Fredericksburg’s Political Fall Out: The Resignations of Seward and Chase

December 19, 1862 (Friday)

Just as the crushing defeat at Fredericksburg did nothing to help the morale of the troops, President Lincoln found his own morale lacking. He told Senator Orville Browning that he was “more depressed” by Fredericksburg, including its political fall out, “then by any event of his life.”

Lincoln was finding everything very difficult to deal with. And then this…

Republicans understood that unless the army had some victories, the voices for peace with an independent South would continue to rise. Though Lincoln certainly caught some of their ire, they focused much of their rage upon Secretary of State William Seward.

It seemed to be almost common knowledge that it was Seward who truly pulled the strings. That it wasn’t quite that Lincoln was Seward’s puppet, but that it was Seward who was the President. Republican newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, probably summed up their feelings best: “He [Seward] has been President de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose all the while.”

On the 16th, thirty or so Republican senators met to discuss matters. Some wanted to demand Seward’s removal, while others wanted to pass a no confidence vote against him. A very few thought it was unfair to Seward seeing as how these were just speculations and rumors. Without full support of all the senators, the hotheaded among them cooled, believing they should all stand united or not stand at all. For now.

One Senator, Preston King of New York, thought it a good idea to clue Seward in on these proceedings. When he learned of it, the Secretary decided it best to resign. King was to tell the president that he was “no longer in a condition to do good service to the Country, and so, was glad to be relieved from a great and painful burden.”

King went to Lincoln the following night (the 17th), telling him of the Republican senators and their machinations, before handing him Seward’s letter of resignation. Not sure of what to make of all this, Lincoln walked to Seward’s house to find out.

After hearing from both King and Seward, Lincoln understood that Seward was being made an easy scapegoat. Since Lincoln wasn’t nearly as convinced as most of the Republican senators that Seward was the de facto President, he did not want Seward to leave. Seward, however, was steadfast. He was resigned.

On the same day that Lincoln met with Seward, the Republicans met again and drafted a resolution. It contained every single one of their complaints against Seward, except that it never mentioned his name. Many of these rumors and twists of truths had come from Seward’s fellow Cabinet member, Salmon P. Chase. The Republicans were calling for a reconstruction of the Cabinet, but when it occurred to them that Chase might also lose his job, they added the word “partial” in hope that they could sway the President, just as they believed Seward was swaying him. Unanimously, they agreed to give it to Lincoln the following day.

Seward got the blame!

The 18th found Lincoln again distraught. “I can hardly see a ray of hope,” he confided to Senator Browning. Lincoln sat through the meeting as best he could, finding the opposing senators, at least, sincere. The conversation wasn’t tempered with anger. This wasn’t a coup, it was merely a very strong suggestion – one that Lincoln would have to sleep on.

By the morning of this date, he knew what he must do. He called an emergency Cabinet meeting, inviting all but Secretary Seward. He told them about Seward’s resignation and about the Republican committee and their resolution, which he read to them. The senators, believed Lincoln, thought he [Lincoln] was honest, but “they seemed to think that when he had in him any good purposes, Mr. Seward contrived to suck them out of him unperceived.”

The Cabinet meeting went on, but nothing was really resolved. Lincoln suggested that they meet again later that evening with the same Republican committee that handed him the resolution. Secretary Chase, believing that no good could come (to him) from such a meeting, at first spoke against it. If everyone was in the same room, certainly they’d swap stories and soon discover Chase’s roll in all of this. But when everyone else heartily agreed to the meeting, he had no choice but to show up.

The meeting was a strange one. Lincoln began by reading the resolution to both the Republicans and Cabinet members. He admitted that Cabinet meetings weren’t nearly as regular as they should have been and that this irregularity might be seen by some as Seward’s way of controlling things.

Several of the Cabinet members spoke up in defense of Seward, most saying that while they disagreed with Seward on this or that, they felt him a very important member of the Cabinet. Even Chase had to admit that all the important decisions were made with full Cabinet knowledge and support, shooting holes in his own deception.

But Chase would get his comeuppance.

As the five hour meeting ground on, the tide slowly turned from Seward to Chase, who also conceded that Seward’s suggestions to the Emancipation Proclamation actually strengthened it.

Towards the end of the meeting, Lincoln asked the nine Republican senators if they might not rescind their demand for Seward’s resignation. Five agreed to, while four held out. It was clear to everyone, however, that Lincoln wasn’t about to change a single member of his Cabinet. With their focus fully upon Chase and his lies, they left the meeting feeling more than a little deceived.

The next morning (yes, we are now peering boldly a single day into the future!) Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase handed Lincoln his own letter of resignation. With Seward and Chase resigning together, Lincoln had but one choice. He would refuse them, drafting a single letter to both:

Gentlemen: You have respectively tendered me your resignations, as Secretary of State, and Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. I am apprised of the circumstances which may render this course personally desireable to each of you; but, after most anxious consideration, my deliberate judgment is, that the public interest does not admit of it. I therefore have to request that you will resume the duties of your Departments respectively. Your Obt. Servt. A. LINCOLN.

((Sources:The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln by Larry Tagg; Diary by Gideon Welles; Diary by Edwin Bates; Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6; Lincoln, The Cabinet, and The Generals by Chester G. Hearn.))

Creative Commons License
Fredericksburg’s Political Fall Out: The Resignations of Seward and Chase by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by