Skip to main content

Kate Was Too Ambitious

July 2024
16min read

Salmon P. Chase’s beautiful daughter stopped at nothing, eevenn at marrying a rich scoundrel, in her zeal to make her father President

It was May of 1863, and the shadows of war darkened Washington and spread across the land. Hut it was spring, and as the dogwood burst into (lower, the capital turned its attention lor a moment from Chancellorsville and Vicksburg to discuss a romance. Finally, after a tempestuous courtship of two years, the fascinating Kate Chase and Senator William Sprague III were engaged. They were to be married in the fall, “if they both live anil don’t change their minds,” her lather said. Even the crusty old secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, preoccupied as he was with the blockade of the South, could not resist comment. “She is beautiful or, more properly perhaps, interesting and impressive. …” he observed. “Few young men have such advantages as he, and Miss Kate has talents and ambition sufficient lor both.” Washington had been talking about the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase long before her engagement to the multimillionaire Senator from Rhode Island—had been talking, in fact, from the day in 1861 when she and her lather arrived in the capital from Ohio. It was immediately clear that Kate Chase was not awed by her new eminence. Coolly, with superb grace, she had taken her place as her widowed lather’s hostess, at twenty the woman ranking fourth in official society.

Perhaps it was an awareness of her beauty that gave Kate that regal poise remarkable lor one so young. She was tall, slender, and graceful, and she had a way of standing with her head tilted slightly upward, a faint, almost disdainful smile upon her face, as if she were a tilled lady posing in a loi mal garden for Gainsborough. Her copper-colored hair, drawn back severely lroin her face and wound in a Grecian knot at her neck, was a dramatic foil for her eyes—large, dark, in(juiring eyes with long black lashes and crescent eyebrows. But despite her Renaissance coloring, there was something cold and unapproachable about her, a diamond brilliance that was at its heart like the icy grandeur of her father.

Washington soon discovered that Kate had a charm more rare than her cameo beauty. People were frankly amazed at her conversation, intelligent and discriminating, enlivened by a trenchant wit. It was obvious that she had a keen mind, quick and forceful, with a masculine regard for hard logic. But being wise, she knew how to intrigue the most preoccupied politician with the beguiling small talk of society.

Not everyone liked her. To the right people she was always charming, but for the most part women found her arrogant and indifferent: men thought her fascinating but elusive. She had eyes for only one person—her lather.

From her earliest childhood it was he who had dominated her consciousness, it was he who bent low to kiss her gently at night and he who began each morning with a sober reading of the Scriptures. Her mother, like Chase’s first wife, had died soon after their marriage, and lor a time afterward her lather had been entirely hers. When Chase married a third time, and had another daughter, Nettie, Kate had grown jealous and rebellious and had to be sent away to school to keep the family peace. When that wife, too, died, Kate resolved that no one but she would take her place, and thereafter she determinedly supervised her father’s friendships, intercepted his mail, even drove one friend from their home with her rudeness. “But for … the feelings of Katie … who knows what I might not have been tempted to the consenting,” her father once said.

Chase was a solitary man, austerely reserved with his fellow men, but with Kate, as with no other human being, he was at ease. And it was clear that to Kate her father was more than a father. He was her god and her religion, and she devoted herself to him with all the passionate intensity of her nature.

“I shall strive to be first, wherever I may be,” Chase said, and Kate lived only to serve that ambition. Together she and her father watched the national political scene, and together they assayed Chase’s position. In time her father grew dependent on Kate’s judgment, discovering that she knew the arts of politics by instinct.

People marveled at what a handsome and devoted pair they were, and when Kate’s engagement was announced, they were amazed that she had chosen someone so different from Chase. Her father had the handsome Olympian form of a statesman; William Sprague was a slight, nearsighted young man with a drooping mustache. Chase was afire with disciplined energy; Sprague was usually listless, his apathy broken only occasionally by surprising bursts of activity, sporadic and unpredictable. Chase had made his political career a crusade against slavery, and with marble dignity he moved through life sternly recording events in his moral ledger; for Sprague life was no contest of great issues. Like Chase he had once been governor of his state, but he had bought his place; and his 25 million dollars alone explained his arrival in the Senate.

