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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
That night, from seven-thirty till almost midnight, the While House witnessed one of the most momentous meetings in the nation’s history. Lincoln managed it with superb adroitness. He did not make the mistake of having the Cabinet with him when the committee arrived. Instead, the committee (without Wade) and Cabinet (without Seward) gathered in the same anteroom. The committee trooped into Lincoln’s office first, and he asked their permission to admit the Cabinet for a free discussion; when they came in, fourteen in all were seated. The President opened the proceedings in a carefully matured speech. After reading the committee resolutions and recapitulating the previous night’s conference, he launched into a defense of his Cabinet relations. He did not pretend, of course, that the Cabinet had decided all policies, for everyone knew that he made the critical decisions. But all the members had acquiesced once a policy was determined.
“Did they not?” he demanded, turning to the Cabinet. Calling upon them to say whether there had been any lack of reasonable consideration or unity, he looked pointedly at Chase. Indeed, all eyes fell on Chase. The Secretary was horribly embarrassed, for he was trapped in an equivocal position; he had to make good his accusations to the Radicals, or his loyalty to his chief. Blurting out that he would not have come had he known he would be arraigned before such a body, he looked about for a way of escape. According to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, he endorsed Lincoln’s statement, but regretted the lack of a thorough discussion of every important measure in open Cabinet. According to Fessenden, he said that questions of importance had usually been weighed by the Cabinet, though not as completely as might have been desired, and that acquiescence had indeed been the rule, no member opposing a measure once it was adopted. By either account, he made a weaseling statement.
Fessenden, one of the astutest lawyers of Maine, was irritated to the point of tart speech by Chase’s dodging. He assured the Cabinet that the senators had no idea of offering dictation to the President, only friendly advice. Then, turning to Chase, he answered the charge of arraignment by saying that it was the President who had unexpectedly brought the two bodies together. He went on to express his own views with deep feeling. Lincoln, he thought, had settled too many questions without Cabinet advice—he should have had all important questions discussed, though he was not bound to follow the majority—and had leaned too much on Seward. Collamer agreed.
The most radical members, Sumner, Grimes, and Trumbull, were emphatic in condemning Seward. “I have no confidence whatever in him,” said Grimes. Trumbull was equally condemnatory. The senators agreed that the main issue was no abstract question of Administration unity; it was Seward.
Bates and Montgomery Blair with rambling prolixity came to the defense of Lincoln, insisting that no President need consult his Cabinet unless he pleases; and Chase did Seward the justice of recalling that he had offered suggestions which strengthened the Emancipation Proclamation. But Lincoln, making several speeches and lightening the occasion by deft anecdotes, was his own best advocate. Near the end he brought the senators up to the point of responsible action by asking them bluntly whether they still wished Seward to leave the Cabinet, and whether this step would please their constituents. Grimes, Trumbull, Sumner, and Pomeroy answered yes. But Fessenden, Collamer, and Howard declined to commit themselves, while Harris said that Seward’s influence in New York was so great that his departure would hurt the party.
As the meeting broke up, Trumbull came to the President with angry mien: “Lincoln, somebody has lied like hell!” Lincoln coolly replied, “Not tonight.” Fessenden among others remained to press Lincoln on the acceptance of Seward’s resignation, and to repeat his offer to canvass the Republican senators. Lincoln good-naturedly parried every attack, desiring to avoid any Cabinet changes whatever; for he feared that if Seward left, Chase and Stanton would also withdraw in “a general smashup.”
The unhappiest man that evening was Chase. Fessenden was angry at him for his double-dealing; Stanton commented that he was ashamed of how Chase had lied about the Cabinet’s way of doing business— he would not have done it, for the senatorial charges were true; Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith said later he had been inclined to contradict Chase on the spot. Doubtless Chase passed a sleepless night. Knowing his duplicity had been discovered, that the President was indignant, and that if the Radicals forced Seward out, the conservatives would demand his own head, he saw that he must write his resignation.