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Republican Senators’ 1862 “Cabinet Crisis” Attempt to Force Lincoln To Fire Seward, With Note Added by Senator Grimes in 1868 After the Johnson Impeachment Crisis
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The Republican Senators of the United States, entertaining the most unqualified confidence in the patriotism & integrity of the President...feel it is their duty, from the positions they occupy, respectfully to present [these propositions] for executive consideration & action.

– [Senator Jacob Collamer], December 18, 1862

I told you that I somewhere had an original of the paper presented by the republican senators to Mr. Lincoln demanding unity in his councils &c. I have just fallen upon it & enclose it to you.

– Senator James W. Grimes, to William M. Evarts

[ABRAHAM LINCOLN]. JACOB COLLAMER. Autograph Manuscript. Original retained copy of recommendations by Republican Senators, to President Abraham Lincoln, December 18, 1862. With JAMES M. GRIMES. Autograph Endorsement Signed. 3 pp. And with: JAMES GRIMES. Autograph Letter Signed, to Attorney General William M. Evarts. September 26, 1868. Burlington, Iowa; enclosing the preceding letter. 1 p. plus docketing. 8 x 10 in. Grimes’ free franked autograph addressed envelope also included.

Inventory #24347.01-.02       Price: $14,500

Complete Transcript

            A meeting of the Republican members of the Senate of the United States, at which they were all present but two,[1] after full consultation, came unanimously to the following conclusions. (One present not voting.)[2]

            1st The only course of sustaining this government and restoring & preserving the national existence, and perpetuating the national integrity is by a vigorous & successful prosecution of the war, the same being a patriotic & just war on the part of this nation, produced by, & rendered necessary to suppress, a causeless & atrocious rebellion.

            2d The theory of our government & the early & uniform practical construction thereof is, that the President should be aided by a Cabinet council, agreeing with him in political principles & general policy, and that all important public measures & appointments should be the result of their combined wisdom and deliberation. This, most obviously necessary condition of things, without which no administration can succeed, we & the public believe does not now exist, & therefore such selections & changes in its members should be made <2> as will secure to the country unity of purpose & action in all material & essential respects, more especially in the present crisis in public affairs.

            3d The cabinet should be exclusively composed of statesmen who are the cordial, resolute, unwavering supporters of the principles & purposes first above stated.

            4th It is unwise & unsafe to commit the direction conduct or execution of any important military operation or separate general command or enterprise in this war, to any one who is not a cordial believer & supporter of the same principles & purposes first above stated.

            The Republican Senators of the United States, entertaining the most unqualified confidence in the patriotism & integrity of the President, identified as they are with the success of his administration, profoundly impressed with the critical condition of our national affairs, and deeply convinced that the public confidence requires a practical regard to the above propositions & principles, feel it is their duty, from the positions they occupy, respectfully to present them for executive consideration & action.

<3>

[Endorsement by Grimes:]

            The foregoing is an original in the hand writing of the late Judge Collamer of Vt. of the paper presented to President Lincoln by a comtee. Of the senators attached to the republican party & referred to by Mr. Evarts in his speech in the impeachment trial

                                                                        James W. Grimes

<4>

                                                                        Burlington, Iowa, Sept. 26, 1868.

My dear Sir:

            I told you that I somewhere had an original of the paper presented by the republican senators to Mr. Lincoln demanding unity in his councils &c. I have just fallen upon it & enclose it to you.

Yours very truly

                                                                        J. W. Grimes

<5>

[Endorsement:]

Sept. 26, 1868.

Jas W. Grimes.

Encloses an original in handwriting of Judge Collemer of Vt., of paper presented to Pres. Lincoln by Rep. Senators.

27

Referred to by Mr. Evarts in his Speech at the Impeachment Trial (of Andrew Johnson, Pres. U.S.)

<6>

[Envelope:]                                                      J. W. Grimes

                        Wm M Evarts / Atty. Gen. of the United States / Washington / D.C.

Historical Background

Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, giving 100 days’ notice that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1 to free slaves in areas still in rebellion. Some were skeptical that he would follow through as promised, while others were outraged at the prospect of adding emancipation as a war aim.

The war as a whole was not going well for the Union. On December 13, the Army of the Potomac under General Ambrose E. Burnside lost the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, with massive Union casualties, leading to intense criticism of Lincoln and his government. Some members of Lincoln’s cabinet felt that Secretary of State William H. Seward wielded too much influence and was not committed to emancipation or the war effort. They, especially Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, complained to Republican senators, who had grievances of their own. This situation culminated in the Cabinet Crisis: on December 16 and 17, 1862, Republican senators met in secret caucus to “rescue the nation.” Senator James Grimes of Iowa offered a resolution of no-confidence in Seward, but others spoke in his favor, and the meeting adjourned without a vote. After Senator Preston King informed Seward of the meeting, Seward submitted his resignation to Lincoln in the evening of December 17.

