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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
Chase, so abruptly exposed, had most to learn. His standing with his old friends sank; Fessenden accused him of betraying them, and Wade, Chandler, and Sumner saw that their movements would no longer find a secret ally inside the Cabinet. When Collamer reported to the senatorial caucus on the committee meeting with Lincoln and the Cabinet, Orville H. Browning asked how Chase, after telling senators about Seward’s backstairs work, could have made his statement on Cabinet unity. Collamer answered: “He lied.” After this lesson, Chase restrained his tongue, for a while at least, and somewhat modified his attitude toward the President. Lincoln’s secretaries declare that it had varied between active hostility and benevolent contempt, and it had certainly lacked due respect; but now he had a new insight into both Lincoln’s masterful qualities and his magnanimity—for the President repeatedly thanked him for remaining in the Administration. He continued to criticize and to intrigue, but less offensively.
Seward, too, learned a sharp lesson. Egotistical, erratic, meddlesome, he had long helped diffuse a totally false impression that he managed the Administration. By devious methods, unsleeping vigilance, use of his great experience, and skillful exploitation of Lincoln’s friendliness, he had indeed done more to affect public policy than his colleagues; and boasting of his activities to friends, he flaunted them in the face of foes. To Chase, Smith, Welles, and Stanton he had behaved with exasperating insolence. Now he suddenly learned that half his own party not only bitterly hated him but thirsted for his blood. He saw that his ideas, methods, and loose use of words had raised a storm from which only Lincoln’s consummate skill had saved him. He was henceforth content to confine himself to State Department business.
The President was triumphant. His expedient of bringing the Cabinet and Senate committee together was a perfect illustration of his grasp and shrewdness, combining frankness, honesty, dexterity, and insight into human nature. He alone emerged from the crisis with enhanced prestige. Yet he also had a lesson to learn, and knew it.
It was wonderful how well Lincoln managed matters on which he thought deeply; it was also wonderful how completely he refused to think about some matters at all. Administration was one of them. The lack of liaison between McClellan and General Henry Wager Halleck, for example, had remained painful till the day McClellan left; McClellan and Stanton, hating each other, had hardly been on terms of communication; and a painful failure of rapport between Halleck and Stanton had developed. To say that the public interest suffered is an understatement.
That Lincoln did not use his Cabinet in the most efficient way is clear. While he was right in holding that he alone should make the great decisions, and that its consultative value was limited, he could have used it more, largely for mutual exchange of information. He went to the War Office daily, and saw Seward frequently, for Seward was a “comfort” to him; the others he neglected. Chase, though a leader of one of the two great wings of the party, fell into the role of mere financial specialist, and resented the fact. Stanton complained that in important military matters the President took counsel of none but army officers, though he ought to be consulted, or at least be kept informed. Yet Stanton himself in Cabinet meetings imparted little information, and had a way of drawing Lincoln into a corner and talking with him in a low voice. Seward meanwhile aroused ill feeling by sending his son Frederick, the Assistant Secretary, to some Cabinet meetings, which provoked Stanton to declare that he would discuss no important business while an outsider was present, a feeling shared by others.
Lincoln, unsystematic, often abstracted, so intent on great aims that he thought little of minutiae, learned from the crisis that he had neglected trifling details which amounted in the aggregate to something important. He realized that his principal associates were entitled, as Chase put it, to full, systematic accounts of the progress of the struggle, the purposes entertained, and the means to be used. Full of natural good will to everyone, he had forgotten that some might resent his apparent favoritism toward Seward. After this crisis he was more decided and masterful, for he felt his powers more fully; and he was also a little more considerate of his associates. At the next Cabinet meeting, on December 23, the proposed creation of West Virginia received exhaustive discussion; and at the two following sessions the President, inviting careful discussion of his draft of the final Emancipation Proclamation, heard criticism from Chase, Welles, Blair, and Seward, and adopted some of their changes, including apparently a felicitous closing by Chase invoking the judgment of mankind and the favor of Almighty God.