Skip to main content

Lincoln Takes Charge

July 2024
20min read

His shrewd handling of the Radical Republican bid for power at the end of 1862 established him as the unquestioned leader of the Union

The North sustained its most tragic single defeat in the Civil War on December 13, 1862, when waves of blue infantry under General Ambrose E. Burnside, in assault after assault, were flung back from the heights behind Fredericksburg, Virginia. The total battle casualties of the Union Army reached nearly thirteen thousand; never were men left in bloody windrows by a more senseless and futile operation. As the news and casualty lists fell upon the Union, the press, politicians, and public burst out in clamorous denunciation of the Administration. A great storm was plainly rising.

Too late in the war for either, an improvised general had fought a rash, improvised battle. The debacle at Fredericksburg brought Union fortunes to their lowest ebb; a black winter lay ahead, in which the political mischief-makers would make the most of the public chagrin and resentment. On the Democratic side these included men like Horatio Seymour, just elected governor of New York, who adopted the watchword, “the Union as it was” ( i.e., without Reconstruction) “and the Constitution as it is” ( i.e., recognizing slavery); James A. Bayard, senator from Delaware, who would rccognize southern independence; and the noisy Ohio demagogue Clement L. Vallandigham, who did everything he could to impede enlistments. On the Republican side were troublesome and often irresponsible men like Senators Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, and James W. Grimes of Iowa.

Many Radical Republicans—men who called for unlimited warfare against the southern people, confiscation of all Rebel property, speedy liberation of slaves, and use of Negro soldiers—denounced Lincoln with special fervor. The previous summer a deputation of western Radicals had called at the White House with harsh demands. When Lincoln replied that he was following the policy he thought wisest, and that if he found the country would not support him he would be ready to resign, one of the delegates ejaculated: “I wish to God you would, Mr. President!”

Looming behind the Republican Radicals was the portly form of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. Consumed with ambition, he believed (and frankly said) that he would make a better President than Lincoln. Detesting all slow, cautious men, all compromisers, all leaders who longed for a restoration of fraternal relations with the South, he wanted to destroy the supposed influence on Lincoln of Attorney General Edward Bates, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and above all William H. Seward, Secretary of State. If the former two were snakes in the grass, Chase regarded the third as a cobra of boa constrictor proportions. Only new plans, new energy, and new men (like himself), he felt, could save the Union.

As the storm moved toward Lincoln, the danger was that a wave of popular anger and defeatism would sweep Congress into rash measures. This defeatism made many men in both parties despair of the executive branch. “How can we reach the President with advice?” demanded the historian George Bancroft. “He is ignorant, self-willed, and surrounded by men some of whom are as ignorant as himself.” At the other political extreme Zach Chandler was writing his wife—hysterically but honestly: “The fact is that the country is done for unless something is done at once.... The President is a weak man, too weak for the occasion, and those fool or traitor generals are wasting time and yet more precious blood in indecisive battles and delays.” In between, Harper’s Weekly was declaring that the people had borne imbecility, treachery, and failure with grim patience. “But they cannot be expected to suffer that such massacres as this at Fredericksburg shall be repeated. Matters are rapidly ripening for a military dictatorship.”

There was no danger of a military dictatorship, for the people would not have tolerated a Cromwell even had one stood on the horizon. But other dangers were very real.

Such defeatism seized many citizens that even firm patriots were heard to talk of giving up the conquest of the Confederacy, and fighting only for favorable boundaries. The chief danger that threatened Lincoln, however, was a forced reorganization of his Administration, which Chase and the Radical senators would compel if they could. They regarded Seward as their archfoe and a menace to the nation. Had he not wished to coax the South back instead of coercing it? Had he not stood for half measures in making war? And the Radicals had much general support. In New York the Democratic World beseeched Lincoln to get rid of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at once and call the best men to his side in a final effort to save the Republic. Henry J. Raymond of The New York Times, without suggesting names, wanted new Cabinet personnel. American opinion seemed to have gone beyond the point it reached in 1814 when it compelled John Armstrong, Secretary of War, to resign after the capture of Washington.

