President Lincoln Resolves Cabinet Crisis, Rejects two Cabinet Resignations

December 20, 1862

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase offers his resignation to President Lincoln today.  First, Secretary of the Navy Gideon  Welles urges President Lincoln not to accept Secretary of State William H. Seward’s resignation earlier in the week.  Welles, who often clashed with Seward over navy and maritime policy, writes in his diary:

My first movement this morning was to call on the President as soon as I supposed he could have breakfasted.  Governor Robertson of Kentucky was with him when I went in, but soon left.  I informed the President I had pondered the events of yesterday and last evening, and felt it incumbent on me to advise him not to accept the resignation of Mr. Seward; that if there were objections, real or imaginary, against Mr. Seward, the time, manner, and circumstances–the occasion, and the method of presenting what the Senators considered objections–were all inappropriate and wrong; that no party or faction should be permitted to dictate to the President in regard to his Cabinet; that it would be of evil example and fraught with incalculable injury to the Government and country; that neither the legislative department, nor the Senate branch of it, should be allowed to encroach on the Executive prerogatives and rights; that it devolved on him–and was his duty to assert and maintain the rights and independence of the Executive; that he ought not, against his own convictions, to yield one iota of the authority intrusted to him on the demand of either branch of Congress or of both combined, or to any party, whatever might be its views and intentions; that Mr. Seward had his infirmities and errors, but they were venial; that he and I differed on many things, as did other members of the Cabinet; that he was sometimes disposed to step beyond his own legitimate bounds and not duly respect the rights of his associates, but these were matters that did not call for Senatorial interference.  In short, I considered it for the true interest of the country, now as in the future, that this scheme should be defeated; that, so believing, I had at the earliest moment given him my conclusions.

The President was much gratified; said the whole thing had struck him as it had me, and if carried out as the Senators prescribed, the whole Government must cave in.  It could not stand, could not hold water; the bottom would be out.

I added that, having expressed my wish that he would not accept Mr. Seward’s resignation, I thought it important that Seward should not press its acceptance, nor did I suppose he would.  In this he also concurred, and asked if I had seen Seward.  I replied I had not, my first duty was with him, and, having ascertained that we agreed, I would now go over and see him.  He earnestly desired me to do so.

I went immediately to Seward’s house.  Stanton was with him.  Seward was excited, talking vehemently to Stanton of the course pursued and the result that must follow if the scheme succeeded; told Stanton he (Stanton) would be the next victim, that there was a call for a meeting at the Cooper Institute this evening.  Stanton said he had seen it; I had not.  Seward got the Herald, got me to read; but Stanton seized the paper, as Seward and myself entered into conversation, and here related what the President had already communicated,–how Preston King had come to him, he wrote his resignation at once, and so did Fred, etc., etc.  In the mean time Stanton rose, and remarked he had much to do, and, as Governor S. had been over this matter with him, he would leave.

I then stated my interview with the President, my advice that the President must not accept, not he press, his resignation.  Seward was greatly pleased with my views; said he had but one course before him when the doings of the Senators were communicated, but that if the President and country required of him any duty in this emergency he did not feel at liberty to refuse it.  He spoke of his long political experience; dwelt on his own sagacity and his great services; feels deeply this movement, which was wholly unexpected; tries to suppress any exhibition of personal grievance or disappointment, but is painfully wounded, mortified, and chagrined.  I told him I should return and report to the President our interview and that he acquiesced in my suggestions.  He said he had no objections, but he thought the subject should be disposed of one way or the other at once.  He is disappointed, I see, that the President did not promptly refuse to consider his resignation, and dismiss, or refuse to parley with, the committee.

When I returned to the White House, Chase and Stanton were in the President’s office, but he was absent.  A few words were interchanged on the great topic in hand.  I was very emphatic in my opposition to the acceptance of Seward’s resignation.  Neither gave me a direct answer nor did either express an opinion on the subject, though I think both wished to be understood as acquiescing.

President Lincoln writes Chase: “Secretary of the Treasury, please do not go out of town.”  Chase responded:

I intended going to Philadelphia this afternoon, but shall, of course, observe your ‘direction’ not to leave town.

Will you allow me to say that something you said or looked, when I handed you my resignation this morning, made on my mind the impression that, having received the resignations both of Gov. Seward and myself, you felt you could relieve yourself from trouble by declining to accept either and that the feeling was one of gratification.

“Let me assure you few things could give me so much satisfaction as to promote in any way your comfort, especially if I might promote at the same time the success of your administration, and the good of the country which is so near your heart.

‘But I am very far from desiring you to decline accepting my resignation–very far from thinking, indeed, that its non-acceptance and my continuance in the Treasury Department will be most for your comfort or further benefit of the country.

‘On the contrary I could not if I would conceal from myself that recent events have too rudely jostled the unity of your cabinet and disclosed an opinion too deeply seated and too generally received in Congress & the Country to be safely disregarded that the concord in judgment and action essential to successful administration does not prevail among its members.

By some the embarrassment of administration is attributed to me; by others to Mr. Seward; by others, still to other Heads of Departments.  Now neither Mr. Seward nor myself is essential to you or to the Country; we both earnestly wish to be relieved from the oppressive charge of our respective Departments; and we both have placed our resignations in your hands.

A resignation is a grave act; never performed by a right minded man without forethought or with reserve.  I tendered mine from a sense of duty to the country, to you, and to myself–and I tendered it to be accepted.  So did, as you have been fully assured, Mr. Seward tender his.

