February 6, 1864 – President Abraham Lincoln learned that a pamphlet was being circulated urging Republicans to replace him with another candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
As the presidential campaign opened, the Republican Party was split between conservatives who backed Lincoln for a second term, and Radicals who wanted a candidate that would impose harsher war measures on the South. This split was clear in Congress, as Republicans spoke out both for and against Lincoln. Many Radicals, led by House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, favored Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to replace him.
Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s personal friend and part-time bodyguard, informed the president that “a most scurrilous and abominable pamphlet about you, your administration, and the succession,” endorsed by an Ohio congressman, was given to a prominent New York banker. Titled “The Next Presidential Election,” the paper urged Republicans to oppose “the formal nomination of Mr. Lincoln in State Legislatures and other public bodies.”
The pamphlet’s author asserted, “The people have lost all confidence in his ability to suppress the rebellion and restore the Union.” The Federals had failed to win the war due to the “vascillation (sic) and indecision of the President,” “the feebleness of his will,” and his “want of intellectual grasp.”
The writer declared, “Mr. Lincoln cannot be re-elected to the Presidency.” Because of this, a new candidate was needed, someone who was “an advanced thinker; a statesman profoundly versed in political and economic science, one who fully comprehends the spirit of the age.” The pamphlet was endorsed by Senator John W. Sherman and Congressman James Ashley, both from Chase’s home state of Ohio. The implication was clear: those who supported this document supported replacing Lincoln with Chase as the Republican presidential candidate.
Less than two weeks later, a committee of Radical Republicans led by Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas distributed a “strictly private” pamphlet of their own to the top Republicans throughout the northern states. In this document, the authors alleged that “party machinery and official influence are being used to secure the perpetuation of the present Administration,” and “those who believe in the interests of the country and of freedom demand a change in favor of vigor and purity.”
This pamphlet, which became known as the “Pomeroy Circular” (actually written by James M. Winchell), contained three arguments against Lincoln:
- “Even were the re-election of Mr. Lincoln desirable, it is practically impossible against the union of influences which will oppose him.”
- Should “he be reelected, his manifest tendency toward compromises and temporary expedients of policy will become stronger during a second term than it has been in the first.” The “war may continue to languish,” and “the cause of human liberty, and the dignity of the nation, suffer proportionately.”
- The “‘one-term principle’ (is) absolutely essential to the certain safety of our republican institutions.” No president had been reelected since Andrew Jackson, 32 years before.
Then, directly naming Chase as the desired alternative, the authors inserted two arguments why the readers would “validate the honor of the republic” by backing him:
- He had “more of the qualities needed in a President during the next four years, than are combined in any other available candidate.”
- He had a “record, clear and unimpeachable, showing him to be a statesman of rare ability, and an administrator of the highest order,” as well as “a popularity and strength… unexpected even to his warmest admirers.”
The Pomeroy committee then urged the Republicans reading the circular to “render efficient aid by exerting yourself at once to organize your section of the country… for the purpose either of receiving or imparting information.”
When the Pomeroy Circular was published in the newspapers, it enraged Lincoln’s supporters. Former Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr., now Lincoln’s most vocal champion in the House of Representatives, charged that criticisms of administration policies had been “concocted for purposes of defeating the renomination of Mr. Lincoln” and of supporting “rival aspirants to the presidency.” Blair refuted the circular’s claims of Chase’s high character:
“It is a matter of surprise that a man having the instincts of a gentleman should remain in the Cabinet after the disclosure of such an intrigue against the one to whom he owes his position. I suppose the President is well content that he should stay; for every hour that he remains sinks him in the contempt of every honorable mind.”
Blair then highlighted charges of corruption in Chase’s Treasury Department, declaring that “a more profligate administration of the Treasury Department never existed under any government… the whole Mississippi Valley is rank and fetid with the frauds and corruptions of its agents… some of (whom) I suppose employ themselves in distributing that ‘strictly private’ circular which came to light the other day.” Democrats kept silent, delighted that the Republican Party seemed to be splitting in half in an election year.
Partly in response to the Pomeroy Circular, delegates to the Republican conventions in Indiana and Ohio endorsed Lincoln for a second term. Many Republican conventions, committees, legislatures, newspapers, and Union Leagues voiced loud support for Lincoln over Chase. Lincoln also exerted his political influence by seeing that the Government Printing Office suppressed any anti-Lincoln material. And government workers, most of whom had been hired by Lincoln, overwhelmingly supported him.
As the Pomeroy Circular made national headlines, Chase wrote Lincoln maintaining he had “no knowledge of the existence of this letter before I saw it in the (Constitutional) Union.” He admitted that he had consulted with politicians urging him to run for president, but he never led anyone to believe that he would seriously seek the office. Chase then offered to resign: “I do not wish to administer the Treasury Department one day without your entire confidence.”
Through his contacts, Lincoln was well aware that Chase was working with Radicals to conduct an informal campaign to oust him from the presidency. Winchell later asserted that Chase not only had prior knowledge of the Pomeroy Circular, but he had approved its publication. Responding to Chase’s letter, Lincoln wrote: “Yours of yesterday in relation to the paper issued by Senator Pomeroy was duly received; and I write this note merely to say I will answer a little more fully when I can find the leisure to do so.”
After keeping Chase waiting for six days, Lincoln sent a longer response on the 29th:
“On consideration, I find there is really very little to say. My knowledge of Mr. Pomeroy’s letter having been made public came to me only the day you wrote; but I had, in spite of myself, known of its existence several days before. I have not yet read it, and I think I shall not… Whether you shall remain at the head of the Treasury Department… I do not perceive occasion for a change.”
Lincoln stated that he was “not shocked, or surprised” by the circular because his backers informed him about Pomeroy’s committee beforehand. Lincoln explained, “I have known just as little of these things as my own friends have allowed me to know. They bring the documents to me, but I do not read them–they tell me what they think fit to tell me, but I do not inquire for more.”
The president then told Chase that he had nothing to do with Blair’s attack on him in Congress. By refusing Chase’s offer to resign, Lincoln shrewdly kept him at the Treasury Department, where he could keep close tabs on his activities, and where Chase could not openly run for president.
Many of Chase’s backers acknowledged that the Pomeroy Circular did more harm than good for him, including Congressman (and future U.S. President) James A. Garfield, who conceded, “It seems clear to me that the people desire the re-election of Mr. Lincoln.”
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