Cabinet Discusses Captured Cotton

August 16, 1864

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary regarding a Cabinet meeting dispute about captured cotton: “Have been compelled to advise the Treasury that their management and delay is destroying the public credit. Men will not contract with the government if in violation of good faith they are kept out of their pay for months after it is due. Mr. [Treasury Secretary William P.] Fessenden has not yet returned.”

At the Cabinet-meeting to-day Mr. Seward inquired of me in relation to some captured cotton claimed by the French. I told him I had no recollection of it, but, if a naval capture, it had been sent to the courts for adjudication. This, he said, would not answer his purpose. If they had no business to capture it, the French would not be satisfied. I remarked that neither would the courts, who, and not the State or Navy Departments, had exclusive jurisdiction and control of the matter; it was for the judiciary to decide whether the capture was good prize, and whether, if not good prize, there was probable cause, and to award damages if there had been a flagrant wrong committed.

As Mr. Seward has no knowledge of admiralty or maritime law or of prize proceedings, I was not displeased that Mr. Bates took up the matter and inquired by what authority he or the Executive Department of the government attempted to interfere with a matter that was in court. Seward attempted to reply, but the Attorney-General was so clearly right, and Seward attempted to reply, but the Attorney-General was so clearly right, and Seward was so conscious of his inability to controvert the law officer, that he flew into a violent rage and traversed the room, said the Attorney-General had better undertake to administer the State Department, that he wanted to keep off a war, he had kept off wars, but he could not do it he was to be thwarted and denied information. I told him he would have all the information we had on the subject, but it was not less clear that until the judicial remedies were exhausted there should be Executive interference, no resort to diplomacy or negotiations.

It was to me a painful exhibition of want of common intelligence as to his duties. He evidently supposes that his position is one of unlimited and unrestrained power, that he can override the courts and control and direct their action, that a case of prize he can interfere with and withdraw if he pleases. AL his conversation exhibited such utter ignorance of his own duties and those of the court in these matters that one could scarcely credit it as possible. But it has been so through his whose administration of the State Department.

As some Republicans sought jobs in a second Lincoln administration, other Republicans sought to prevent what they saw as certain defeat. The fine line that President Lincoln must walk politically is reflected in a letter that he sends an upstate Republican leader regarding the congressional renomination of Roscoe Conkling, who had lost a reelection bid in 1862: “Yours of the 9th. Inst. was duly received, and submitted to Secretary Seward. He makes a response which I herewith inclose to you. I add for myself that I am for the regular nominee in all cases; and that no one could be more satisfactory to me as the nominee in that District, than Mr. Conkling. I do not mean to say there [are] not others as good as he in the District; but I think I know him to be at least good enough.” The leader, Ward Hunt replies: “Your favor enclosing Mr Sewards letter, on the subject of Mr Conklings election, in this district is received with great pleasure. The assurances contained in Mr Sewards letter are very gratifying, and in the event of Mr Conklings nomination for Congress, I shall venture to make application for the influence that can be exerted, and that will be of great service to him.”

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Published in: on August 16, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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