President Lincoln Meets with Senate Delegation Seeking Cabinet Reorganization

December 18, 1862

In the morning, President Lincoln meets with three Border State representatives – Hon. J. Kentucky’s John Crittenden, Maryland’s` J. W. Crisfield, and Missouri’s  William A. Hall  – presumably to discuss slavery and the upcoming Emancipation Proclamation.

President Lincoln responds to a note from Vermont Senator Jacob Collamer, which states: “A committee of the Republican Senators desire an interview with the President at as early an hour after six oclock this evening as may suit his convenience.” President Lincoln tersely responds: “I will see the Committee named, at 7 P.M. to-day.”

Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning writes in his diary:  “After the adjournment of the Senate the Republican Senators again met, and resumed the consideration of the question which was before us yesterday.  Many speeches were made, all expressive of want of confidence int he President and his cabinet.  Some of them denouncing the President and expressing a willingness to vote for a resolution asking him to resign. Most of those who spoke were the partizans of Mr Chase, and excepted him from the censure they bestowed upon the cabinet.

“In my remarks on yesterday I said I knew there was no more honest, upright, conscientious man than the President, and that I knew him to be in favour of the most vigorous prosecution of the war, and that he intended to prosecute until every state was restored to the Union, and every rebel compelled to submit to the authority of the government

To Trumbull repeated substantially the same thing, but said the President was thwarted in his purposes by members of the cabinet and Genl who were not for vigorous measures

Senator Harris offered a resolution declaring in substance that a reconstruction of the cabinet would give renewed confidence in the administration

Sumner moved that a Committee of seven be appointed to call on the President and represent to him the necessity of a change in men and measures. Both resolutions were adopted — every Senator present voting for them except King; Mr Foot was absent.

The Committee consisted of Collamer, Wade, Fessenden, Harris, Grimes, Sumner, Trumbull, Howard, and Pomeroy.  They are to report to another caucus to be called hereafter.

Browning writes: “In the evening went with Mr D W Wise of Boston to the Presidents.  The Servant at door reported that he was not in his office — was in the house and had directed them to say that he could not be seen to night

I told the boy to tell him I wished to see him a moment and went up in to his room.   He soon came in.   I saw in a moment that he was in distress — that more than usual trouble was pressing upon him.  I introduced Mr Wise who wished to get some items for the preparation of a biography, but soon discovered that the President was in no mood to talk upon the subject.   We took our leave.   When we got to the door the President called to me saying he wished to speak to me a moment.  Mr Wise passed into the hall and I returned.  He asked me if I was at the caucus yesterday.  I told him I was and the day before also.   Said he ‘What do these men want?’  I answered ‘I hardly know Mr President, but they are exceedingly violent towards the administration, and what we did yesterday was the gentlest thing that could be done.   We had to do that or worse.’   Said he ‘They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half disposed to gratify them.’   I replied Some of them do wish to get rid of you, but the fortunes of the Country are bound up with your fortunes, and you stand firmly at your post and hold the helm with a steady hand — To relinquish it now would bring upon us certain and inevitable ruin.’   Said he ‘We are now on the brink of destruction.  It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.’  I answered ‘be firm and we will yet save the Country.  Do not be drive from your post.   You ought to have crushed the ultra, impracticable men last summer.  You could then have done it, and escaped these troubles.   But we will not talk of the past.  Let us be hopeful and take care of the future   Mr Seward appears now to be the especial object of their hostility.   Still I believe he has managed our foreign affairs as any one could have done Yet they are very bitter upon him, and some of them very bitter upon you.’   He then said ‘Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it and repeat it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.’  I understood this to refer to the charges against Mr Seward.

“He then added ‘the Committee is to be up to see me at 7 O’clock.  Since I heard last of the proceedings of the caucus I have been more distressed than by any event of my life.’  I bade him good night, and left him

            At the appointed hour, President Lincoln meets with Senate committee consisting of Vermont’s Collamer, Ohio’s Benjamin F. Wade (who may not have come) , Maine’s William Pitt Fessenden, New York Ira Harris, Iowa’s James Grimes, Mass’s Charles Sumner, Illinois’s Lyman Trumbull, Michigan’s Howard and Kansas’s Pomeroy.  “The meeting then focused on Seward, who was roundly condemned by Sumner, Grimes and Trumbull.  Sumner complained about Seward’s handling of foreign affairs, especially the letter to Dayton in which Seward had equated abolitionists with the rebels.  Trumbull took Seward to task for his ‘little bell.’  Grimes insisted that he had ‘no confidence whatever’ in the secretary of state.  But when Lincoln asked bluntly whether al present wanted Seward out of the cabinet, only Pomeroy of Kansas joined the trio of Sumner, Grimes and Trumbull.  New York’s Ira Harris said that Seward’s influence in New York was such that his departure from the cabinet would injure the party, while the others were noncommittal.”

Fessenden biographer Charles A. Jellison wrote:  “After Chairman Collamer had read a paper which embodied the views of the republican caucus, the individual members of the committee proceeded to express their own feelings on the administration’s conduct of the war.  Wade complained that the war was being entrusted to men who had little sympathy with the Union cause.  Grimes and Howard singled out Seward for attack, both declaring their complete lack of confidence int he Secretary of State.  Sumner was of the same opinion.  Senator Fessenden, somewhat more tactful than his colleagues, began by expressing confidence in the patriotism and integrity of the President and making it clear that the Senate had no desire to dictate to him concerning his cabinet.  He did feel, however, that it was up to the members of the Senate, in compliance with their role as the President’s constitutional advisors, to offer him their friendly counsel, when, in their judgment, the situation seemed to merit such action.  Obviously echoing the complaints of Stanton and Chase, Fessenden declared that there was a general feeling in the country that the President was relying too heavily upon the advice of certain few individuals within the Cabinet, while paying only slight attention to the considered judgment of other members.  As an advisory board the Cabinet had simply not been permitted to play a very useful role.  It had met sporadically and infrequently, and it was common knowledge that on many occasions decisions of major importance had been reached by the President without reference to his full Cabinet, and in some instances without its knowledge.  It also felt, Fessenden continued, that Secretary of State Seward tended to exert an unfortunate influence upon his Cabinet colleagues and upon the conduct of the war.  In other words, although not explicitly stated, it was clear that Fessenden, along with the other members of the committee, was taking the President to task for depending too much upon the erratic notions of Seward and other ‘incompetents’ in the cabinet, and too little upon the matured wisdom of Chase and Stanton who represented the only true metal among the President’s advisors.

Shortly after ten o’clock the meeting came to an end.  No plan of action had been arrived at or even discussed, but the committee had the President’s assurance that he would give careful thought to the issues that had been raised.   ‘While they seemed to believe in my honesty.’ Lincoln remarked not long after the visit, ‘they also appeared to think that when I had in me any good purpose or intention Seward contrived to suck it out of me unperceived.”

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