Here was a strange paradox: the much-admired, much-envied, and beautiful belle of Washington, “the prettiest Kate in Christendom,” turning from Chase to the unprepossessing William Sprague. But cynics said it was very simple: Kate meant to use him and his great wealth to make her father President.

Chase’s position as head of the Treasury Department insured him of a voice in the inner councils of state, a vantage point he was using to rival Lincoln as leader of the Republican party. As the war dragged on without conclusion, more and more people joined his friends, the radicals, in criticizing the President’s moderate policies. The radicals looked to Chase as their spokesman, and he nourished their regard with the sweet waters of patronage. In 1865 he and Kate meant to enter the White House, to gain what they felt should have been theirs in 1861.

All that the grand design lacked was money. Ambition was costly, as Kate and her father knew, and Chase had little money and no way of getting any that would not prove embarrassing politically. William Sprague appeared to be a nearly perfect solution.

It seemed clear enough why Sprague should want to marry Kate. Money had bought him power, but it was respect he wanted. For a time it had appeared that war was to bring it to him, but his spectacular career as Rhode Island’s fighting boy governor soon came to an end. The North cheered when he rushed his troops to the defense of the capital during the first dark days of the war and praised his bravery in the front ranks at the First Battle of Bull Run, but politicians more powerful than he became major generals. Refusing anything less, Sprague gave up his efforts to be a hero and, taking off his ornamental uniform and yellow-plumed hat, returned to politics and business. For consolation he had a seat in the Senate—and the attentions of Kate Chase. She had won the capital, and to Sprague’s surprise he found that he had won her. He did not appear to wonder why.

Sprague was ten years older than Kate and had traveled widely in Europe before beginning his political career, but he did not feel superior to the young girl, fresh from finishing school and a season as hostess of Ohio’s governor. Kate possessed an almost mystical self-assurance, which neither money nor liquor nor travel nor politics had brought William Sprague.

Like Kate he had his secret reasons for wanting the marriage and, as in the case of Kate, Chase was the central figure in his plans. Sprague hoped that the Secretary of the Treasury, soon to become his fatherin-law, would save him from being exposed as a traitor.

Cotton held the Sprague textile empire togethercotton that Sprague had always bought in the Southland when Congress passed its edict allowing southern ports to be closed, he found himself faced with financial ruin. Knowing that the North needed cotton, Lincoln and his Cabinet tried to hammer out a way to regulate trade, but the result of much argument was only a vague policy allowing cotton to be brought out of the South if trading were done with loyal Union men and no aid or comfort were given to the enemy—a policy for which Salmon P. Chase, as head of the customhouses, was responsible lor administering.

In the fall of 1862, when he was courting the Secretary’s daughter, Sprague fell in with a devious Texan named Harris Hoyt, who persuaded him to use his influence on behalf of certain mysterious southerners wanting to bring cotton north. Sprague represented Hoyt’s proposition to Chase as an effort to aid the loyal Union men of Texas and asked for a permit for him to pass the naval blockade without inspection. Despite the fact that the Treasury Secretary wisely refused that curious request, Sprague and a few friends went ahead with their plans to finance Hoyt’s trading mission, confident that the Senator could eventually persuade Chase to come around.

When their first ship sailed south in December, 1862, its hold bulged with arms, ammunition, and other contraband of war to be exchanged with the Confederates for Texas cotton. From the outset Sprague had been under no illusions about the real nature of Hoyt’s plan, but he had been willing to go along with it anyway. The risk was death for treason; the stakes, immense wealth and power.

For a time everything went well. Sprague’s men operated through Matamoros, Mexico, on the Rio Grande, and what cotton they did not bring to that port by an overland route they managed to slip through the blockade without detection. But Sprague was anxious to give the dangerous Texas adventure a protective cloak of legality; and after the engagement was official, he pressed his request for a trade permit on Chase, arguing that “the cotton is of more value to us than money to the enemy.” Eventually, according to Sprague’s partners, the Senator and Kate quarreled about his insistence in the matter, but Chase could not be persuaded to change his mind.

Preoccupied with politics and the romance in his household, Chase ignored pleas to investigate the brisk sea trade between Matamoros and northern ports. Neither he nor Kate knew of Sprague’s involvement, but surprisingly neither showed any doubts about him in spite of what they did know of his other question- able activities in business and politics and of disturbing rumors about his interest in wine and women in the past.

