A Pumpkin in Each End of the Bag

The first meeting between the nine-man Republican delegation from the Senate and President Abraham Lincoln adjourned on December 18. The Republicans alleged that Lincoln’s administration was tainted by conservatives who were not willing to wage total war to destroy the Confederacy. They believed that the only remedy for this was to force Lincoln to replace the conservatives in his cabinet with Radicals. In particular, the Republicans wanted the president to oust Secretary of State William H. Seward. The meeting ended when Lincoln agreed to consider their demands and meet with them again the next night.

Lincoln met with his cabinet on the morning of the 19th. All members except Seward were in attendance. Both Seward and his son had resigned from their posts to resolve this dilemma, but Lincoln had not yet accepted their resignations. Lincoln told his cabinet that the Senate Republicans considered Seward “the real cause of our failures,” that Seward lacked the aggression needed to win the war, and that Seward had too much influence over Lincoln. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “While they believed in the President’s honesty, they seemed to think that when he had in him any good purposes Mr. S. contrived to suck them out of him unperceived.”

Lincoln persuaded the members to attend that evening’s meeting with the committee to put up a unified front against the senators. Before the meeting began, the senators were surprised to see the cabinet members (except Seward) waiting in the anteroom. Lincoln brought them all into the office and announced that his cabinet would be attending to listen to the complaints against them and testify that the administration was united in purpose.

The meeting began with Lincoln reading a long rebuttal to the committee’s resolutions, which included “some mild severity” against them. Acknowledging that he did not consistently consult with his entire cabinet before making important policy decisions, Lincoln asserted “that most questions of importance had received a reasonable consideration” and he “was not aware of any divisions or want of unity.”

The president then asked his cabinet to say “whether there had been any want of unity or of sufficient consultation.” This put Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in an embarrassing predicament. As a Radical ally, Chase had secretly told the senators that there was dissension and a lack of communication in the cabinet, but now he had to say so in front of the president. To do this would make him disloyal to Lincoln; to not do this would make him deceitful to the senators.

Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln, and William H. Seward | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Chase angrily said that he should not have been placed in this awkward situation. He then “fully and entirely” supported Lincoln’s statement and grudgingly admitted that “there had been no want of unity in the cabinet.” The discussion then turned back to Seward, but Chase’s admission seriously damaged the senators’ case against him.

James Grimes of Iowa, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, and Lyman Trumbull of Illinois were the loudest in demanding that Seward be replaced. William P. Fessenden of Maine said that he was uncomfortable with discussing a cabinet member in the presence of his associates. The meeting broke up around midnight, five hours after it began. Some senators stayed behind to finish their remarks.

Fessenden told Lincoln, “You have asked my opinion upon Mr. Seward’s removal. There is a current rumor that he has already resigned. If so, our opinions are of no consequence on that point.” Lincoln acknowledged that Seward had offered to resign, but it had not yet been accepted. Fessenden replied, “I feel bound to say, that as Mr. Seward has seen fit to resign, I shall advise that his resignation be accepted.” Referring to Chase, Trumbull told the president, “Lincoln, somebody has lied like hell!” Lincoln answered, “Not tonight.”

The participants finally dispersed around 1 a.m. By that time, four senators remained firm in demanding Seward’s removal, while the other five were no longer so sure. All nine were fairly confident that whether they demanded it or not, Lincoln would not fire Seward.

When Lincoln arrived at his office the next morning, Chase was there with Welles and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Noting Chase’s disapproval of how the meeting with the senators had been handled, Lincoln told him that “this matter is giving me great trouble.” Chase explained how he had been embarrassed, and he announced that he had written a letter of resignation of his own. Lincoln quickly asked, “Where is it?” Chase pulled it from his pocket and said, “I brought it with me. I wrote it this morning.” Lincoln replied, “Let me have it.”

Chase reluctantly handed the paper to Lincoln, who read it and said, “This cuts the Gordian knot. I can dispose of the subject now without difficulty; I see my way clear.” Stanton then stepped in and said, “Mr. President, 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.” Lincoln replied, “You may go to your Department, I don’t want yours.” He held up Chase’s letter. “This is all I want; this relieves me; my way is clear; the trouble is ended. I will detain neither of you longer.”

Chase’s resignation played right into Lincoln’s hands. If the senators insisted on removing Seward, then their greatest ally in the cabinet, Chase, would have to go as well. As Lincoln said to Senator Ira Harris of New York, “I can ride on now. I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag!”

The Radicals ultimately withdrew their demands, and there would be no further attempts to get the president to reorganize his cabinet. Lincoln refused the resignations of both Seward and Chase, and all cabinet members resumed their duties. Lincoln’s shrewdness in handling this affair diffused the political crisis for now, and it showed that Lincoln was the true leader of the Republican Party, having stood up to pressure without yielding an inch to either the senators or his cabinet.


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