LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph endorsement signed ("A. Lincoln") as President, TO SECRETARY OF TREASURY SALMON P. CHASE (1808-1873), [Washington D.C.], 20 December 1862.
1 page, oblong (2 x 3 5/16 in.), comprising 2 lines plus date and signature in a small card, small stain in blank area.
AT THE HEIGHT OF A CABINET CRISIS, LINCOLN ORDERS CHASE--WHO HAS JUST RESIGNED AS SECRETARY OF TREASURY--NOT TO LEAVE TOWN
The embattled President, faced with the resignation of two cabinet members--Seward and Chase--peremptorilly orders Chase not leave the capital disctrict: "Sec. of Treasury, please do not go out of town..."
This curt note relates to what one historian has termed "the most serious governmental crisis of his presidency" (D.H. Donald, Lincoln, p.495). In the wake of the bloody fiasco at Fredericksburg, many in Congress became conviced that the cabinet itself--particularly Secretary of State Seward--was at fault. The anti-Seward embers were covertly fanned by Seward's bitter rival, Chase. On December 16, a Republican caucus met and called for Seward's resignation. The next day the Secretary of State sent Lincoln a letter of resignation, which Lincoln did not act upon.
On the 18th, Lincoln met with a special Committee of Nine Republican Senators and for three hours parried complaints about Seward and the supposedly non-functional cabinet. The next day, he convened the cabinet--minus Seward--to report on the situation. Then, in a brilliant manoeuver, Lincoln brought the simmering crisis to a head: he arranged for the cabinet and the Committee of Nine to confront each other, in his presence, for a full airing of the issues. In that meeting Lincoln denied the cabinet was divided and called on the cabinet for confirmation. This placed Chase an impossible situation: "If he now repeated his frequent complaints to the senators, his disloyalty to the President would be apparent. If he supported Lincoln's statement, it would be evident that he had deceived the senators." (Donald, p. 404). Chase temporized and blustered, but in the end repudiated his criticisms. In the end, five of the nine senators agreed not to press for Seward's resignation.
The next morning, 20 December, the chastened Chase, his skulduggery exposed, wrote out his resignation and handed it to the President. Lincoln, seeing the affair might be readily settled--penned the present note to insure that Chase, a principal actor, would not hurriedly leave town. In a deferential response, Chase explained that he had indeed intended to leave Washington, but had altered his plans. Chase declared apologetically that "I am very far from desiring you to decline to accept my resignation," since "recent events have too rudely jostled the unity of your cabinet," and vowing that he had tendered his resignation to be accepted, and, "so did Mr. Seward...tender his" (full text in Basler 6:11).
Lincoln was very anxious to retain Seward, on whom he depended, and saw that if he simply refused both resignations, much of the bad blood would be mitigated. He ignored Chase's pleadings and wrote out two identical letters--one to Seward, the other to Chase--declining to accept their resignations because "the public interest will not admit of it." (The letter received by Chase was part of the Forbes Collection, sold here 2 November 2006, lot 77, $180,000). Crisis averted: Lincoln had adroitly defended a valued cabinet member against slander, stood up to his Congressional critics and fought off attempts to meddle with his efforts to bring the war to a successful resolution. Published (from R.B. Warden's Life of Samuel Chase, p.508) in Basler, 6:12-13.