It was singular that Chase, a man noted for religious profession, should be easily won to his future son-inlaw. Perhaps the reason was that the closer he came to ultimate success, the less clear were the moral distinctions he had once been so fond of observing. A man obsessed with his own fortunes, he had developed over the years a blindness to the character of others. Now there were only the useful and the discarded; and when Chase found a man useful he refused to believe ill of him.

As the wedding came on, Chase for the first time in his life appeared vaguely troubled by that fervent, possessive attachment of his daughter’s that he had indulged for so many years. “It is said that there are fathers who wish to retain the love and duty of daughters even in larger measure [than] that [which] they shall give to their husbands,” he told Sprague. “If there are I am sure I cannot be one of them. I want to have Katie honor and love you with an honor and love far exceeding any due to me and I shall feel happiest when she makes your happiness most complete.” But in his secret heart he must have known that their relationship had taken deep and hidden roots that could not easily be dislodged.

Kate’s wedding was the most spectacular affair held in Washington during Lincoln’s administration. Sixth and E streets outside the Chase mansion were blocked with spectators watching the arrival of the guestsgenerals, members of the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, and finally the President himself, tired and unescorted, haunted as always by thoughts of the battlefield. Prolonged mourning over the death of her son Willie kept Mrs. Lincoln from attending Kate’s triumph, or so it was said. John Hay was there, however, and afterward he wrote in his diary, “Kate looked tired out and languid especially at the end of the evening when I went into the bridal chamber to say good night. She had lost all her old severity and formal stiffness of manner, 8c seemed to think she had arrived.”

The wedding trip of the fortunate young couple was not a success. They left New York City hastily after their hotel caught fire twice during one night, and their arrival in Providence was marred by Kate’s displeasure over the gaudy welcome her mother-in-law had arranged. The flags and emblems, multicolored lights, and banners decorating the Sprague home reminded one member of the wedding party of “preparations for a horse fair.” Kate was horrified by the display of bad taste, and had the decorations removed.

The Spragues cut short their honeymoon and hurried back to Washington. It was a happy homecoming for Kate. The Republican nominating convention was but a few short months away, and the fight that was taking shape suited her exactly. Unlike Chase she was impatient with the issues being debated. What electrified her was the atmosphere—the open, unrelenting warfare between Lincoln’s friends and her father’s camp—and the prize, the presidency. Now, with William Sprague’s money at her disposal, she had no doubts about the outcome.

As Kate and her father began the final phase of their four-year campaign, John Hay warned the President that his secretary of the treasury was making trouble. But Lincoln only laughed off Chase’s “mad hunt after the presidency.” He acknowledged that Chase, “like the bluebottle fly, [will] lay his eggs in every rotten spot he can find.” But, he added dryly, “I have decided to shut my eyes, as far as possible, to everything of the sort. Mr. Chase makes a good Secretary and I shall keep him where he is. If he becomes President, all right, I hope we may never have a worse man. …” With that he folded his long bony fingers over his knee, leaned back in his chair, and smiled. But he kept an eye on Kate and her father, watched them give their parties and dinners, saw delegations come and go, observed the political machinations of the huge Treasury machine.

Until “the pear was ripe,” as one congressman put it, Lincoln had to be patient, making certain that when the final break came, Chase would not take with him a majority of the party and the presidential nomination as well. But a break there would be. According to one Cabinet member, Chase was “the only human being that I believe Lincoln actually hated.”

Mrs. Lincoln, who did not have to consider the trying problem of balancing the Cabinet between moderates and radicals, was not as tolerant of the Chases as her husband seemed to be; and, resolved that she, for one, was not going to assist their entrance into the White House under any circumstances, she omitted their names from the list when planning an official dinner. Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, noticed the omissions and called them to the attention of the President, who ordered the names restored to the list at once. “Whereat there arose such a rampage as the house hasn’t seen in a year,” Nicolay recalled. Mrs. Lincoln eventually relented and apologized for her outburst, but her anger with Kate and her father did not cool. Chase was her husband’s biggest rival, and Kate was her own.

