- Historic Sites
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
A third vital issue inherent in the Smith case was that of civilian control of military departments. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, was a conscientious, lawabiding ex-newspaperman with great respect for individual rights. Sincere and well-intentioned though he was, he naturally had to rely for information and advice on his professional subordinates, particularly on Assistant Secretary Gustavus Vasa Fox, who as a veteran naval officer probably knew more about the Navy than his chief. The reluctant Welles had been persuaded by the vehemence of the angry professional officers led by Fox (whose bitterness against Smith was immeasurably increased by his intense personal and political hatred of Smith’s defender, Senator Hale) to sanction Smith’s arrest and trial. As his diary shows, the Secretary had gradually been convinced by Fox that the Smiths were the most brazen hypocrites. What the commissioned officers and their ally Fox wanted to do, they did. Though at the time Wclles deeply resented the President’s action, Lincoln’s freeing of Smith actually redressed the balance toward civilian control.
The news of Lincoln’s clearing of Smith, telegraphed y Sumner, was received with jubilation in Boston. Sumner was deluged with letters praising him for his part in the case, Smith with messages of congratulation from all over the nation. After a thorough and painstaking investigation of the whole case the Boston Board of Trade completely exonerated Smith and reinstated him as a director. The press, in both Boston and New York, had been almost uniformly on Smith’s side during the trial; now it acclaimed the President’s act. In : 866, ruling on a similar case, a federal circuit court in Kentucky declared unconstitutional the act of July 17, 1862, under which Smith had been tried. But perhaps Smith’s greatest victory came on April 15, 1865, when a great crowd of Bostonians gathered in Tremont Temple to mourn the tragic death of Lincoln. Feeling that no other would so deeply and honorably regret Lincoln’s passing, Smith’s neighbors unanimously chose him to preside over their meeting.