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Lincoln Saves A Reformer
The Navy and contractor Smith accused each other of fraud. The Navy won—until the President took a hand
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
Lincoln also ordered the court-martial shifted to Boston. “We don’t have the money,” Secretary Welles is supposed to have objected. “I guess you can find some,” the President answered tersely. Welles considered his chief “sadly imposed upon by the cunning Bostonians.”
The trial lasted from September 15, 1864, to January 13, 1865. Twice Smith broke down under the strain. On the 115th day the court reached the expected verdict: guilty. Smith was sentenced to a fine of twenty thousand dollars and imprisonment for two years.
What had Franklin W. Smith done to deserve such iarsh treatment? Had he been an ordinary criminal, his case would be of only passing interest. If he had really been one of the host of dishonest contractors that preyed so voraciously on the Army and Navy during the Civil War, the hardships inflicted on him could be written off as one of those regrettable invasions of individual rights almost inevitable amid the hysteria of wartime. But what is shocking in the Smith case is that there seems to have been, if not a definite conspiracy, at least an unspoken agreement among certain officials of the Navy Department to “get” Smith. He was, it would seem, framed.
Franklin W. Smith, though a keen businessman, was at heart (as his later career abundantly proved) an idealist and reformer. When he saw wrong being done, he could not remain silent. The animus against him in the Navy Department arose from his repeated and well-documented charges that officials of Navy bureaus were1 conspiring with dishonest contractors to defraud the government through exorbitant prices and to throw all business to a favored “ring.” As early as 1861 Smith had protested the laxity of the rules governing the reception and opening of contractors’ bids and had forced reforms on unwilling bureau hands. Later he had reported to the authorities that an inspector at the Charlestown Navy Yard had offered to collude with a manufacturer of emery paper. In 1863 he had written to the chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee and had appeared before the corresponding committee of the Senate. Largely through Smith’s efforts a law was passed on March 3, 1863, attempting to make bidding easier for honest contractors and manipulation harder for dishonest ones. In June of the same year Smith had named names of Navy clerks who had received bribes, and had written for Secretary Welles an “Analysis of Certain Contracts,” showing definitely that help from inside the Navy Department must have been given to certain contractors to enable them so consistently to make the lowest bids.
The officers in the naval bureaus, whether guilty or not (and probably the chiefs themselves had clean hands), were naturally irked by a civilian’s—and what was worse, a contractor’s—sniping at their integrity. They were further chagrined by Smith’s successful appearances before congressional committees and his habit of publishing each new charge in a privately printed pamphlet and circulating it as widely as possible. Hence, instead of seriously attempting to remove abuses in their own offices, they pursued the easier course of making countercharge after countercharge against the honesty of Smith Brothers and Company. Every possible pretext—a mistake in a bill, a delivery of unsatisfactory boiler plate, a copyist’s error—was seized upon to discredit the firm. Yet always Smith produced exasperatingly convincing explanations and, when the charges were sifted, was consistently exonerated, at least once by Secretary Welles himself. Perhaps the greatest humiliation of all for the officers occurred when the Secretary circulated copies of one of Smith’s pamphlets among the various bureau chiefs and required each one to prepare an answer to it. In doing so they almost wholly ignored the pamphlet’s charges but fumed hotly against its “meddling” author.
The conflict did not remain a mere war of pamphlets. As a result of Smith’s disclosures, a select committee of the Senate was appointed in January, 1864, to investigate frauds in naval contracts. It was under the chairmanship of fiery Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire, long a foe of the Navy Department. Years before, he had horrified the admirals by persuading Congress to abolish two hoary Navy customs: flogging and the regular issuance of a grog ration. He was later to lose his Senate seat partly because of the animosities aroused in the Smith case.
The Hale committee turned up convincing evidence that clerks in the naval bureaus had indeed been in cahoots with contractors. During the extended hearings, which lasted from February 11 to June 2, Smith and his brother were the principal witnesses against the Navy Department. The committee’s majority report, submitted to the Senate on June 29, upheld the Smiths’ charges and dismissed as unfounded the department’s bitter allegations against them. Two weeks after the end of the hearings, even before the report had been made, the Smiths were arrested. One doubts whether this timing was coincidental : hurrying the two men off to Fort Warren was as good a way as any of discrediting the committee’s report in advance.
What, specifically, were the accusations against Smith? And how true were they? Where there was so much smoke, was there no fire?