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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
Specifically, the Smiths were charged with having supplied the Navy with Revely tin instead of a slightly more expensive type known as Banca, with machine-made instead of handmade files, with second—or third—rather than first-grade assorted hardware, with Stedman’s emery paper instead of Sibley’s (a slightly better grade), and with rusty, broken secondhand anchors instead of new ones. They were also accused of having fraudulently dissuaded another contractor from bidding to supply iron. But these were mere details—the handles by which the Navy Department’s investigators hoped to get hold of Smith’s papers, in which the investigators expected to find proof for the principal indictment: that Franklin Smith himself was in criminal collusion with Eugene L. Norton, Navy agent at Boston, and Matthew Merriam, chief machinist at the Charlestown Navy Yard. But unfortunately for the department its detectives, though they had investigated for over nine months and had been able to search through all Franklin Smith’s books and personal letters, were not able to find enough evidence even to charge formally, much less to prove, collusion. Embarrassed, the Navy Department was left with only the lesser charges.
During the four weary months of the trial Smith was able to refute many of these. His expert witnesses defended the quality of his hardware. He showed that the prosecution could not definitely prove that certain allegedly defective articles had actually been delivered by Smith Brothers and Company. He argued convincingly that the supposedly incriminating letter about bidding for iron had been maliciously distorted by the prosecution’s interpretation. But these matters of fact were really unimportant. Smith was entirely willing to admit, for instance, that he had delivered Revely tin on a contract specifying Banca and that a dozen or so of the 12,554 articles delivered on a contract for assorted hardware might have been defective. What was important was the matter of fraudulent intent.
Smith utterly denied that he had ever knowingly or purposely defrauded the government or that he had been guilty of “wilful neglect of duty.” He showed that his profits had by no means been excessive-—they had averaged only about 5 per cent after store expenses. He proved that in the delivery of the tin he had merely followed common mercantile practice (the two kinds of tin were for all practical purposes interchangeable) and a long-standing arrangement with the Yard commandant. Furthermore, he had billed the government for Rcvely, not for Banca. How could fraud have been intended when it would gain Smith nothing? Again, in a time of great shortages defective articles of hardware were bound to appear. But had not Smith always been willing, often at considerable inconvenience and expense, to exchange anything found unsatisfactory? This was hardly criminal fraud.
Quite apart from the specific charges was the continuing insinuation by the prosecution that Smith, Norton, and Merriam were conspiring to overcharge the Navy. As evidence it was pointed out that a very large proportion of the Boston Navy Yard’s hardware purchases was made from Smith Brothers and Company and the prices charged often averaged higher than the usual market price. But here again Smith’s rejoinder was convincing. Smith Brothers performed a real service to the Yard by specializing in obtaining the supplies of hardware it demanded when hardware and iron were exceedingly difficult to find. Thus, instead of being obliged to go to the almost impossible task of personally searching out the original makers of or special dealers for hundreds of different items, the Navy agent could leave that labor to Smith. Because Smith was acting as a middleman, he necessarily and justly charged slightly more than the regular market price.
As he had promised when the delegation of Smith’s friends had presented their memorial to him, Lincoln requested Secretary Welles to send him the trial record and to postpone execution of the sentence until he had had an opportunity to review it. On February 22, 1865, Welles reluctantly sent to the White House the opinion written four days earlier by Charles Eames, counsellor of the Navy Department. Even Eames had been obliged to advise Welles that several of the specifications were not really proved and to urge mitigation of sentence. On March 13, having read every word of the papers, the President handed them to his close friend Sumner for his opinion. The senator’s summary was succinct and strong. “To charge fraud against the respondents in this case,” it went in part, “is cruel, irrational, preposterous. Their conduct cannot be tortured or twisted into fraud. As well undertake to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers, or oil out of Massachusetts granite.” Not only should the findings be set aside, Sumner continued, but positive restitution should be made.
According to the Boston Herald’s probably somewhat fanciful account, at five o’clock of the afternoon of March 17, 1865, President Lincoln was sitting in his carriage under the portico of the White House, waiting, as many another husband has, for his wife to come down for their usual afternoon drive. Suddenly, from his house directly across Lafayette Square appeared Charles Sumner, waving a sheaf of papers in his hand. He was angry as only a righteous man can be at a flagrant injustice. Putting his foot on the hub of the carriage wheel, he “poured out an eloquent torrent of denunciation” that ceased only at the appearance of Mrs. Lincoln.
“Come, Sumner,” said the President, “that speech is too good to be lost. Get in here and take a ride with us.”