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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
Gideon Welles also had passed a sleepless night, for it seemed to him a national calamity to let a senatorial cabal dictate to the President the make-up of his Administration. Fessenden, too, fearful that Stanton and Chase would go, was racked with anxiety. Calling on Stanton, Fessenden to his relief found that pugnacious man determined to stay. “Seward shall not drive me out,” he blazed. Posting over to the Treasury, however, Fessenden was startled to learn that Chase had already decided to resign. If he stayed, he explained, he would be accused of having maneuvered to get Seward out (hardly a false accusation!), while conservative attacks would make his Treasury burden, already heavy, intolerable. In vain did Fessenden expostulate.
Welles, meanwhile, went at an early hour to the White House. His white beard tremulous with agitation, his stern eyes blazing, he bade Lincoln stand firm, for it was his duty to maintain the rights and independence of the Executive. He remarked that while Seward obviously had grave faults, his self-exalting ways and invasions of the sphere of his associates, from which Welles had suffered much, did not call for senatorial interference. Lincoln fully agreed, observing that if he yielded, the whole government must “cave in.” At the President’s request Welles then hurried to see Seward and repeat Lincoln’s words. He found the Secretary much excited, deeply wounded and chagrined, and voluble on the subject of his own sagacity and invaluable services to the nation—for his vanity never failed. That he—he in his own eyes practically the architect of the Republican party, the founder of its success, and the sheet-anchor of the Administration—should be thus assailed by men who had once professed the greatest deference, was an outrage without parallel.
And this New Yorker whose whole career had been founded on shifts and compromises had the effrontery to criticize Lincoln for not taking an adamant stand. The President, said he, should have rejected his resignation without hesitation, and defied the Senate majority by refusing to talk with its committee. Delighted by Welles’s attitude, Seward told him he might inform the President that the resignation could quickly be withdrawn. As if Lincoln did not know this! Welles, elated, hurried back to the White House.
Here occurred the culminating scene of the crisis. When Welles entered the President’s office Chase and Stanton were there, the President out. Welles spoke to them of his strong opposition to Seward’s resignation, and thought them evasively acquiescent. The President entered, his eye on Welles. “Have you seen the man?” he demanded. “I have, and he assents to our views,” replied Welles. Thereupon the President turned to Chase and said that he had sent for him because he was deeply troubled by the situation—an obvious hint. The Secretary, expressing pain over the previous night’s conference, replied that he had prepared his resignation.
“Where is it?” demanded Lincoln, his eyes lighting up. Chase hesitantly took it from his pocket. “Let me have it,” ejaculated the President, stretching out his long arm. The Secretary wished to say something, but Lincoln ripped open the seal and hastily scanned the letter. “This,” he said with a triumphant laugh, “cuts the Gordian knot.” An expression of deep satisfaction overspread his face. “I can dispose of this subject now without difficulty,” he went on, turning in his chair. “I see my way clear.” Stanton interposed with a pompous offer of his own resignation, which Lincoln waved aside. “The trouble is ended,” he said, and dismissed all three.
The crisis was indeed over. Lincoln, holding both resignations, could let the Radicals understand that if Seward went Chase must go too. In his delight he fell back upon frontier imagery. “Now I can ride,” he told Senator Harris. “I have got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.” He told another man: “Now I have the biggest half of the hog. I shall accept neither resignation.” Later he remarked to John Hay that he was sure he had managed the affair correctly. “If I had yielded to that storm and dismissed Seward the thing would all have slumped over one way, and we should have been left with a scanty handful of supporters.” The Radicals were actually too few and weak to govern the country, and when Lincoln publicly announced on December 22 that he had requested both Seward and Chase to withdraw their resignations, public comment made them aware of that fact.
The storm not only cleared the air, but taught a needed lesson to all concerned, including Lincoln.