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Lincoln Takes Charge
His shrewd handling of the Radical Republican bid for power at the end of 1862 established him as the unquestioned leader of the Union
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
Finally the caucus decided to pass a resolution calling for “a change in and partial reconstruction of the Cabinet,” and to send a deputation to call on the President. Of thirty-two senators present, thirty-one voted for the résolution. The deputation included seven Radicals: Wade, Trumbull, J. M. Howard of Michigan, Fessenden, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Grimes, and S. C. Pomeroy of Kansas; and two moderates, Collamer and Harris. Collamer was named chairman. Its work done, the caucus broke up in high spirits. The majority believed that they had sealed the political death warrant of Seward, and made certain of Radical domination of the Cabinet.
Some dissenters, however, were convinced they had gone too far. Preston King of New York, an old friend of Seward, took immediate steps to warn the Administration. Rushing from the caucus to Seward’s house, he told the Secretary what was taking place on Capitol Hill. At once Seward declared that he would not allow the President to be put in a false position by his unpopularity, wrote out a curt resignation, along with that of his son, the Assistant Secretary, and dispatched both to the White House. King followed on the messenger’s heels.
Lincoln, astounded at his dinner hour by the sudden resignations, turned to the portly New York senator to demand an explanation. When King told him about the caucus action, his perplexity increased. Later that evening the dismayed President went to Seward’s house to get him to withdraw his resignation, but all his arguments were in vain—Seward would not budge. If he remained obdurate, the Radicals would have won a sweeping victory at one blow—and Lincoln roused himself to prevent that disaster.
Collamer, after drawing up a statement of the sentiments of the caucus and getting members of his committee to approve it, asked for an appointment with Lincoln on the evening of Thursday the eighteenth. To this the President, deeply hurt and despondent, assented. He knew what injurious reports were flying around the city—reports summarized by Samuel Wilkeson of the Tribune in a private letter to his managing editor:
Fessenden has refused to go into the State Department unless the whole Cabinet rookery is cleaned out. He has said if that were done he would consider if he could serve the country by taking the place.
Lincoln said yesterday that if there were worse Hell than he had been in for two days, he would like to know it. He is awfully shaken.
The feeling is everywhere of exultation at the prospect of getting rid of the whole Cabinet. There is no exception to this in Congress or anywhere else.
There is little doubt left that Burnside made his awful blunder on his own responsibility.
Just one fortnight ago Seward sent off the thousandth reiteration of his dispatch that the Rebellion was just going to be crushed. A foreign minister remarked today that Congress should long since have passed a law forbidding Seward to prophesy, for horrible disasters always followed his efforts in that line.
One rumor announced that a delegation of the solid businessmen of New York was coming to Washington to demand from Lincoln a change of men and measures. The distressed Executive, talking to his old friend Orville H. Browning, asked what the caucus senators really wanted. Browning replied that he hardly knew, but that they were exceedingly hostile to the Administration, and that the resolution adopted was the gentlest action acceptable to the majority: “We had to do that or worse.” Lincoln dejectedly remarked that he believed the senators wished to get rid of him, and was half disposed to let them. The country, he mournfully declared, stood on the brink of ruin: “It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Browning, who loathed the Radicals, advised him to stand fast, for the main force of the onslaught was directed against Seward, and this statement simply added to Lincoln’s sad perplexity. “I wonder,” he said in effect, “why sane men can believe such an absurd lie as the charge of Seward’s malign influence over me.”