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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
On Saturday evening the President received the caucus committee with his usual urbanity. Collamer read the prepared statement, which demanded that Lincoln give the country a Cabinet composed exclusively of men determined upon vigorous prosecution of the war, and entrust military operations only to generals in hearty accord with the objects for which the war was being fought. Wade, Crimes, Howard, and Fessenden spoke, repeating the old charges against Seward. When Fessenden referred to the imperfect support the Administration had given to McClellan, Lincoln produced and read letters showing that he and Stanton had sustained that general to their utmost ability. Sumner then brought up Seward’s recently published diplomatic correspondence, saying that he had subjected himself to ridicule at home and abroad, and had written some letters that were most objectionable. To this Lincoln replied simply that he had no memory of these offensive dispatches.
In making its demands on Lincoln, the committee offered an amazing new interpretation of the Constitution. As phrased by Collamer, whose study of history should have taught him better, it ran: “The theory of our government and the early and uniform construction thereof, is, that the President should be aided by a cabinet council, agreeing with him in political theory and general policy, and that all important public measures and appointments should be the result of their combined wisdom and deliberation.” This was a thrust at the coalition character of Lincoln’s Cabinet. As if Washington, balancing Jefferson against Hamilton, had not possessed a similar Cabinet! The committee asked for changes that would bring about unity at once, but it wanted unity on its own lines, and actually proposed that the President should make appointments only after submitting names to the Senate and getting its approval. No wonder that ex-Governor William Dennison of Ohio wrote:
Is it not a dangerous innovation for Senators to interfere in Cabinet matters in caucus form? Will it not be a precedent that may in future completely subordinate the Executive to the Legislative branch of the govt., and thus virtually destroy the whole theory of our political system? Will not the next step be for Congress to vote its want of confidence in the President and so embarrass as to compel him to resign? Was not some such purpose in the Senatorial caucus?
The committee obviously wanted a Cabinet congenial to Chase. Throughout the three hours’ discussion, indeed, the figure of Chase was always in the background. It was plain that he had been conferring with Radical senators, was the source of half the criticism of Seward and Stanton, and hoped to dominate the new Cabinet. Lincoln, as he allowed the senators to do most of the talking, was studying them coldly, and at the end he ushered them out with the noncommittal statement that he would think the subject over.
Actually, he had determined to recede not an inch. His first step was to summon the Cabinet, except for Seward. After asking them to keep his statements secret, he told them all he knew of the Republican caucus, of Seward’s resignation, and of the committee’s call on him. He described the senators’ attitude fairly, saying that they were “earnest and sad, not malicious nor passionate, not denouncing anyone, but all of them attributing to Mr. Seward a lukewarmness in the conduct of the war, and seeming to consider him the real cause of our failures.” Lincoln explained that he had defended his Cabinet loyally, and was most emphatic in repelling the idea of a general upset. He could not, he said, go on without his old friends.
Thus far the President had worn the air of a man who held a losing hand, but suddenly he placed an ace card on the table. He proposed that the Cabinet meet with him and the committee that night; thus he would have the support of his associates in facing Wade, Sumner, Fessenden, and the rest, and would put Chase in a spot where he would have to show whether he stood with the President or with the Radicals. Though neither Chase nor Bates liked the idea, Welles and Blair spoke so heartily in favor of it that finally everyone acquiesced. Both were anxious to see Chase forced to show his true colors; for every perceptive person in Washington now believed that Chase was at the bottom of the whole movement. Lincoln’s intentions were becoming plain. He did not think that a senatorial junta should be permitted, at the height of a terrible civil war, to dictate to the President; and he did not think that anyone in his Cabinet should be allowed to play the traitor.