I trust therefore that you will regard yourself as completely relieved from all personal considerations.  It is my honest judgment that we can both better serve you and the country at this time, as private citizens, than in your cabinet…”

Welles writes of developments later in the day: “When the President came in, which was in a few moments, his first address was to me, asking if I ‘had seen the man.’  I replied that I had, and that he assented to my views.  He then turned to Chase and said, ‘I sent for you, for this matter is giving me great trouble.’  At our first interview this morning the President rang and directed that a message be sent to Mr. Chase.  Chase said he had been painfully affected by the meeting last evening, which was a total surprise to him, and, after some not very explicit remarks as to how he was affected, informed the President the had prepared his resignation of the office of the Secretary of the Treasury.  ‘Where is it?’ said the President quickly, his eye lighting upon in a moment.  ‘I brought it with me,’ said Chase, taking the paper from his pocket; ‘I wrote it this morning.’  ‘let me have it,’ said the President, reaching his long arm and fingers towards C., who held on, seemingly reluctant to part with the letter, which was sealed, and which he apparently hesitated to surrender.  Something further he wished to say, but the President was eager and did not perceive it, but took and hastily opened the letter.

‘This,’ said he, looking towards me with a triumphal laugh, ‘cuts the Gordian knot.’  An air of satisfaction spread over his countenance such as I have not seen for some time.  ‘I can dispose of this subject now without difficulty,’ he added, as he turned on his chair; ‘I see my way clear.’

Chase sat by Stanton, fronting the fire; the President beside the fire, his face towards them, Stanton nearest him.  I was on the sofa near the east window.  While the President was reading the note, which was brief, Chase turned around and looked towards me, a little perplexed.  He would, I think, have been better satisfied could this interview with the President have been without the presence of others, or at least if I was away.  The President was so delighted that he saw not how others were affected.

‘Mr. President,’ said Stanton, with solemnity, ‘I informed you day before yesterday that I was ready to tender you my resignation.  I wish you, sir, to consider my resignation at this time in your possession.’

‘You may go to your Department,’ said the President; ‘I don’t want yours.  This,’ holding out Chase’s letter, ‘is all I want; this relieves me; my way is clear; ;the trouble is ended.  I will detain neither of you longer.’  We all rose to leave, but Stanton lingered and held back as we reached the door.  Chase and myself came downstairs together.  He was moody and taciturn.  Some one stopped him on the lower stairs and I passed on, but C. was not a minute behind me, and before I reached the Department, Stanton came staving along.

Preston King called at my house this evening and gave me particulars of what had been said and done at the caucuses of the Republican Senators,–of the surprise he felt when he found the hostility so universal against Seward, and that some of the calmest and most considerate Senators were the most decided; stated the course pursued by himself, which was frank, friendly, and manly.  He was greatly pleased with my course, of which he had been informed by Seward and the President in part; and I gave him some facts which they did not.  Blair tells me that his father’s views correspond with mine, and the approval of F.P. Blair and Preston King gives me assurance that I am right.

Montgomery Blair is confident that Stanton has been instrumental in getting up this movement against Seward to screen himself, and turn attention from the management of the War Department.  There may be something in this surmise of Blair; but I am inclined to think that Chase, Stanton, and Caleb Smith have each, but without concert, participated, if not directly, by expressions of discontent to their Senatorial intimates.  Chase and Smith, I know, are a good deal dissatisfied with Seward and have not hesitated to make known their feelings in some quarters, though, I apprehend, not to the President.  With Stanton I have little intimacy.  He came into the Cabinet under Seward’s wing, and he knows it, but Stanton is, by nature, an intriguer, courts favor, is not faithful in his friendships, is given to secret, underhand combinations.  His obligations to Seward are great, but would not deter him from raising a breeze against Seward to favor himself.  Chase and Seward entered the Cabinet as rivals, and in cold courtesy have so continued.  There was an effort by Seward’s friends to exclude Chase from the Treasury; the President d not yield to it, but it is obvious that Seward’s more pleasant nature and consummate skill have enabled him to get to windward of Chase in administrative management, and the latter, who has but little tact, feels it.  Transactions take place of a general character, not unfrequently, of which Chase and others are not advised until they are made public.  Often the fact reaches them through the papers.  Seward has not exhibited shrewdness in this, [though] it may have afforded him a temporary triumph as regarded Chase, and he doubtless flatters himself that it strengthens a belief which he desires should prevail that he is the ‘power behind the throne greater than the throne itself,’ that he is the real Executive.  The result of all this has been the alienation of a portion of his old friends without getting new ones, and finally this appointment of a committee which asked his removal. The objections urged are, I notice, the points on which Chase is most sensitive.


Having a balanced set of resignations from both sides of the dispute, President Lincoln rejects them both – intent on keeping his Cabinet together.  President Lincoln tells New York Senator Ira Harris: “I can ride now — I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”   When John Forney pressured the President to refuse both the resignation of Chase and Seward, Lincoln  replied: “If one goes, the other must; they must hunt in couples.”

Seward Biographer John M. Taylor wrote: “Ironically it fell to Seward to draft the stiff press release that put an end to the crisis: “The president on Saturday acknowledged the reception of the resignations of the Secretary of State and the Treasury and informed them that after due deliberation he had come to the conclusion that an acceptance of them would be incompatible with the public welfare, and thereupon requested them to resume their respective functions.  The two Secretaries have accordingly resumed their places as Heads of their Departments.”

That evening President Lincoln meets with General Ambrose  Burnside in evening regarding the future tactics of the Army of the Potomac.  President Lincoln had wired him the previous day: “Come of course, if in your own judgment it is safe to do so.”  Meanwhile, Burnside’s subordinates were plotting behind his back to undermine him and his strategy.

Published in: on December 20, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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