Lincoln, half prostrated by Fredericksburg, felt with keen anxiety the approach of the crisis. After the defeat his early news from Burnside was fragmentary and misleading: but he obtained a complete account of the disaster from the war correspondent Henry Villard, who called at the White House the evening of December 14. When official confirmation came next day, Lincoln, according to a reporter, was “awfully shaken.” He told a friend: “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” Sleepless and haggard, he knew that the Radicals would try to remake the Cabinet so as to give themselves full sway and rob him of control, or at any rate proper freedom to formulate policy.

And almost immediately, the storm broke.

On Tuesday, December 16, immediately alter the Senate adjourned in early afternoon, the Republican members met in secret caucus. As soon as the doors were shut, Senator H. B. Anthony of Rhode Island asked someone to state the purpose of the gathering. Thereupon Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, rising, set the stage for action by asking what the Senate could do to rescue the nation: and Morton S. Wilkinson of Minnesota, taking the cue, launched into an invective against Seward, saying that he had ruined the country by his halfhearted, compromising views. Other senators followed in a vehement clamor against the Secretary. Some who had supported him for the Presidency in 1860 now spoke of him with angry disillusionment. Zach Chandler, a frantic extremist, believed that he was actually a traitor; that he was plotting the dismemberment of the land. The general view was that he had obstructed a vigorous prosecution of the war, had constantly advocated a patched-up peace, and had overruled the demands of such earnest Administration members as Chase for larger armies and sterner measures.

The caucus did not hesitate to criticize Lincoln for his mildness and hesitancies. But the majority held that it was Seward who had blunted the President’s purposes. The able but rather waspish William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, a tall, angular Yankee of blunt speech, was a close friend of Chase: and in indicting Seward he made it plain that he was using information derived from Chase and Stanton. Indeed, he used a phrase about Seward’s “back-stairs influence” which came straight from Chase’s lips. Chase had also been in communication with Chandler, writing the rough-hewn Zach: “There is no Cabinet except in name. The heads of departments come together now and then—nominally twice a week; but no reports are made; no regular discussions held; no ascertained conclusions reached. Sometimes weeks pass by and no full meeting is held.” Chase had complained to others, and had written General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, that if he had been given a proper voice in affairs, “some serious disasters would have been avoided.”


Grimes of Iowa, who also was a close friend of Chase, spoke against Seward in the same vein as Fessenden. He believed that the nation was going to destruction as fast as imbecility and corruption could carry it. Senator Jacob Collamer of Vermont lent his voice to the attack. It must be remembered that the Senate at this time kept the special prestige which it had gained in the days of Webster and Clay, Calhoun and Benton; it regarded itself as the balance wheel of government. Nearly everyone in the caucus agreed that in so terrible a crisis, it should not keep within its tight constitutional sphere, but should intervene in executive affairs.

But how? Ben Wade of Ohio proposed that the senators go in a body to Lincoln to demand Seward’s removal. Grimes, knowing that this would offend both the President and the country, suggested that the caucus instruct Anthony to present a resolution in the Senate expressing want of confidence in Seward.

For a few minutes it seemed that the Senate and President were about to collide head-on. But Preston King of New York and others protested against Grimes’s proposal, and several members agreed with Orville H. Browning of Illinois that the best course would be to send a deputation to call on the President, learn the true state of affairs, and give him a frank statement of their opinions. The caucus broke up to sleep on the matter. When they met next day, feeling against the Administration had hardened. Several senators even wished to propose a resolution calling on the President to resign. Trumbull, like Browning the first day, warmly defended Lincoln, extolling his high character, asserting that he wished to fight the war with all his might, and declaring that only a bad Cabinet and worse generals had thwarted his purpose. The conservative Ira Harris of New York proposed a resolution for general reconstruction of the Cabinet. But to this John Sherman of Ohio objected that it sounded as if the whole body were to go: “No one wishes Mr. Chase to leave the Treasury, which he has managed so ably.” And, added Sherman, merely changing the Cabinet would not help, for the root-trouble was with Lincoln, who lacked proper dignity, orderliness, and firmness.

