Special Cabinet Meeting at the White House

December 19, 1862

There was a special Cabinet Meeting at the White House on 10:30 AM without Secretary of State William H. Seward.   Attorney General Edward Bates writes in his diary: “The prest. (Enjoining strict secrecy) informed us that on the night of the 17th. Senator Preston King and Fredk. Seward called on him and handed in the resignations of W.H. Seward, sec; of State, and Mr. Frederick Seward, Asst. Sec., of State.

“They said, substantially, that the Republican senators, had, in caucus, determined unanimously, that the pub[li]c, interest required that Mr. Seward should retire from the adm[istratio]n.

Mr. King said that, at first, the document prepared, was against Mr. S.[eward] by name, but that afterwards, it was changed to a more general form, but still, in fact, aimed at Mr. S[eward].

That Mr. S.[eward] said that he was no longer in condition to do good service to the Country, and so, was glad to be relieved from a great and painful burden – and did not wish any effort made to retain him.

“The Prest. further informed us that the Rep[ublica]n senators [sic] apptd. a comee. of 9. [Collamer, Fessenden, Grimes, Harris, Howard, Pomeroy, Sumner, Trumbull, and Wade] who waited on him and presented the paper agreed to in the meeting which he read –

It declares that the only way to put down the rebellion and save the nation, is a vigorous prosecution of the war: It did not name any minister of state, nor allude directly to anyone; but said that it was dangerous to have any one in command of an army, who was not hearty in the cause and the policy above set forth. &c[.]

“The Prest said that he had a long conference with the Comee. who seemeed [sic] earnest and said – not malicious nor passionate – not denouncing any one, but all of them attributing to Mr. S. a lukewarmness in the conduct of the war, and seeming to consider him the real cause of our failures.

“To use the Pest’s quaint language, while they believed in the Prest’s honesty, they seemed to think that when he had in him any good purposes, Mr. S. contrived to such them out of him unperceived.

“The Prest was evidently distressed – fearing that the rest of us might take [it] as a hint to retire also – said that he could not afford to lose us – did not see how he could get along with any new cabinet, made of new materials.

“There was a good deal of conversation, not very pointed, when, upon the Pt’s suggestion, to meet us at the Pt’s to night, at 7.30, to have a free talk [we adjourned].

The P. understands that Mr. S’s resignation a irrevocable – But nothing was sd. of his successor.  At night, we met the comee. of senators and had a long talk of some 4 hours[.]

‘The Prest. stated the case and read the Resolves of the senators, and commented, with some mild severity, upon parts of it. Several senators spoke, with more or less sharpness, all of them directing their force agst Mr. S. Collomar and Fessend, mildly; Grymes, Sumner and Trumbull sharply – Grimes especially –

“Several of the cabinet spoke[.] Chase spoke a little abt. the finances[,] seemed offended, and said he would n’t have come if he had expected to be arraigned here – Blair spoke better than common, tried to shew the genl harmony of the admn. – defended Mr. S. &c and objected to the idea advanced by the Senators, that every important measure and appt. shd. undergo strict scruteny [sic] in C. C.

“I spoke at some length, agreeing with Blair, and going beyond him on the last item.

“Senator Sumner cited some bad passages in Mr. S’s lately published correspondence.  Blamed him for the publication, as unnecessary and untimely, and denounced, as untrue S’s charge that the two extremes had united to stir up servile insurrection.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles also reported on the Cabinet session: “Soon after reaching the Department this A.M., I received a note from Nicolay, the President’s secretary, requesting me to attend a special Cabinet-meeting at Half-past ten.  All the members were punctually there except Seward.

The President desired that what he had to communicate should not be the subject of conversation elsewhere, and proceeded to inform us that on Wednesday evening, about six o’clock, Senator Preston King and F.W. Seward came into his room, each bearing a communication.  That which Mr. King presented was the resignation of the Secretary of State, and Mr. F.W. Seward handed in his own.  Mr. King then informed the President that at a Republican caucus held that day a pointed and positive opposition had shown itself against the Secretary of State, which terminated in a unanimous expression, with one exception, against him and a wish for his removal.  The feeding finally shaped itself into resolutions of a general character, and the appointment of a committee of nine to bear them to the President, and to communicate to him the sentiment of the Republican Senators.  Mr. King, the former colleague and the personal friend of Mr. Seward, being also from the same State, felt it to be a duty to inform the Secretary at once of what had occurred.  On receiving this information, which was wholly a surprise, Mr. Seward immediately wrote, and by Mr. King tendered his resignation.  Mr. King suggested it would be well for the committee to wait upon the President at an early moment, and, the Secretary agreeing with him, Mr. King on Wednesday morning notified Judge Collamer, the chairman, who sent word to the President that they would call at the Executive Mansion at any hour after six that evening, and the President sent word he would receive them at seven.