By that winter the mutual dislike of the two women was no state secret. Their differences were more social than political. Kate had made no effort to conceal her contempt for the First Lady and, refusing to recognize her position as head of official society, had tried to usurp that place for herself. Jealously Mrs. Lincoln had watched the young girl set up rival court in the capital, had seen herself put in the shade as Kate’s admirers multiplied and her power grew. The Chases’ Wednesday receptions were always crowded, and Kate became famous for her intimate dinners, flavored always with the confidences of the shrewd and powerful.

Eventually the Chases exceeded even Lincoln’s boundless tolerance. With Chase’s encouragement the sleek, unctuous Senator Pomeroy of Kansas organized a committee of Republican malcontents to secure the party’s presidential nomination for the Secretary of the Treasury. And, as Kate had planned, William Sprague was one of the primary financial backers of this final effort. When the committee issued a public manifesto bitterly attacking Lincoln and urging Chase as his successor, there was a tremendous public uproar. Chase, who had given the statement his secret approval beforehand, had reason to regret his imprudence as his followers listened to the furor and then quietly crept away from his side. Neither he nor Kate could have failed to observe Sprague’s silence when Chase was attacked, nor have been unaware that he suddenly stopped his financial help. Kate and her father had warning: the Senator was not the pawn he had seemed.

A deluge of reproach broke over the Secretary’s head, and Lincoln’s friends, with the President’s encouragement, took the opportunity to publicize the scandals that riddled the Treasury Department, staffed with Chase’s political followers, many of whom were, unfortunately, crooks. The clarion call for Chase for President started a landslide for Lincoln. Chase was urged to fall into step, but he was only contemptuous of his fainthearted friends whose political ambitions taught them political agility. They managed to jump from his caravan before the crash; but Chase, the driver, never hesitated as he careened toward disaster.

Kate understood the full measure of their defeat long before her father, and that spring she gave way to a long, enervating illness that left her thin and listless. While she was convalescing in Rhode Island the catastrophe occurred: her father, piqued at Lincoln over a matter of Treasury patronage, haughtily tendered his resignation, as was his custom when put out. To his surprise, the President accepted it. But to insure that Chase would not have an entirely free hand in the coming campaign, Lincoln at the same time dropped several broad hints that Chase was being considered for the post of Chief Justice, then occupied by the ailing Roger B. Taney.

And so it was that, when the tides of war and politics turned in Lincoln’s favor late in the summer of 1864, Chase, who had been sulking in New Hampshire, came down from his mountain and set out upon a vigorous campaign for the President’s re-election.

And how did Kate react to this strange spectacle? Her father could return to politics inspirited by the prospect of being Chief Justice, but she had no consolation for their failure. If he were willing to accept something less than the presidency, what would be left for her? Tradition dictated that the Chief Justice was to be justice incarnate—eyes blindfolded, hands holding an impartial scale. What use would Kate be to him?

She loved strife and barter, the confusion of the political market place—and its rewards. Now she seemed about to have everything slip through her fingers. Her father “was not to be set aside by a place on the bench,” she declared, and word of her anger reached the White House.

Chase saw no immediate reason for disappointment at the prospect of receiving the highest judicial position in the land. Chief Justice for life, he was insured of a future of power, service, and security; and if he were to find that he was not satisfied, no President would be able to stop his political adventures by removing him from office.

Chase kept his part of the unspoken agreement, and Lincoln, albeit reluctantly, kept his. All during the fall Chase tirelessly made campaign speeches, and on December 6, 1864, he was nominated to be Chief Justice of the United States.

On that same day one of Sprague’s partners made a full confession of the Texas Adventure to the army.

Shortly afterward William Sprague learned that he was in mortal danger: one of his ships had been captured trying to slip through the blockade, and his partners had been placed under military arrest. Only a miracle could save him from exposure.

How would his family take the news? Sprague must have realized that the knowledge that his household was dishonored would break Chase’s heart; it was possible that he might not become Chief Justice if the scandal became public. No matter that Chase himself was not involved! With the misuse of his office already lying heavily against his good name, Chase would be damned by two simple facts: he had been in charge of trade with the seceded states, and his son-in-law had somehow managed to continue his vast textile operations in spite of the blockade.