Finally the caucus decided to pass a resolution calling for “a change in and partial reconstruction of the Cabinet,” and to send a deputation to call on the President. Of thirty-two senators present, thirty-one voted for the résolution. The deputation included seven Radicals: Wade, Trumbull, J. M. Howard of Michigan, Fessenden, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Grimes, and S. C. Pomeroy of Kansas; and two moderates, Collamer and Harris. Collamer was named chairman. Its work done, the caucus broke up in high spirits. The majority believed that they had sealed the political death warrant of Seward, and made certain of Radical domination of the Cabinet.

Some dissenters, however, were convinced they had gone too far. Preston King of New York, an old friend of Seward, took immediate steps to warn the Administration. Rushing from the caucus to Seward’s house, he told the Secretary what was taking place on Capitol Hill. At once Seward declared that he would not allow the President to be put in a false position by his unpopularity, wrote out a curt resignation, along with that of his son, the Assistant Secretary, and dispatched both to the White House. King followed on the messenger’s heels.

Lincoln, astounded at his dinner hour by the sudden resignations, turned to the portly New York senator to demand an explanation. When King told him about the caucus action, his perplexity increased. Later that evening the dismayed President went to Seward’s house to get him to withdraw his resignation, but all his arguments were in vain—Seward would not budge. If he remained obdurate, the Radicals would have won a sweeping victory at one blow—and Lincoln roused himself to prevent that disaster.

Collamer, after drawing up a statement of the sentiments of the caucus and getting members of his committee to approve it, asked for an appointment with Lincoln on the evening of Thursday the eighteenth. To this the President, deeply hurt and despondent, assented. He knew what injurious reports were flying around the city—reports summarized by Samuel Wilkeson of the Tribune in a private letter to his managing editor:
Fessenden has refused to go into the State Department unless the whole Cabinet rookery is cleaned out. He has said if that were done he would consider if he could serve the country by taking the place.
   Lincoln said yesterday that if there were worse Hell than he had been in for two days, he would like to know it. He is awfully shaken.
   The feeling is everywhere of exultation at the prospect of getting rid of the whole Cabinet. There is no exception to this in Congress or anywhere else.
  There is little doubt left that Burnside made his awful blunder on his own responsibility.
  Just one fortnight ago Seward sent off the thousandth reiteration of his dispatch that the Rebellion was just going to be crushed. A foreign minister remarked today that Congress should long since have passed a law forbidding Seward to prophesy, for horrible disasters always followed his efforts in that line.

One rumor announced that a delegation of the solid businessmen of New York was coming to Washington to demand from Lincoln a change of men and measures. The distressed Executive, talking to his old friend Orville H. Browning, asked what the caucus senators really wanted. Browning replied that he hardly knew, but that they were exceedingly hostile to the Administration, and that the resolution adopted was the gentlest action acceptable to the majority: “We had to do that or worse.” Lincoln dejectedly remarked that he believed the senators wished to get rid of him, and was half disposed to let them. The country, he mournfully declared, stood on the brink of ruin: “It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Browning, who loathed the Radicals, advised him to stand fast, for the main force of the onslaught was directed against Seward, and this statement simply added to Lincoln’s sad perplexity. “I wonder,” he said in effect, “why sane men can believe such an absurd lie as the charge of Seward’s malign influence over me.”