The committee came at the time specified, and the President says the evening was spent in a pretty free and animated conversation.  No opposition was manifested towards any other member of the Cabinet than Mr. Seward.  Some not very friendly feelings were shown towards one or two others, but no wish that any one should leave but the Secretary of State.  Him they charged, if not with infidelity, with indifference, with want of earnestness in the War, with want of sympathy with the country in this great struggle, and with many things objectionable, and especially with a too great ascendancy and control of the President and measures of administration.  This, he said, was the point and pith of their complaint.

The President says that in reply to the committee he stated how this movement had shocked and grieved him; that the Cabinet he had selected in view of impending difficulties and of all the responsibilities upon himself; that he and the members had gone on harmoniously, whatever had been their previous party feelings and associations; that there had never been serious disagreements, though there had been differences; that in the overwhelming troubles of the country, which had borne heavily upon him, he had been sustained and consoled by the good feeling and the mutual and unselfish confidence and zeal that pervaded the Cabinet.

He expressed a hope that there would be no combined movement on the part of other members of the Cabinet to resist this assault whatever might be the termination.  Said this movement was uncalled for, that there was no such charge, admitting all that was said, as should break up or overthrow a Cabinet, nor was it possible for him to go on with a total abandonment of old friends.

Mr. Bates stated the difference between our system and that of England, where a change of ministry involved a new election, dissolution of Parliament, etc.  Three or four of the members of the Cabinet said they had heard of the resignation; Blair the day preceding; Stanton through the President, on whom he had made a business call; Mr. Bates when coming to the meeting.

The President requested that we should, with him, meet the committee.  This did not receive the approval of Mr. Chase, who said he had no knowledge whatever of the movement, or the resignation, until since he had entered the room.  Mr. Bates knew of no good that would come of an interview.  I stated that I could see no harm in it, and if the President wished it, I thought it a duty for us to attend.  The proceeding was of an extraordinary character.  Mr. Blair thought it would be well for us to be present, and finally all acquiesced.  The President named half-past seven this evening.

Postmaster Montgomery Blair offers his resignation, but the president rejects it.

Senator Orville H. Browning encounters President Lincoln in the afternoon:  “I did not wish to thrust my opinions unsolicited upon the President, and did not go; but in the course of the afternoon I met him between the White House and War Department, and remarked to him that I had heard that Mr Seward had resigned, and asked him if it was so.  He replied that he did not want that talked about at present, as he was trying to keep things along.  This was all that passed

“He cant ‘keep them along’.   The cabinet will go to pieces.   In conversation with Mr Ewing at night he said, in allusion to the Senate caucus that he had no doubt Chase was at the bottom of all the mischief, and was setting the radicals on to assail Seward.

In the evening President Lincoln meets with the Senate delegation.  The president is prepared to play an audacious game of chess in which Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase is a very reluctant pawn.    President Lincoln is determined to maintain control of his administration and not yield his executive responsibilities to Congress.  He had planned to put Chase on the spot as the author of many misrepresentations of Cabinet intrigue and disagreements.   Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “That night, from seven-thirty till almost midnight, the White House witnessed one of the most momentous meetings in the nation’s history.  Lincoln managed it with superb adroitness.  He did not make the mistake of having the cabinet with him when the committee arrived.  Instead, the committee (without Wade) and Cabinet (without Seward) gathered in the same anteroom.  The committee trooped into Lincoln’s office first, and he asked their permission to admit the cabinet for a free discussion; when they came in, fourteen in all were seated. The President opened the proceedings in a carefully matured speech. After reading the committee resolutions and recapitulating the previous night’s conference, he launched into a defense of his Cabinet relations.”   Charles A. Jellison, biographer of William Pitt Fessenden, wrote that “The Secretary of the Treasury was caught in an unpleasant situation.  His voice had been among the loudest in condemning Lincoln’s haphazard attitude toward the Cabinet and in denouncing his colleague Seward, and he was in a sense the star witness upon whom the disgruntled Republicans had built their case.  But he was also a member of the President’s official family and to speak out openly against his chief, in the presence of his chief, would be most assuredly both embarrassing and unwise.  So it was that he chose the less hazardous path.  No, he was not aware that here had been any lack of unity in the Cabinet.  Yes, he thought that matters of importance had generally ben submitted to the Cabinet for consideration, and that there had been a general ‘acquiescence’ on public measures.”

