I hate the image of Lincoln that most Americans hold, the five dollar profile of “The Great Emancipator”. You see, Abraham Lincoln saved the Union and ended slavery not because he was a saint but because he was the greatest politician who has ever occupied the White House. And to those who despise “professional politicians”, my response is they have probably never seen a real professional in action. Such Pols don’t come along often, but when they do, they make the puny impersonations that must usually suffice seem like clowns.
And Lincoln’s professionalism was best displayed in his handling of the biggest clown in his cabinet, a man you have probably never heard of but whose best work you see every day of your life, Salmon Portland Chase. If Chase had been half as smart as he was ambitious, he would have been President instead of Lincoln. That to his dying day he continued to think he deserved to be so, shows what a clown he was.
Doris Kerns Goodwin has called Lincoln’s cabinet “A Team of Rivals”, but I think of it as obtuse triangle. At the apex was Lincoln. He was the pretty girl at the party. Her suitors didn’t really want to know her, but they all wanted to have her. On the inside track was the brilliant, obsequious William Seward - the Secretary of State who thought of himself as Lincoln’s puppet master. And the right angle was Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, born to money and brilliant but with a stick up his elementary canal. And on Tuesday, December 16, 1862 the competition between these two paramours of Old Abe came to head in the head of Senator Charles Sumner, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leading Senatorial Cassandra.
After hearing of the intentions of the Seven, Seward had a flunky deliver his resignation in private as a demand that Lincoln pick Seward over Chase, the genial New Yorker over the prig from Ohio. Of course, the loss of support from New York would poke a fatal hole in Lincoln’s ship of state. So Seward was not expecting Lincoln to pick the prig for the poke
The other factor was that the whispers about Seward’s “backstairs influence” were false. By December of 1862 it was dawning on even Seward that Lincoln was thinking for himself. When Lincoln had first heard about the Magnificent Seven’s deliberations (from Senator Preston King, the flunky who had delivered Seward’s resignation), the President had exploded. “Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it, and repeat it, and cling to it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary?” Lincoln was beset by arrogance from all sides. It seems that everybody in Washington thought they were smarter than Lincoln. But the skinny lawyer from Illinois was about to prove them all wrong.
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