On Saturday evening the President received the caucus committee with his usual urbanity. Collamer read the prepared statement, which demanded that Lincoln give the country a Cabinet composed exclusively of men determined upon vigorous prosecution of the war, and entrust military operations only to generals in hearty accord with the objects for which the war was being fought. Wade, Crimes, Howard, and Fessenden spoke, repeating the old charges against Seward. When Fessenden referred to the imperfect support the Administration had given to McClellan, Lincoln produced and read letters showing that he and Stanton had sustained that general to their utmost ability. Sumner then brought up Seward’s recently published diplomatic correspondence, saying that he had subjected himself to ridicule at home and abroad, and had written some letters that were most objectionable. To this Lincoln replied simply that he had no memory of these offensive dispatches.

In making its demands on Lincoln, the committee offered an amazing new interpretation of the Constitution. As phrased by Collamer, whose study of history should have taught him better, it ran: “The theory of our government and the early and uniform construction thereof, is, that the President should be aided by a cabinet council, agreeing with him in political theory and general policy, and that all important public measures and appointments should be the result of their combined wisdom and deliberation.” This was a thrust at the coalition character of Lincoln’s Cabinet. As if Washington, balancing Jefferson against Hamilton, had not possessed a similar Cabinet! The committee asked for changes that would bring about unity at once, but it wanted unity on its own lines, and actually proposed that the President should make appointments only after submitting names to the Senate and getting its approval. No wonder that ex-Governor William Dennison of Ohio wrote:

Is it not a dangerous innovation for Senators to interfere in Cabinet matters in caucus form? Will it not be a precedent that may in future completely subordinate the Executive to the Legislative branch of the govt., and thus virtually destroy the whole theory of our political system? Will not the next step be for Congress to vote its want of confidence in the President and so embarrass as to compel him to resign? Was not some such purpose in the Senatorial caucus?

The committee obviously wanted a Cabinet congenial to Chase. Throughout the three hours’ discussion, indeed, the figure of Chase was always in the background. It was plain that he had been conferring with Radical senators, was the source of half the criticism of Seward and Stanton, and hoped to dominate the new Cabinet. Lincoln, as he allowed the senators to do most of the talking, was studying them coldly, and at the end he ushered them out with the noncommittal statement that he would think the subject over.

Actually, he had determined to recede not an inch. His first step was to summon the Cabinet, except for Seward. After asking them to keep his statements secret, he told them all he knew of the Republican caucus, of Seward’s resignation, and of the committee’s call on him. He described the senators’ attitude fairly, saying that they were “earnest and sad, not malicious nor passionate, not denouncing anyone, but all of them attributing to Mr. Seward a lukewarmness in the conduct of the war, and seeming to consider him the real cause of our failures.” Lincoln explained that he had defended his Cabinet loyally, and was most emphatic in repelling the idea of a general upset. He could not, he said, go on without his old friends.

Thus far the President had worn the air of a man who held a losing hand, but suddenly he placed an ace card on the table. He proposed that the Cabinet meet with him and the committee that night; thus he would have the support of his associates in facing Wade, Sumner, Fessenden, and the rest, and would put Chase in a spot where he would have to show whether he stood with the President or with the Radicals. Though neither Chase nor Bates liked the idea, Welles and Blair spoke so heartily in favor of it that finally everyone acquiesced. Both were anxious to see Chase forced to show his true colors; for every perceptive person in Washington now believed that Chase was at the bottom of the whole movement. Lincoln’s intentions were becoming plain. He did not think that a senatorial junta should be permitted, at the height of a terrible civil war, to dictate to the President; and he did not think that anyone in his Cabinet should be allowed to play the traitor.

That night, from seven-thirty till almost midnight, the While House witnessed one of the most momentous meetings in the nation’s history. Lincoln managed it with superb adroitness. He did not make the mistake of having the Cabinet with him when the committee arrived. Instead, the committee (without Wade) and Cabinet (without Seward) gathered in the same anteroom. The committee trooped into Lincoln’s office first, and he asked their permission to admit the Cabinet for a free discussion; when they came in, fourteen in all were seated. The President opened the proceedings in a carefully matured speech. After reading the committee resolutions and recapitulating the previous night’s conference, he launched into a defense of his Cabinet relations. He did not pretend, of course, that the Cabinet had decided all policies, for everyone knew that he made the critical decisions. But all the members had acquiesced once a policy was determined.

