Republican Senators Seek to Dismiss Secretary of State William H. Seward

December 17, 1862

After the Senate adjourns early in the afternoon, Republican Senators caucus at the Capitol.  Spurred on by recent election defeats, by conversations with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase,  and by the recent military debacle at Fredericksburg, the senators decide a government shake-up is necessary.   Chase has told Maine Senator William P. Fessenden that Seward exercises a malign “backstairs influence.”  Fessenden believes executive leadership is lacking and needed: “This is not the time when legislation can do much good.  Everything must depend upon those at the head of affairs as Executive officers, and things have gone so badly thus far that the country has lost confidence in their capacity if not their integrity.’” Historian Allan Nevins wrote:

On Tuesday, December 16, immediately after the Senate’s adjournment in early afternoon, Republican members met in secret caucus.  When the doors were shut [Senator Henry] Anthony of Rhode Island asked someone to state the purpose of the gathering.  Thereupon Lyman Trumbull, rising, set the stage by asking what the Senate could do to rescue the nation; and [Morton S.] Wilkinson of Minnesota, taking the cue, launched into an invective against Seward, who had ruined the country by his halfhearted, compromising views.  Others Senators followed in a vehement clamor against the Secretary.  All were convinced that he was the nation’s evil genius.  He had obstructed a vigorous prosecution of the war, constantly advocated a patched-up peace, and overruled the demands of the earnest members of the Administration.  Lincoln was criticized on various grounds, but the general view was that he was blameworthy for yielding too much to Seward’s influence.

The Senate caucus considers introducing and passing a resolution of “no confidence” in Seward.  Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, a friend of President Lincoln and a relative moderate who blames his recent Senate defeat on radicals, writes in his diary:

I was delayed a while in going in [to the caucus].  Trumbull I understood had made a speech before I got there assailing the administration very bitterly.  Wilkinson was speaking when I entered.  He denounced the President and Mr Seward — that latter very bitterly, and charged him with all the disasters which had come upon our arms alleging that he was opposed to a vigarous prosecution of the war — controlled the President and thwarted the other members of the Cabinet.   That he was the cause of Banks army going South instead of cooperating with Burnsides, and that even Stanton did not know where its destination was — He said our cause was lost and the country ruined.

[James W.] Grimes followed in a similar strain, and then old Ben Wade made a long speech in which he declared that the Senate should go in a body and demand of the President the dismissal of Mr Seward.  He advocated the creation of a Lieutenant Genl with absolute and despotic powers, and said he would never be satisfied until there was a Republican at the head of our armies — Fessenden followed — He said a member of the Cabinet informed him that there was a back stairs and malign influence which controlled the President, and overruled all the decisions of the cabinet, and he understood Mr Seward to be meant.   He was for demanding his removal &c

Grimes then offered a resolution of want of confidence in the Secretary of State, upon which Fessenden asked a vote by ayes and noes.  Dixon then made a speech against the resolution — King spoke against it.

“I then rose and said the war must proceed till one party of the other was brought to unconditional submission — We must conquer the rebels or they would us.  There could be no compromise &c.  The war ought to be made as vigorous and powerful as possible &c. If what was charged upon Mr Seward was true — if he was opposed to a vigorous prosecution of the war — in favor of compromise & he ought not to retain his place — but I had no evidence the charges were true, and could not, therefore, vote for the resolution &c   Admitting them to be true I did not then think the resolution should be adopted  — It was not the proper course of proceeding.   There should be harmony, and unity of purpose and action between all the departments of government, and all the loyal people or we could not succeed.  This would be war between Congress and the president, and the knowledge of this antagonism would injure our cause greatly in the Country.  It would produce strife here, and strife among the people if insisted on &c.  I thought a deputation of our body should be sent to have a full, free, and kind interview with the President — to learn the true state of case — give him their views &c   Several Senators sided with me, and  adjournment was moved till tomorrow to give time for reflection — This was opposed, and a vote demanded by Trumbull and others, but the motion to adjourn was put and carried

These ultra, radical, unreasoning men who raised the insane cry of on to Richmond in July 1861, and have kept up a war on our generals ever since — who forced thru the confiscation bills, and extorted from the President the proclamations and lost him the confidence of the country are now his bitterest enemies, and doing all in their power to break down.   They fear the indignation of the people will break in fury upon their own heads, as it should, and they are intent upon giving it another direction

Rather than confront President Lincoln directly, it was agreed by the senators to send a delegation to meet with him.  New York Senator Preston King leaves the caucus to warn Seward. “They may do as they please about me, but they shall not put the President in a false position on my account,” Seward informs King.   Seward sends his resignation – and that of his son, the assistant secretary of state – directly to the White House where the president is having dinner.   King arrives shortly thereafter and is quizzed on the meeting at the Capitol.   The president went to Seward’s house to try to get him to withdraw his resignation, but Seward was obdurate.   Seward said he would be glad to be relieved of the burdens of office.  President Lincoln responded: ‘Ah, yes, Governor, that will do very well for you, but I…can’t get out.”

Later, Francis P. Blair, Sr., father of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, arrives at the White House to urge the reinstatement of General George B. McClellan as head of the Army of the Potomac.      Historian Allen Guelzo wrote: “ Lincoln saw this at once as a challenge to his own authority, not Seward’s.  If he could only have a cabinet that the caucus approved, he might as well hand over most of his administration into their control or, even worse, hand over the powers they were vaguely accusing Seward of exercising to Chase.  Lincoln needed the caucus and he needed Chase, but he had no intention of letting them wrench the reins of the executive branch out of his hands.”

Published in: on December 17, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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