Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

December 17, 1862: Lincoln’s Cabinet Crisis

Less than a week after the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln confronted one of the most serious political crises he faced during the war. The debacle fed mounting frustration among Republicans over the administration’s conduct of the war. Led by its Radical members, the Senate Republican caucus tried to force Secretary of State William H. Seward out of the Cabinet. The Radicals accused Seward of opposing vigorous prosecution of the war, exercising undue influence on the President, and overruling other Cabinet members, and blamed him for the administration’s slowness in embracing emancipation. Many of the Radicals hoped his ouster would increase the influence of their favorite in the Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

Seward had indeed entered the administration in 1861 imagining that he might guide Lincoln, who, he believed, had little sense of how to respond to the great crisis facing the country. But Lincoln’s relative paucity of national experience obscured his considerable political skills. The two men developed a close working relationship in which Lincoln made it plain that he would decide and issue executive branch policies. His reluctance to endorse immediate emancipation came about because of his own astute evaluation of border state politics, and not from Seward’s influence.

A committee of predominantly Radical senators went to the White House on December 18 and shared with the President their concern about Seward’s influence in the administration. Lincoln had little patience for their conspiratorial view of his administration, exclaiming to his friend Orville H. Browning, “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.”[1] Nonetheless, Seward resigned in order to avoid becoming a liability to the administration. Lincoln did not accept his resignation but instead convened a meeting with his Cabinet on December 19, without Seward, to ascertain their views about how the Cabinet operated. Despite reservations, most of the Cabinet members agreed with Lincoln’s assessment that he fairly valued their opinions and that the Cabinet sought agreement in its deliberations. The President then called the senators back to the White House, where they were surprised to find themselves in a meeting with the Cabinet (absent Seward). Lincoln explained that, contrary to what the senators had heard, Cabinet members freely debated issues and reached a consensus before policies were announced. Although Chase offered a mild dissent, no other Cabinet member contradicted the President.

Embarrassed by this turn of events, Chase submitted his resignation, precisely the turn of events Lincoln needed in order to maintain the political balance in his Cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln’s response when Chase handed him his resignation: “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 he added.”[2] Knowing that he needed the support of both Radical and conservative Republicans, Lincoln refused to accept either resignation, and both Seward and Chase remained in the Cabinet. As the President reportedly told Senator Ira Harris of New York in one of his characteristic rural analogies, “Now I can ride: I have  a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”[3] Lincoln accomplished two important goals in these delicate maneuvers. By managing the disparate personalities and ideologies in his administration he continued to enjoy the counsel of some of the North’s best political minds. The episode also preserved the President’s prerogative to administer his Cabinet and the executive branch as he saw fit. Republicans, Democrats, and border state Unionists in Congress would continue to use their legislative and investigative power to promote their own agendas, but as commander in chief, Lincoln would possess ultimate authority in a time of war.


[1] Orville H. Browning: Diary, December 18, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Library of America, 2012), 684.

[2] Gideon Welles: Diary, December 19–20, 1862, The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived Ited. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Library of America, 2012), 692.

[3]An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, ed. Michael Burlingame (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 87.


Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.


Discussion

Didn't Seward - and his son, Frederick, assistant secretary of state - resign on December 16? Lincoln kept the resignations secret for two days and in fact had the resignations in his pocket when he met with the committee representing the Senate caucus at 7:00 PM on the 18th.


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