“Did they not?” he demanded, turning to the Cabinet. Calling upon them to say whether there had been any lack of reasonable consideration or unity, he looked pointedly at Chase. Indeed, all eyes fell on Chase. The Secretary was horribly embarrassed, for he was trapped in an equivocal position; he had to make good his accusations to the Radicals, or his loyalty to his chief. Blurting out that he would not have come had he known he would be arraigned before such a body, he looked about for a way of escape. According to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, he endorsed Lincoln’s statement, but regretted the lack of a thorough discussion of every important measure in open Cabinet. According to Fessenden, he said that questions of importance had usually been weighed by the Cabinet, though not as completely as might have been desired, and that acquiescence had indeed been the rule, no member opposing a measure once it was adopted. By either account, he made a weaseling statement.

Fessenden, one of the astutest lawyers of Maine, was irritated to the point of tart speech by Chase’s dodging. He assured the Cabinet that the senators had no idea of offering dictation to the President, only friendly advice. Then, turning to Chase, he answered the charge of arraignment by saying that it was the President who had unexpectedly brought the two bodies together. He went on to express his own views with deep feeling. Lincoln, he thought, had settled too many questions without Cabinet advice—he should have had all important questions discussed, though he was not bound to follow the majority—and had leaned too much on Seward. Collamer agreed.

The most radical members, Sumner, Grimes, and Trumbull, were emphatic in condemning Seward. “I have no confidence whatever in him,” said Grimes. Trumbull was equally condemnatory. The senators agreed that the main issue was no abstract question of Administration unity; it was Seward.

Bates and Montgomery Blair with rambling prolixity came to the defense of Lincoln, insisting that no President need consult his Cabinet unless he pleases; and Chase did Seward the justice of recalling that he had offered suggestions which strengthened the Emancipation Proclamation. But Lincoln, making several speeches and lightening the occasion by deft anecdotes, was his own best advocate. Near the end he brought the senators up to the point of responsible action by asking them bluntly whether they still wished Seward to leave the Cabinet, and whether this step would please their constituents. Grimes, Trumbull, Sumner, and Pomeroy answered yes. But Fessenden, Collamer, and Howard declined to commit themselves, while Harris said that Seward’s influence in New York was so great that his departure would hurt the party.

As the meeting broke up, Trumbull came to the President with angry mien: “Lincoln, somebody has lied like hell!” Lincoln coolly replied, “Not tonight.” Fessenden among others remained to press Lincoln on the acceptance of Seward’s resignation, and to repeat his offer to canvass the Republican senators. Lincoln good-naturedly parried every attack, desiring to avoid any Cabinet changes whatever; for he feared that if Seward left, Chase and Stanton would also withdraw in “a general smashup.”

The unhappiest man that evening was Chase. Fessenden was angry at him for his double-dealing; Stanton commented that he was ashamed of how Chase had lied about the Cabinet’s way of doing business— he would not have done it, for the senatorial charges were true; Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith said later he had been inclined to contradict Chase on the spot. Doubtless Chase passed a sleepless night. Knowing his duplicity had been discovered, that the President was indignant, and that if the Radicals forced Seward out, the conservatives would demand his own head, he saw that he must write his resignation.

Gideon Welles also had passed a sleepless night, for it seemed to him a national calamity to let a senatorial cabal dictate to the President the make-up of his Administration. Fessenden, too, fearful that Stanton and Chase would go, was racked with anxiety. Calling on Stanton, Fessenden to his relief found that pugnacious man determined to stay. “Seward shall not drive me out,” he blazed. Posting over to the Treasury, however, Fessenden was startled to learn that Chase had already decided to resign. If he stayed, he explained, he would be accused of having maneuvered to get Seward out (hardly a false accusation!), while conservative attacks would make his Treasury burden, already heavy, intolerable. In vain did Fessenden expostulate.

