While her husband’s world collapsed, she suffered her fathomless private grief. The Senator was of no consequence to her any more. He could not fill the void in her heart. She was too obstinately alive to succumb to sorrow; and, finding that she had to have someone to take her father’s place, she began an ill-fated love affair with the vain, unscrupulous Senator Roscoe Conkling, an affair that ended in public scandal and her divorce. Her friends deserted her, but a far greater sorrow was the fate of her children. Her eldest daughter defied convention to go on the stage; another left her to return to the Sprague family in Rhode Island; the third, her namesake, was feeble-minded. With the suicide of her only son, Kate’s relentless will, the will that had taken the place of a heart, was broken, and she ended her days in obscurity, poverty-stricken and alone, living in squalor in her father’s old run-down home, her famed beauty erased by years of dissatisfaction. Washington, the city she had once ruled like a queen, found it easy to forget her long before she died in 1899. Kate was a celluloid doll that had caught fire, burned brightly for an instant, and then vanished, leaving behind no trace.