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Friday, January 27, 2012

A PROFESSIONAL

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 really was.
Doris Kerns Goodwin has called Lincoln’s cabinet “A Team of Rivals”, but I think of it more as an obtuse triangle. At the apex was Lincoln. He was the pretty girl at the party. His suitors didn’t really want to know him, but they all wanted to have him. 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 alimentary canal. And on Tuesday, December 16, 1862 the competition between these two paramours of Old Abe's banged heads in the head of Senator Charles Sumner, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leading Senatorial Cassandra.
Sumner had come into procession of a letter written by Seward to the American Ambassador to France. In the letter Seward complained that “…the extreme advocates for African slavery and its most vehement opponents are acting in concert together to precipitate a servile war, the former by making the most desperate attempts to overthrow the federal Union; the latter by demanding an edict of universal emancipation as a lawful and necessary if not, as they say, the only legitimate way of saving the Union.” To Sumner this passage was proof that behind the scenes Seward was not fully committed to destroying slavery and the Confederacy. And it confirmed what he already heard from Chase.
Stephen Oates writes in “With Malice Toward None”, “Chase in particular felt snubbed and resentful…what bothered Chase the most was the intimacy between Lincoln and Seward…In talks with his liberal Congressional friends, Chase intimated that Seward was a malignant influence on the President...that it was (Seward) who was responsible for the administration’s bungling. So it was that Seward became a scapegoat for Republican discontent.” (pp 355-356)
Sumner convened what I call "The Magnificent Seven", the Republican Senate caucus. Once the Seward letter was read out loud, Senator Ira Harris from New York recorded the reaction. “Silence ensued for several moments, when (Senator Morton Wilkinson of Minnesota) said that in his opinion the country was ruined and the cause was lost…” Senator William Fessenden from Maine added his two cents worth. He had been told by a member of the cabinet there was “…a secret backstairs influence which often controlled the apparent conclusions of the cabinet itself. Measures must be taken”, Fessenden concluded, “to make the cabinet a unity and to remove from it anyone who does not coincide heartily with our views in relation to the war.”
It is sad to say there was not a first rate mind in that room. There might have been, but arrogance drops a smart person’s I.Q. by forty points or more. It can drop the average mind to zero. Not one of the seven seems to have suspected they were being manipulated by Chase, that it was Chase who had whispered Fesseneden's ear, and Wilkinsen' s ear as well. But each was convinced they they and they alone held the solution as to how to conclude the Civil War. It is startling to think that men who used an outhouse every day, could be that arrogant.
They skewered up their courage for two days before saddling up and calling on the President at 7 P.M. on Thursday, December 19, 1862. For three hours they harangued poor Mr. Lincoln on the dangers of Seward. Lincoln remained agreeable but noncommittal, and proposed that they meet again the next night. And the amazing thing was that throughout the meeting Lincoln actually had William Seward’s resignation in his coat pocket.
Understand, Seward had not offered his resignation out of nobility. He was a politician. After hearing of the intentions of the Seven, Seward had a flunky deliver his resignation in private, as a back door 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
Lincoln’s problem was he also needed the prig. Chase’s handling of the Treasury  was brilliant. He was financing the entire war. It was Chase who had begun issuing official U.S. government backed paper currency, greenbacks. That had not been done since the American Revolution. It was Chase who had put the words “In God We Trust” on every bill, and its still there today. Of course, Chase had also put his own face on every $1 bill, as a form of political advertising, but Lincoln was willing to tolerate that because Chase was honest, doing a good job, and because without Ohio, the Union would lose the war.
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.
At ten the next morning Lincoln told his cabinet about the previous night’s meeting. He made no accusations, but Chase immediately blubbered that this was the first he had heard about any of this matter. The President, who had mentioned no names and made no allegations, asked them all, except Seward, to return that night to meet with the Seven. Seward felt the ground giving way under his feet. He had never expected Lincoln might pick Chase. At the same time, Chase was not entirely certain he had.
That night the Seven were now the audience to a bravo performance. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy (then a cabinet office) recorded the festivities. The President “…spoke of the unity of his Cabinet, and how although they could not be expected to think and speak alike on all subjects, all had acquiesced in measures when once decided. ...Secretary Chase endorsed the President's statement fully and entirely…” There were hours more of talking but right there, when Chase agreed with Lincoln, that was the end of Chase's mutiny. As the Magnificent Seven were leaving the White House a stunned Senator Browning of Illinois asked one the leaders of the mutiny how Chase could tell them that the cabinet was harmonious, after all his talk to them about back stairs influence. The reply was simple and bitter; “He lied.” Chase was done as a malignant political influence in the cabinet. No Republican was going to believe anything he ever said again.
The next morning Lincoln called both Seward and Chase to the White House. Welles was again present, I suspect as a witness for Lincoln. Wrote Welles,  “Chase said he had been painfully affected by the meeting last evening, which was a total surprise to him, and…informed the President he had prepared his resignation…“Where is it?” said the President quickly, his eye lighting up in a moment."
“I brought it with me,” said Chase, taking the paper from his pocket…”Let me have it,” said the President, reaching his long arm and fingers towards Chase, who held on, seemingly reluctant…but the President was eager and…took and hastily opened the letter. “This," said he, looking towards me with a triumphal laugh, “cuts the Gordian knot.” An air of satisfaction spread over his countenance such as I have not seen for some time. “You may go to your Departments,” said the President;…(This) “is all I want…I will detain neither of you longer.”
Both Seward and Chase spent a nervous night, not certain as to what Lincoln would do. They had both just been reminded who was in charge of this game. And it was not until a few days later that Lincoln sent a message to both Chase and Seward, saying that the nation could not afford to lose either of their talents. And it did not. Seward never tried to pull Lincoln's strings again. Chase petulantly continued to resign annually until late 1864, when Lincoln could finally afford to take him up on the offer. But never a man to waste talent, Lincoln appointed the clown to the Supreme Court, where Chase’s firm stance for racial equality would have the best influence on America’s future.
And that is what it looks like when a professional is on the job.
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