Saturday, November 26, 2016

Diary of Gideon Welles: Saturday, December 20, 1862

At the meeting last evening there were present of the committee Senators Collamer, Fessenden, Harris, Trumbull, Grimes, Howard, Sumner, and Pomeroy. Wade was absent. The President and all the Cabinet but Seward were present. The subject was opened by the President, who read the resolutions and stated the substance of his interviews with the committee, — their object and purpose. He spoke of the unity of his Cabinet, and how, though they could not be expected to think and speak alike on all subjects, all had acquiesced in measures when once decided. The necessities of the times, he said, had prevented frequent and long sessions of the Cabinet, and the submission of every question at the meetings.

Secretary Chase indorsed the President's statement fully and entirely, but regretted that there was not a more full and thorough consideration and canvass of every important measure in open Cabinet.

Senator Collamer, the chairman of the committee, succeeded the President and calmly and fairly presented the views of the committee and of those whom they represented. They wanted united counsels, combined wisdom, and energetic action. If there is truth in the maxim that in a multitude of counselors there is safety, it might be well that those advisers who were near the President and selected by him, and all of whom were more or less responsible, should be consulted on the great questions which affected the national welfare, and that the ear of the Executive should be open to all and that he should have the minds of all.

Senator Fessenden was skillful but a little tart; felt, it could be seen, more than he cared to say; wanted the whole Cabinet to consider and decide great questions, and that no one in particular should absorb and direct the whole Executive action. Spoke of a remark which he had heard from J. Q. Adams on the floor of Congress in regard to a measure of his administration. Mr. Adams said the measure was adopted against his wishes and opinion, but he was outvoted by Mr. Clay and others. He wished an administration so conducted.

Grimes, Sumner, and Trumbull were pointed, emphatic, and unequivocal in their opposition to Mr. Seward, whose zeal and sincerity in this conflict they doubted; each was unrelenting and unforgiving.

Blair spoke earnestly and well. Sustained the President, and dissented most decidedly from the idea of a plural Executive; claimed that the President was accountable for his administration, might ask opinions or not of either and as many as he pleased, of all or none, of his Cabinet. Mr. Bates took much the same view.

The President managed his own case, speaking freely, and showed great tact, shrewdness, and ability, provided such a subject were a proper one for such a meeting and discussion. I have no doubt he considered it most judicious to conciliate the Senators with respectful deference, whatever may have been his opinion of their interference. When he closed his remarks, he said it would be a gratification to him if each member of the committee would state whether he now thought it advisable to dismiss Mr. Seward, and whether his exclusion would strengthen or weaken the Administration and the Union cause in their respective States. Grimes, Trumbull, and Sumner, who had expressed themselves decidedly against the continuance of Mr. Seward in the Cabinet, indicated no change of opinion. Collamer and Fessenden declined committing themselves on the subject; had in their action the welfare of the whole country in view; were not prepared to answer the questions. Senator Harris felt it a duty to say that while many of the friends of the Administration would be gratified, others would feel deeply wounded, and the effect of Mr. Seward's retirement would, on the whole, be calamitous in the State of New York. Pomeroy of Kansas said, personally, he believed the withdrawal of Mr. Seward would be a good movement and he sincerely wished it might take place. Howard of Michigan declined answering the question.

During the discussion, the volume of diplomatic correspondence, recently published, was alluded to; some letters denounced as unwise and impolitic were specified, one of which, a confidential dispatch to Mr. Adams, was read. If it was unwise to write, it was certainly injudicious and indiscreet to publish such a document. Mr. Seward has genius and talent, — no one better knows it than himself, — but for one in his place he is often wanting in careful discrimination, true wisdom, sound judgment, and discreet statesmanship. The committee believe he thinks more of the glorification of Seward than the welfare of the country. He wishes the glorification of both, and believes he is the man to accomplish it, but has unwittingly and unwarily begotten and brought upon himself a vast amount of distrust and hostility on the part of Senators, by his endeavors to impress them and others with the belief that he is the Administration. It is a mistake; the Senators dislike it, — have measured and know him.

It was nearly midnight when we left the President; and it could not be otherwise than that all my wakeful moments should be absorbed with a subject which, time and circumstances considered, was of grave importance to the Administration and the country. A Senatorial combination to dictate to the President in regard to his political family in the height of a civil war which threatens the existence of the Republic cannot be permitted to succeed, even if the person to whom they object were as obnoxious as they represent; but Seward's foibles are not serious failings. After fully canvassing the subject in all its phases, my mind was clear as to the course which it was my duty to pursue, and what I believed was the President's duty also.