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes of the session in his diary: “At the meeting…there were present of the committee Senators Collamer, Fessenden, Harris, Trumbull, Grimes, Howard, Sumner, and Pomeroy.  Wade was absent.  The President and all the Cabinet but Seward were present.  The subject was opened by the President, who read the resolutions and stated the substance of his interviews with the committee,–their object and purpose.  He spoke of the unity of his Cabinet, and how, though they could not be expected to think and speak alike on all subjects, all had acquiesced in measures when once decided.  The necessities of the times, he said, had prevented frequent and long sessions of the Cabinet, and the submission of every question at the meetings.

Secretary Chase indorsed the President’s statement fully and entirely, but regretted that there was not a more full and thorough consideration and canvass of every important measure in open Cabinet.

Senator Collamer, the chairman of the committee, succeeded the President and calmly and fairly presented the views of the committee and of those whom they represented.  They wanted united counsels, combined wisdom, and energetic action.  If there is truth in the maxim that in a multitude of counselors there is safety, it might be well that those advisers who were near the President and selected by him, and all of whom were more or less responsible, should be consulted on the great questions which affected the national welfare, and that the ear of the Executive should be open to all and that he should have the minds of all.

Senator Fessenden was skillful but a little tart; felt, it could be seen, more than he cared to say; wanted the whole Cabinet to consider and decide great questions, and that no one in particular should absorb and direct the whole Executive action.  Spoke of a remark which he had heard from J.Q. Adams on the floor of Congress in regard to a measure of his administration.  Mr. Adams said the measure was adopted against his wishes and opinion, but he was outvoted by Mr. Clay and others.  He wished an administration so conducted.

Grimes, Sumner and Trumbull were pointed, emphatic, and unequivocal in their opposition to Mr. Seward, whose zeal and sincerity in this conflict they doubled; each was unrelenting and unforgiving.

Blair spoke earnestly and well.  Sustained the President, and dissented most decidedly from the idea of a plural Executive; claimed that the President was accountable for his administration, might ask opinions or not of either and as many as he pleased, of all or none, of his Cabinet.  Mr. Bates took much the same view.

The President managed his own case, speaking freely, and showed great tact, shrewdness, and ability, provided such a subject were a proper one for such a meeting and discussion.  I have no doubt he considered it most judicious to conciliate the Senators with respectful deference, whatever may have been his opinion of their interference.  When he closed his remarks, he said it would be a gratification to him if each member of the committee would state whether he now thought it advisable to dismiss Mr. Seward, and whether his exclusion would strengthen or weaken the Administration and the Union cause in their respective States.  Grimes, Trumbull, and Sumner, who had expressed themselves decided against the continuance of Mr. Seward in the Cabinet, indicated no change of opinion.  Collamer and Fessenden declined committing themselves on the subject; had in their action the welfare of the whole country in view; were not prepared to answer the questions.  Senator Harris felt it a duty to say that while many of the friends of the Administration would be gratified, others would feel deeply wounded, and the effect of Mr. Seward’s retirement would, on the whole, be calamitous in the State of New York.  Pomeroy of Kansas said, personally, he believed the withdrawal of Mr. Seward would be a good movement and he sincerely wished it might take place.  Howard of Michigan declined answering the question.

During the discussion, the volume of diplomatic correspondence, recently published, was alluded to; some letters denounced as unwise and impolitic were specified, one of which, a confidential dispatch to Mr. Adams, was read.  If it was unwise to write, it was certainly injudicious and indiscreet to publish such a document.  Mr. Seward has genius and talent,–no one better knows it than himself,–but for one in his place he is often wanting in careful discrimination, true wisdom, sound judgment, and discreet statesmanship.  The committee believe he thinks more of the glorification of Seward than the welfare of the country.  He wishes the glorification of both and believes he is the man to accomplish it, but has unwittingly and unwarily begotten and brought on the part of Senators, by his endeavors to impress them and others with the belief that the is the Administration.  It is a mistake; the Senators dislike,–have measure and know him.

It was nearly midnight when we left the President; and it could not be otherwise than that all my wakeful moments should be absorbed with a subject which, time and circumstances considered, as of a grave importance to the Administration and the country.  A Senatorial combination to dictate to the President in regard to his political family in the height of a civil war which threatens the existence of the Republican cannot be permitted to succeed, even if the person to whom they object were as obnoxious as they represent; but Seward’s foibles are not serious failings.  After fully canvassing the subject in all its phases, my mind was clear as to the course which it was my duty to pursue, and what I believed was the President’s duty also.

Historian Helen Nicolay wrote: “Afterward Mr. Lincoln told his son Robert that as the meeting was breaking up Senator Trumbull came to him with eyes blazing and said to him, ‘Lincoln, somebody has lied like hell!’  To which the President replied quietly, ‘Not tonight.’”

Published in: on December 19, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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