At 7 p.m., on December 18, nine senators met with Lincoln: Jacob Collamer of Vermont, Benjamin Wade of Ohio, William P. Fessenden of Maine, Ira Harris of New York, James W. Grimes of Iowa, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, Jacob M. Howard of Michigan, and Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas. Collamer, who chaired the committee, read this series of resolutions, and Senators Sumner, Grimes, and Trumbull harshly condemned Seward. Lincoln bluntly asked if they all wanted Seward out of the cabinet; only Sumner, Grimes, Trumbull, and Pomeroy said they did. The meeting ended shortly after 10 p.m.

The following morning, Lincoln assembled his cabinet, without Seward, at 10:30 a.m., to discuss the complaints.  At 7:30 p.m., the Republican senators and the cabinet (again without Seward) met with the President at the Executive Mansion. Lincoln read the resolutions and commented, “with some mild severity,” according to Attorney General Edward Bates’ diary, upon parts of them. Grimes was especially “sharp” in his criticism of Seward.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair responded that the cabinet was in harmony and considered important matters fully. Bates agreed. Chase was reluctantly forced to agree that the cabinet freely discussed important questions and that there was general unity. At the close of the meeting, near midnight, Senator Trumbull reportedly said to Lincoln, “somebody has lied like hell!” Lincoln replied simply, “Not tonight.”

Embarrassed by his exposure, Chase offered his resignation on Saturday morning.  With both Seward’s and Chase’s resignations in hand, Lincoln rejected both resignations.  

Fast forward to 1867. During the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, one of the major articles against the president concerned his suspension of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Unlike Seward, Stanton was not willing to resign, going so far as to barricade himself in the War Office. On March 3, 1867, Congress had overridden Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act, which (despite resulting constitutional questions) prohibited the president from removing cabinet members without the advice and consent of the Senate. When the Senate reconvened in January 1868, it refused to ratify Johnson’s removal of Stanton by more than a two-to-one margin.

During the impeachment trial, counsel for the president William M. Evarts referred back to Lincoln’s December 1862 cabinet crisis. On May 1, 1867, Evarts said, “The ability of the President to receive aid and direction from these heads of departments has been presented as a dangerous innovation, as a sort of Star Chamber council which was to devour our liberties. Perhaps some members of this honorable Senate may have already had their views changed on that subject since the time when a representation was made to President Lincoln in reference to the Cabinet to which I beg to call the attention of the Senate.” He read on this point the paper “signed by twenty-five Senators and addressed to Mr. Lincoln, on the subject of retaining in his Cabinet stating that the theory of the government is, and should be, that a Cabinet must agree with the President in political principles and that such selection and choice should be made as to secure in the Cabinet unity of purpose and action; that the Cabinet should be exclusively composed of statesmen who are cordial, resolute and unvarying supporters of the principles and purposes of the Administration.”

Evarts stated that the Senate must either believe that Johnson did not really need the full support of his cabinet, or that “you have not sufficiently held to these useful views about the Cabinet” presented to Lincoln. While Lincoln may have blunted the force of the senators’ complaints by suggesting that what they wanted was that “his Cabinet should agree with them rather than with him.” “However that may be,” Evarts continued, “the doctrines in that paper are true, and are accordant to the precedents of the country and the law of government.”

Senator Grimes was apparently one of the Senators whose view changed. Despite his having led the charge against Seward (and, really, against Lincoln), he was one of only seven Senate Republicans who voted to acquit Johnson. Eighteen months later, Grimes found the original notes, and sent them to Evarts.

James W. Grimes (1816-1872) was born in New Hampshire and attended Dartmouth College. He studied law and moved west to Wisconsin Territory to an area later incorporated as Burlington, Iowa. He served in the Iowa territorial legislature and then as Governor of Iowa from 1854 to 1858. He helped organize the Republican Party in Iowa, and the legislature elected him to the United States Senate in 1859, and reelected him in 1865.  He served until December 1869, when he resigned due to ill health. He served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment. During President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, he was one of seven Republican senators who voted for acquittal.

Jacob Collamer (1791-1865) was born in Troy, New York, but his family moved to Burlington, Vermont, in 1795. He graduated from the University of Vermont, and studied law before being admitted to the bar. He served as an officer in the militia during the War of 1812. From 1833 to 1842, Collamer served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Vermont. Voters elected Collamer to the United States House of Representatives, and he served from 1843 to 1849. He served as Postmaster General in 1849 to 1850, under President Zachary Taylor. Elected to the Senate in 1855 as a Republican, Collamer served until his death in November 1865.

William M. Evarts (1818-1901) was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Yale College in 1837. He attended Harvard Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1841. He married Helen Wardner in 1843, and they had twelve children between 1845 and 1862, all born in New York City. In 1849, he became an assistant United States attorney for the district of New York, a position he held until 1853. He supported William H. Seward’s presidential aspirations and chaired the New York delegation to the Republican National Convention to Chicago in 1860. During President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, Evarts served as Johnson’s chief counsel. Evarts served as United States Attorney General from July 1868 until March 1869. He returned to private practice in New York, where he served as the first president of the New York City Bar Association from 1870 to 1879. He served as United States Senator from New York from 1885 to 1891, when he retired from public life.


[1] Senator Solomon Foot (1802-1866) of Vermont was absent from the meeting.

[2] Senator Preston King (1806-1865) of New York was present but did not vote.


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