My first movement this morning was to call on the President as soon as I supposed he could have breakfasted. Governor Robertson of Kentucky was with him when I went in, but soon left. I informed the President I had pondered the events of yesterday and last evening, and felt it incumbent on me to advise him not to accept the resignation of Mr. Seward; that if there were objections, real or imaginary, against Mr. Seward, the time, manner, and circumstances — the occasion, and the method of presenting what the Senators considered objections — were all inappropriate and wrong; that no party or faction should be permitted to dictate to the President in regard to his Cabinet; that it would be of evil example and fraught with incalculable injury to the Government and country; that neither the legislative department, nor the Senate branch of it, should be allowed to encroach on the Executive prerogatives and rights; that it devolved on him — and was his duty to assert and maintain the rights and independence of the Executive; that he ought not, against his own convictions, to yield one iota of the authority intrusted to him on the demand of either branch of Congress or of both combined, or to any party, whatever might be its views and intentions; that Mr. Seward had his infirmities and errors, but they were venial; that he and I differed on many things, as did other members of the Cabinet; that he was sometimes disposed to step beyond his own legitimate bounds and not duly respect the rights of his associates, but these were matters that did not call for Senatorial interference. In short, I considered it for the true interest of the country, now as in the future, that this scheme should be defeated; that, so believing, I had at the earliest moment given him my conclusions.

The President was much gratified; said the whole thing had struck him as it had me, and if carried out as the Senators prescribed, the whole Government must cave in. It could not stand, could not hold water; the bottom would be out.

I added that, having expressed my wish that he would not accept Mr. Seward's resignation, I thought it important that Seward should not press its acceptance, nor did I suppose he would. In this he also concurred, and asked if I had seen Seward. I replied I had not, my first duty was with him, and, having ascertained that we agreed, I would now go over and see him. He earnestly desired me to do so.

I went immediately to Seward's house. Stanton was with him. Seward was excited, talking vehemently to Stanton of the course pursued and the results that must follow if the scheme succeeded; told Stanton he (Stanton) would be the next victim, that there was a call for a meeting at the Cooper Institute this evening. Stanton said he had seen it; I had not. Seward got the Herald, got me to read; but Stanton seized the paper, as Seward and myself entered into conversation, and he related what the President had already communicated, — how Preston King had come to him, he wrote his resignation at once, and so did Fred, etc., etc. In the mean time Stanton rose, and remarked he had much to do, and, as Governor S. had been over this matter with him, he would leave.

I then stated my interview with the President, my advice that the President must not accept, nor he press, his resignation. Seward was greatly pleased with my views; said he had but one course before him when the doings of the Senators were communicated, but that if the President and country required of him any duty in this emergency he did not feel at liberty to refuse it. He spoke of his long political experience; dwelt on his own sagacity and his great services; feels deeply this movement, which was wholly unexpected; tries to suppress any exhibition of personal grievance or disappointment, but is painfully wounded, mortified, and chagrined. I told him I should return and report to the President our interview and that he acquiesced in my suggestions. He said he had no objections, but he thought the subject should be disposed of one way or the other at once. He is disappointed, I see, that the President did not promptly refuse to consider his resignation, and dismiss, or refuse to parley with, the committee.

When I returned to the White House, Chase and Stanton were in the President's office, but he was absent. A few words were interchanged on the great topic in hand. I was very emphatic in my opposition to the acceptance of Seward's resignation. Neither gave me a direct answer nor did either express an opinion on the subject, though I think both wished to be understood as acquiescing.

When the President came in, which was in a few moments, his first address was to me, asking if I “had seen the man.” I replied that I had, and that he assented to my views. He then turned to Chase and said, “I sent for you, for this matter is giving me great trouble.” At our first interview this morning the President rang and directed that a message be sent to Mr. Chase. Chase said he had been painfully affected by the meeting last evening, which was a total surprise to him, and, after some not very explicit remarks as to how he was affected, informed the President he had prepared his resignation of the office of Secretary of the Treasury. “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; “I wrote it this morning.” “Let me have it,” said the President, reaching his long arm and fingers towards C., who held on, seemingly reluctant to part with the letter, which was sealed, and which he apparently hesitated to surrender. Something further he wished to say, but the President was eager and did not perceive it, but 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. “I can dispose of this subject now without difficulty,” he added, as he turned on his chair; “I see my way clear.”