Welles, meanwhile, went at an early hour to the White House. His white beard tremulous with agitation, his stern eyes blazing, he bade Lincoln stand firm, for it was his duty to maintain the rights and independence of the Executive. He remarked that while Seward obviously had grave faults, his self-exalting ways and invasions of the sphere of his associates, from which Welles had suffered much, did not call for senatorial interference. Lincoln fully agreed, observing that if he yielded, the whole government must “cave in.” At the President’s request Welles then hurried to see Seward and repeat Lincoln’s words. He found the Secretary much excited, deeply wounded and chagrined, and voluble on the subject of his own sagacity and invaluable services to the nation—for his vanity never failed. That he—he in his own eyes practically the architect of the Republican party, the founder of its success, and the sheet-anchor of the Administration—should be thus assailed by men who had once professed the greatest deference, was an outrage without parallel.

And this New Yorker whose whole career had been founded on shifts and compromises had the effrontery to criticize Lincoln for not taking an adamant stand. The President, said he, should have rejected his resignation without hesitation, and defied the Senate majority by refusing to talk with its committee. Delighted by Welles’s attitude, Seward told him he might inform the President that the resignation could quickly be withdrawn. As if Lincoln did not know this! Welles, elated, hurried back to the White House.

Here occurred the culminating scene of the crisis. When Welles entered the President’s office Chase and Stanton were there, the President out. Welles spoke to them of his strong opposition to Seward’s resignation, and thought them evasively acquiescent. The President entered, his eye on Welles. “Have you seen the man?” he demanded. “I have, and he assents to our views,” replied Welles. Thereupon the President turned to Chase and said that he had sent for him because he was deeply troubled by the situation—an obvious hint. The Secretary, expressing pain over the previous night’s conference, replied that he had prepared his resignation.

“Where is it?” demanded Lincoln, his eyes lighting up. Chase hesitantly took it from his pocket. “Let me have it,” ejaculated the President, stretching out his long arm. The Secretary wished to say something, but Lincoln ripped open the seal and hastily scanned the letter. “This,” he said with a triumphant laugh, “cuts the Gordian knot.” An expression of deep satisfaction overspread his face. “I can dispose of this subject now without difficulty,” he went on, turning in his chair. “I see my way clear.” Stanton interposed with a pompous offer of his own resignation, which Lincoln waved aside. “The trouble is ended,” he said, and dismissed all three.

The crisis was indeed over. Lincoln, holding both resignations, could let the Radicals understand that if Seward went Chase must go too. In his delight he fell back upon frontier imagery. “Now I can ride,” he told Senator Harris. “I have got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.” He told another man: “Now I have the biggest half of the hog. I shall accept neither resignation.” Later he remarked to John Hay that he was sure he had managed the affair correctly. “If I had yielded to that storm and dismissed Seward the thing would all have slumped over one way, and we should have been left with a scanty handful of supporters.” The Radicals were actually too few and weak to govern the country, and when Lincoln publicly announced on December 22 that he had requested both Seward and Chase to withdraw their resignations, public comment made them aware of that fact.

The storm not only cleared the air, but taught a needed lesson to all concerned, including Lincoln.

Chase, so abruptly exposed, had most to learn. His standing with his old friends sank; Fessenden accused him of betraying them, and Wade, Chandler, and Sumner saw that their movements would no longer find a secret ally inside the Cabinet. When Collamer reported to the senatorial caucus on the committee meeting with Lincoln and the Cabinet, Orville H. Browning asked how Chase, after telling senators about Seward’s backstairs work, could have made his statement on Cabinet unity. Collamer answered: “He lied.” After this lesson, Chase restrained his tongue, for a while at least, and somewhat modified his attitude toward the President. Lincoln’s secretaries declare that it had varied between active hostility and benevolent contempt, and it had certainly lacked due respect; but now he had a new insight into both Lincoln’s masterful qualities and his magnanimity—for the President repeatedly thanked him for remaining in the Administration. He continued to criticize and to intrigue, but less offensively.