And what about Kate? Sprague’s arrest would provide a blissful climax indeed to the first year of their marriage. Their relationship had trembled between ill-natured truces and violent quarrels. It was bad enough that the Senator had failed to get the presidency for Chase, but now if he were to embroil him in a scandal involving treason his marriage would be over. No, he could not let Kate know. She was expecting a baby in a few months.

These thoughts may have been in Sprague’s mind as he sat down to write a difficult letter to the general in charge of investigating the Texas Adventure. Claiming that the whole affair was a politically inspired attack upon his friends, he requested that “the case might be conducted with as little publicity as possible.” Then he set about using his vast influence to make certain that the general would comply.

On December 13, 1864, Sprague and Kate joined a distinguished assemblage in the Supreme Court to see Salmon Portland Chase sworn in as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States. Other members of the audience may have envied that celebrated family, now becoming the second official family in the nation. Chase was receiving one of the highest tributes his country could bestow; in time his son-in-law was to be re-elected to a second term in the Senate, and before his daughter lay a supposedly brilliant future as the country’s leading political hostess. They seemed to have everything one could wish for—honors, wealth, social position, power. Anyone knowing what lay behind their success—the petty schemes and duplicity, the ruthlessness, even treason—would have thought them fortunate indeed, for it seemed that they had escaped punishment for their deeds. But in the end justice would be served, the kind of moral justice in which Chase himself believed.

Probably it was mainly to please Kate that Chase, seeing the Republicans turn toward Grant, made his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in 1868. It was a serious mistake. By reaching for the nomination from the Supreme Court bench, he broke a sacred unwritten law of American politics, and he paid for his offense by losing much of the respect and veneration that should have been his consolation when forced to give up his dream of the White House. Nor did his conduct of the trials of Jefferson Davis and Andrew Johnson add luster to his name.

Kate’s failure as his campaign manager at the Democratic convention was not the greatest disappointment she caused her father. Her marriage, the marriage that had once promised the presidency, bore tragedy instead, and Chase saw his family, the pride and comfort of an old man, destroyed. Kate had been able to tolerate Sprague in the first place only because he seemed a necessary part of the Chases’ presidential plans. But he failed them in 1864, and four years later, rebelling against Kate’s obsession with her father, he failed them again, even refusing to give them his financial support. Then Sprague had to bear the full weight of Kate’s bitterness and regret. He was driven back to his sullen pleasures of old—liquor and other women—and when his resentment finally boiled out of control, he made a series of sensational speeches in the Senate in which he insulted his father-in-law and implied that his wife was unfaithful. Chase tried to act as peacemaker, but to his sorrow he found that time had created a distance between him and his daughter that nothing could bridge. The final blow was the public exposure of Sprague’s treasonable activities during the war. Legal technicalities saved the Senator from being brought to trial, but not even the whitewash of a senatorial investigation could keep him from being ruined, a political and social outcast, who lived on, an eccentric relic of the past, until 1915.

Not long after the senate investigation, the Chief Justice died of a heart attack. How much he blamed himself for what had happened, for the disastrous failure of Kate’s marriage, and the disgrace of his household, no one will ever know.

A few months after Chase’s death the 1873 depression swept away Sprague’s entire gaudy financial structure, but Kate was only indifferent. While her husband’s world collapsed, she suffered her fathomless private grief. The Senator was of no consequence to her any more. He could not fill the void in her heart. She was too obstinately alive to succumb to sorrow; and, finding that she had to have someone to take her father’s place, she began an ill-fated love affair with the vain, unscrupulous Senator Roscoe Conkling, an affair that ended in public scandal and her divorce. Her friends deserted her, but a far greater sorrow was the fate of her children. Her eldest daughter defied convention to go on the stage; another left her to return to the Sprague family in Rhode Island; the third, her namesake, was feeble-minded. With the suicide of her only son, Kate’s relentless will, the will that had taken the place of a heart, was broken, and she ended her days in obscurity, poverty-stricken and alone, living in squalor in her father’s old run-down home, her famed beauty erased by years of dissatisfaction. Washington, the city she had once ruled like a queen, found it easy to forget her long before she died in 1899. Kate was a celluloid doll that had caught fire, burned brightly for an instant, and then vanished, leaving behind no trace.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.