Chase sat by Stanton, fronting the fire; the President beside the fire, his face towards them, Stanton nearest him. I was on the sofa near the east window. While the President was reading the note, which was brief, Chase turned round and looked towards me, a little perplexed. He would, I think, have been better satisfied could this interview with the President have been without the presence of others, or at least if I was away. The President was so delighted that he saw not how others were affected.

“Mr. President,” said Stanton, with solemnity, “I informed you day before yesterday that I was ready to tender you my resignation. I wish you, sir, to consider my resignation at this time in your possession.”

“You may go to your Department,” said the President; “I don't want yours. This,” holding out Chase's letter, “is all I want; this relieves me; my way is clear; the trouble is ended. I will detain neither of you longer.” We all rose to leave, but Stanton lingered and held back as we reached the door. Chase and myself came downstairs together. He was moody and taciturn. Some one stopped him on the lower stairs and I passed on, but C. was not a minute behind me, and before I reached the Department, Stanton came staving along.

Preston King called at my house this evening and gave me particulars of what had been said and done at the caucuses of the Republican Senators, — of the surprise he felt when he found the hostility so universal against Seward, and that some of the calmest and most considerate Senators were the most decided; stated the course pursued by himself, which was frank, friendly, and manly. He was greatly pleased with my course, of which he had been informed by Seward and the President in part; and I gave him some facts which they did not. Blair tells me that his father's views correspond with mine, and the approval of F. P. Blair and Preston King gives me assurance that I am right.

Montgomery Blair is confident that Stanton has been instrumental in getting up this movement against Seward to screen himself, and turn attention from the management of the War Department. There may be something in this surmise of Blair; but I am inclined to think that Chase, Stanton, and Caleb Smith have each, but without concert, participated, if not directly, by expressions of discontent to their Senatorial intimates. Chase and Smith, I know, are a good deal dissatisfied with Seward and have not hesitated to make known their feelings in some quarters, though, I apprehend, not to the President. With Stanton I have little intimacy. He came into the Cabinet under Seward's wing, and he knows it, but Stanton is, by nature, an intriguer, courts favor, is not faithful in his friendships, is given to secret, underhand combinations. His obligations to Seward are great, but would not deter him from raising a breeze against Seward to favor himself. Chase and Seward entered the Cabinet as rivals, and in cold courtesy have so continued. There was an effort by Seward's friends to exclude Chase from the Treasury; the President did not yield to it, but it is obvious that Seward's more pleasant nature and consummate skill have enabled him to get to windward of Chase in administrative management, and the latter, who has but little tact, feels it. Transactions take place of a general character, not unfrequently, of which Chase and others are not advised until they are made public. Often the fact reaches them through the papers. Seward has not exhibited shrewdness in this, [though] it may have afforded him a temporary triumph as regarded Chase, and he doubtless flatters himself that it strengthens a belief which he desires should prevail that he is the “power behind the throne greater than the throne itself,” that he is the real Executive. The result of all this has been the alienation of a portion of his old friends without getting new ones, and finally this appointment of a committee which asked his removal. The objections urged are, I notice, the points on which Chase is most sensitive.

For two or three months Stanton has evinced a growing indifference to Seward, with whom he was, at first, intimate and to whom he was much devoted. I have observed that, as he became alienated towards Seward, his friendship for Chase increased.

My differences with Seward I have endeavored to settle with him in the day and time of their occurrences. They have not been many, but they have been troublesome and annoying because they were meddlesome and disturbing. He gets behind me, tampers with my subordinates, and interferes injuriously and ignorantly in naval matters, not so much from wrong purposes, but as a busybody by nature. I have not made these matters subjects of complaint outside and think it partly the result of usage and practice at Albany.

I am also aware that he and his friend Thurlow Weed were almost as much opposed to my entering the Cabinet as they were to Chase. They wanted a fraternity of Seward men. The President discerned this and put it aside. But he has not so readily detected, nor been aware of the influence which Seward exercises over him, often unfortunately. In his intercourse with his colleagues, save the rivalry between himself and Chase and the supercilious self-assumption which he sometimes displays, he has been courteous, affable, and, I think, anxious to preserve harmony in the Cabinet. I have seen no effort to get up combinations for himself personally, or against others. He supposed himself immensely popular at the moment when friends were estranged, and was as surprised as myself when he learned the Senatorial movement for his overthrow.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 196-204

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