Chase and the Coronavirus
I am fortunate that most of what I do, researching and writing about Chase, I can do from home, while we are quasi-quarantined here because of the coronavirus. One thing that I cannot do is go to a library to check a letter, so I am having to make some educated guesses about what letters say. When this is all over I will have to spend some time at the Huntington, or Stanford, or the Library of Congress, or all of the above.
I am more or less done with Chase’s life through 1862. My focus for the next few weeks will be 1863. I was re-reading this morning Doris Kearns Goodwin’s description of Chase’s May 1863 resignation, over the question of who should replace Victor Smith as the customs collector in Puget Sound, and in particular the following paragraph, page 518:
Understanding that “Chase’s feelings were hurt,” Lincoln set about once again to soothe his ruffled pride. That evening, he later recounted, he called at Chase’s house with the resignation in his hand. Placing his long arms on Chase’s shoulders, he said: “Chase, here is a paper with which I wish to have nothing to do; take it back and be more reasonable.” He then explained why he had felt compelled to make the decision, which had taken place in Chase’s absence from the city, and promised his touchy secretary that he would have complete authority to name the removed appointee’s successor. “I had to plead with him a long time, but I finally succeeded,” Lincoln happily noted.
Goodwin’s main source for this paragraph is a memoir by Maunsell Field, published in 1874, in which Field recounts a conversation with Lincoln in 1864. Here is what Field wrote that Lincoln told him about Chase and Smith:
Sometime after this there was a Collector of Customs on the Pacific coast, one of Chase’s men, [Smith] who was represented to me to be a worthless vagabond, and even a defaulter. I spoke to Chase about him; but he had entire confidence in him and refused to listen to any thing to his disadvantage. While matters stood thus, Chase one day told me that he felt overworked, and proposed taking a little trip down the Potomac, but that he would not be gone longer than two days. I said, “All right, Mr. Secretary,” and we shook hands and parted. As luck would have it, I was waited upon the very next day by a delegation of all the gentlemen from the Pacific coast,
both official and unofficial, who then happened to be in Washington. They filed formal charges with me against the Collector to whom I have referred and demanded his immediate removal. I told them that the Secretary of the Treasury was out of town, that it would be discourteous to him if I acted upon the matter in his absence, but that he would return in one or two days at the latest, and I invited them to call upon me again in about a week, when I promised, under all circumstances, a definite answer to their request. A week passed. No Chase. The delegation returned, and as I was thoroughly convinced of not only the propriety of, but even the necessity for the act, I removed the Collector, and appointed another in his stead. The first notice that I
received of Chase’s return was about three days afterward, when I found his resignation lying upon my table. I waited until evening, and then ordered my carriage and drove to his house. I found him in the office to the left as you enter the door. I went directly up to him with the resignation in my hand, and, putting my arm around his neck, said to him, “Chase, here is a paper with which I wish to have nothing to do; take it back, and be reasonable.” I then explained to him what had occurred while he was away. I told him that the man whom I had appointed happened to have been dead several weeks; that I couldn’t replace the person whom I had removed—that was impossible—but that I would appoint anyone else whom he should select for the place. It was difficult to bring him to terms; I had to plead with him a long time, but I finally succeeded, and heard nothing more of that resignation.
Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher, in their great book on Recollected Words of Lincoln, give this passage a grade of D, for doubtful. They note that Lincoln probably would not have confided all these details to Field who was after all a Chase confidante.
I have not finished my research but note a few other problems with the Fields paragraph. Chase did not go down to Virginia at this time; he was in New York and New England. Lincoln knew where Chase was; his movements were reported in the papers. There is nothing in the letters between Chase and Lincoln suggesting that Lincoln’s first choice as Smith’s successor “happened to have been dead for several weeks.” And is it really likely that Lincoln put his arm around Chase’s neck?
So my version of this incident will be different than Goodwin’s. In general, when possible, I prefer to rely upon contemporary sources, not memoirs from ten and twenty and thirty years after the Civil War. Unfortunately that means that I lose some great stories; it would be nice to think of Lincoln putting his arm around Chase’s neck and asking him to take back his resignation. But sometimes history has to take priority over story; fact over something closer to fiction.