The Resignation of Salmon P. Chase

June 30, 1864 – Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase submitted his fourth letter of resignation, but this time President Abraham Lincoln surprised him by accepting.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase | Image Credit:

There had long been tension between Lincoln and Chase. The Radical Republicans had backed Chase for president over Lincoln, but an embarrassing situation was averted when Chase quietly ended his candidacy and Lincoln was nominated earlier this month for a second term. But in May, Chase expressed some regret at not trying harder to wrest the presidential nomination from Lincoln. Ever since Chase had been Lincoln’s rival in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, he believed himself intellectually and morally superior to the president.

But troubles plagued Chase’s Treasury Department. The new taxes and tariffs were not enough to fund the war, and Chase could not get reauthorization to hire financier Jay Cooke to sell more war bonds. Printing paper money not backed by gold caused rampant inflation, and reports of corruption in the selling and trading of confiscated southern cotton abounded.

Chase blamed political enemies for highlighting these problems, especially the influential Blair family. Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr., a staunch Lincoln ally, had excoriated Chase in the House of Representatives for mismanaging the department, and Chase condemned Lincoln for not distancing himself from the Blairs.

In late June, John J. Cisco resigned from the highly important post of assistant Federal treasurer in New York City. Chase proposed to replace Cisco with Maunsell B. Field, a man who knew little of finance but was loyal to Chase. New York politicians, including both U.S. Senators Edwin D. Morgan and Ira Harris, opposed the appointment, with Morgan giving Lincoln a list of three alternatives.

Lincoln wrote to Chase on the 28th, “I cannot, without much embarrassment, make this appointment.” Explaining the political dilemma that it would cause, Lincoln forwarded Morgan’s list to him and asked, “It will really oblige me if you will make a choice among these three.”

Chase requested a personal meeting to discuss the matter, but Lincoln declined “because the difficulty does not, in the main part, lie within the range of a conversation between you and me. As the proverb goes, no man knows so well where the shoe pinches as he who wears it.” Lincoln also noted that he had approved most of Chase’s other recommendations in the past, even when they caused “great burden” among political rivals.

Refusing to pick any of Morgan’s three choices, Chase persuaded Cisco to stay in his post. Chase then tendered his resignation a fourth time, adding, “I shall regard it as a real relief if you think proper to accept it.” Although Lincoln had refused it three times before, he astounded Chase by replying:

“Your resignation for the office of Secretary of the Treasury sent me yesterday is accepted. Of all I have said in commendation of your ability and fidelity I have nothing to unsay; and yet you and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relations which it seems cannot be overcome, or longer sustained, consistently with the public service.”

At the same time, Lincoln sent this message to Chase and submitted the name of Ohio Governor David Tod to replace Chase as head of the Treasury Department to the Senate. The anti-Lincoln press immediately panned the move, with the New York Herald opining that Tod knew “no more of finances than a post.”

The message to the Senate arrived first, prompting Finance Committee Chairman William P. Fessenden to ask Chase in a meeting, “Have you resigned? I am called to the Senate and told that the President has sent in the nomination of your successor.”

Stunned, Chase later wrote of Lincoln’s response in his diary, “I had found a good deal of embarrassment from him; but what he had found from me I could not imagine, unless it has been caused by my unwillingness to have offices distributed as spoils or benefits, with more regard to the claims of divisions, factions, cliques, and individuals, than to fitness of selection.”

What Chase failed to understand was that Lincoln merely kept him in the cabinet to prevent him from openly opposing his presidency. Now that Lincoln had secured the nomination for a second term, Chase’s usefulness had run out.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee, many of whom supported Chase, called on Lincoln to protest his removal. Lincoln showed them all four of Chase’s resignation letters, explaining that this had been coming for some time. Some still complained, but none insisted on reinstating Chase.

Lincoln also refused the senators’ urgings to withdraw Tod’s name as treasury secretary. But Tod declined the job due to poor health, prompting Lincoln to then nominate Fessenden. No Republican could object to him, even Chase, who called the appointment “a wise selection.”


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 431; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10790-833; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9642-62; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 463; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 631-33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 530

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