Seward, too, learned a sharp lesson. Egotistical, erratic, meddlesome, he had long helped diffuse a totally false impression that he managed the Administration. By devious methods, unsleeping vigilance, use of his great experience, and skillful exploitation of Lincoln’s friendliness, he had indeed done more to affect public policy than his colleagues; and boasting of his activities to friends, he flaunted them in the face of foes. To Chase, Smith, Welles, and Stanton he had behaved with exasperating insolence. Now he suddenly learned that half his own party not only bitterly hated him but thirsted for his blood. He saw that his ideas, methods, and loose use of words had raised a storm from which only Lincoln’s consummate skill had saved him. He was henceforth content to confine himself to State Department business.

The President was triumphant. His expedient of bringing the Cabinet and Senate committee together was a perfect illustration of his grasp and shrewdness, combining frankness, honesty, dexterity, and insight into human nature. He alone emerged from the crisis with enhanced prestige. Yet he also had a lesson to learn, and knew it.

It was wonderful how well Lincoln managed matters on which he thought deeply; it was also wonderful how completely he refused to think about some matters at all. Administration was one of them. The lack of liaison between McClellan and General Henry Wager Halleck, for example, had remained painful till the day McClellan left; McClellan and Stanton, hating each other, had hardly been on terms of communication; and a painful failure of rapport between Halleck and Stanton had developed. To say that the public interest suffered is an understatement.

That Lincoln did not use his Cabinet in the most efficient way is clear. While he was right in holding that he alone should make the great decisions, and that its consultative value was limited, he could have used it more, largely for mutual exchange of information. He went to the War Office daily, and saw Seward frequently, for Seward was a “comfort” to him; the others he neglected. Chase, though a leader of one of the two great wings of the party, fell into the role of mere financial specialist, and resented the fact. Stanton complained that in important military matters the President took counsel of none but army officers, though he ought to be consulted, or at least be kept informed. Yet Stanton himself in Cabinet meetings imparted little information, and had a way of drawing Lincoln into a corner and talking with him in a low voice. Seward meanwhile aroused ill feeling by sending his son Frederick, the Assistant Secretary, to some Cabinet meetings, which provoked Stanton to declare that he would discuss no important business while an outsider was present, a feeling shared by others.

Lincoln, unsystematic, often abstracted, so intent on great aims that he thought little of minutiae, learned from the crisis that he had neglected trifling details which amounted in the aggregate to something important. He realized that his principal associates were entitled, as Chase put it, to full, systematic accounts of the progress of the struggle, the purposes entertained, and the means to be used. Full of natural good will to everyone, he had forgotten that some might resent his apparent favoritism toward Seward. After this crisis he was more decided and masterful, for he felt his powers more fully; and he was also a little more considerate of his associates. At the next Cabinet meeting, on December 23, the proposed creation of West Virginia received exhaustive discussion; and at the two following sessions the President, inviting careful discussion of his draft of the final Emancipation Proclamation, heard criticism from Chase, Welles, Blair, and Seward, and adopted some of their changes, including apparently a felicitous closing by Chase invoking the judgment of mankind and the favor of Almighty God.

This proclamation enabled Lincoln to end a year full of frustration and failure with a document breathing hope and inspiration. On New Year’s Day Seward and his son took the sheet to the White House for signature. Lincoln, dipping his pen, held it suspended as he observed: “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb. Now, this signature will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled, they will say ‘he had some compunctions.’ But anyway, it is going to be done.” With firm hand, he signed the declaration that all slaves throughout the areas in rebellion were then and forever free.


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.