The Shoe Pinches and Chase Resigns

June 30, 1864 (Thursday)

“It seems as if there were no limit to expense,” wrote Salmon P. Chase on May 7th. “The spigot in Uncle Abe’s barrel is made twice as big as the bung-hole. He may have been a good flatboatman and rail-splitter, but he certainly never learned the true science of coopering.”

If history remembers Lincoln for anything, it was that he was a damn fine flatboatman.
If history remembers Lincoln for anything, it was that he was a damn fine flatboatman.

But trouble had been brewing between Treasury Secretary Chase and President Lincoln for awhile now. More recently, things became incredibly awkward when Chase’s name was put forward as a Republican nominee for President.

Some Republicans were beginning to see Lincoln’s chance at winning against the Democrats as nearly impossible. And so Chase’s name was brought up, inviting “the hearty cooperation of all those in favor of the speedy restoration of the Union upon the basis of universal freedom.” Somehow or another, the document detailing this and mentioning Chase’s name was leaked to the press in late February.

In this light, Chase offered his resignation from the Cabinet. Lincoln, in turn, refused it. He explained that it was “a question which I will not allow myself to consider from any standpoint other than my judgment of the public service, and in that view I do not perceive occasion for a change.”

The matter wasn’t completely dropped, and Chase still had some aspirations for the position, though only if his own state of Ohio inisted. But it did not. Even Chase’s own son-in-law, Governor Sprague of Rhode Island, fell in line behind Lincoln. By May, Chase too had dropped the idea, though not without a dramatic egress.

“Had it seemed to be the will of the people that I should take responsibilities of government I should not have refused,” wrote Chase to a friend in early May. “But, through the natural partialities of people for the President, and the systematic operation of the Postmaster-General, and those holding office under him, a preference for the reelection of Mr. Lincoln was created….”

Chase went on to complain that he was “so maliciously pursued by the Blair family.” Specifically, Chase was talking about Frank Blair, former political general who was now back in politics. Blair had accused Chase of corrupt abuse of power, putting forward that only the “friends” of Chase received trade permits, while Lincoln supporters were repeatedly denied. Blair even went so far as to demand an official investigation.

Frank Blair’s brother, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, had the speech printed and widely distributed. As for Lincoln’s roll in this, while the President knew nothing of the speech, neither did he censure the Blairs. To this, Chase took great offense and turned all blame to Lincoln. For weeks, he broiled and stewed in his imaginations of some great conspiracy against him.

“I hope my wrathiness was not excessive,” he wrote one of his friend in early May. “Indeed, it was vexation in thinking that all my labors to serve our country had found recompense, so far as Mr. Lincoln’s special friends were concerned, and with his apparent (but, as I hope and believe, merely apparent) indorsement, only in outrageous calumny.”

Publicly, Chase was once more in Lincoln’s camp. In private, it was another matter entirely. He was bitter, and thought the President too rural, too backwards to be involved in the gentlemanly sport of politics, itself a complex game.

Salmon "Third Time's a Charm" Chase
Salmon “Third Time’s a Charm” Chase

Through it all, everyone involved still had to do their jobs. For Chase, this meant finding someone to fill the position of the Assistant Treasury Secretary – a position nearly as important as his own, as far as the day-to-day running of the Department was concerned. Chase put forward the name of Maunsell B. Field, a personal friend and supporter, though not a financial expert in any form.

The appointment was very public and some certainly took issue. The issue was debated, mostly in the press, but Chase was unmoving in his resolve to appoint his friend.

“I cannot, without much embarrassment, make this appointment,” wrote Lincoln to Chase on June 28th. The problem came from certain high-standing New Yorkers, like Senator Edwin D. Morgan, who opposed it based upon Field’s lack of experience. Morgan put forward the names of three others (also New Yorkers) to fill the seat.

Quickly, Chase demanded a personal interview with the President. Much to the probable ire of Chase, Lincoln refused, and backed up his decision with a folksy proverb: “no man knows so well where the shoe pinches as he who wears it.”

But Lincoln continued, reminding Chase of his several friendly nominations from months past. It was clear that Lincoln was going to veto the whole thing. Chase then did two things. First, he convinced the current Assistant Secretary to stick around for three more months. And while this should have settled matters, or at least pushed them back for a season, Chase then decided to once more tender his resignation.

This was something that Chase threatened on a number of occasions. Twice before had he officially tendered it, and twice before Lincoln had refused. But not this time.

“Your resignation for the office of Secretary of the Treasury sent me yesterday is accepted,” wrote Lincoln on this date. “Of all I have said in commendation of your ability and fidelity I have nothing to unsay; and yet you and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relations which it seems cannot be overcome or longer sustained consistently with the public service.”

The news somehow caught Chase off guard. Immediately after penning the letter to Chase, Lincoln offered the seat to Governor David Tod of Ohio, whom he said was his friend “with a big head full of brains.” Both letters went out at the same time, but news of the nomination leaked out before news of the resignation.

Fessenden will just sit back and let Lincoln come to him.
Fessenden will just sit back and let Lincoln come to him.

That morning, Chase was in a meeting with Senator William Fessenden, when the latter was pulled aside by a messenger. When he returned he asked “Have you resigned? I am called to the Senate and told that the President has sent in the nomination of your successor.” Chase was floored, but admitted to offering his resignation. He went back to his office and found Lincoln’s reply.

After reading it, Chase confided in his diary that “I had found a good deal of embarrassment from him; but what he had found from me I could not imagine, unless it has been caused by my unwillingness to have offices distributed as spoils or benefits, with more regard to the claims of divisions, factions, cliques, and individuals, than to fitness of selection.” From all appearances, Chase wrote this without a drop of irony. He complained that Lincoln “had never given me the active and earnest support I was entitled to.”

Ultimately, Governor Tod refused the nomination, and on July 1st, Lincoln put forward the name of Senator William Fessenden. Even Chase had to admit that it was “a wise selection.”

Confiding again in his diary, Chase put the matter to some rest (though not without his characteristic passive-aggressive musings): “He [Fessenden] has the confidence of the country, and many who have become inimical to me will give their confidence to him and their support. Perhaps they will do more than they otherwise would to sustain him, in order to show how much better a Secretary he is than I was. If so, the country will gain even by hostility to me, transmuted into friendship for him.”1

  1. Sources: An Account of the Private Life and Public Services of Salmon by Robert Bruce Warden; Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals by Chester G. Hearn; Abraham Lincoln; Complete Works, Vol. 2 edited by John G. Nicolay and John Hay; “The Resignation of Mr. Chase” as appearing in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, vol. 38; Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics by Frederick J. Blue. []
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