Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.5 The Man Who Would Be Chief Justice: Attorney General Edward Bates


Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Edward Bates, Lincoln’s Attorney General, was also one of Lincoln’s opponents for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860.  An ardent Whig and former supporter of the Know Nothing Party (a fiercely “nativist” party that defined themselves as anti-immigration and anti-naturalization), Bates was controversial in his position on slavery:  although he opposed it, he also supported the deportation of freed blacks from the country.

Unlike his peers on the Cabinet, Bates did not jockey for superior positions or try to rival Lincoln in any way.  He respected the President as his leader, although he wondered if Lincoln had the political gumption to maintain order over the rest of the Cabinet (especially when contending with strong personalities such as Seward, Chase, and Stanton.)

One of Bates’ major accomplishments during his term in office was the establishment of a precedent for jurisdictions in military arrests.  Because the country had not entered into a conflict with the scope of the Civil War, this precedent had never been determined–who would try civilians arrested during the war?  Should it be the state/civilian courts?  Or would this task fall to the military?  Critically, Bates chose the latter option, as civilian conduct during war would fall under military codes of law.  Technically, in most cases, they would not be in violation of civilian statutes.

Although Bates had no ambition to grow himself towards the Presidency, there was one role he coveted greatly:  that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He as much as asked Lincoln for the role following the death of Chief Justice Roger Taney in October 1864.  He regarded the position as a capstone to his career, stating,  “I could not desire to close my public life more honorably, than by a brief term of service in that eminent position.”  He even went so far as to suggest he would only hold the position for 2 or 3 years, and resign after that time, allowing Lincoln to appoint a successor before he ended his second Presidential term.

However, it was not to be;  Lincoln instead appointed Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, a less logical but more politically expedient choice.  Bates resigned in November of 1864, before Chase assumed his new role on the Supreme Court.

11.4 Mars Attacks? Secretary of War Edwin Stanton


Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

If Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was Lincoln’s “Neptune,” then Edwin Stanton was certainly Lincoln’s “Mars”; his god of war.  Lincoln referred to him fondly in this way throughout the Civil War, and depended on the administratively skilled Democrat to manage the War Department after the disastrous leadership of his predecessor, Lincoln’s initial appointee, Simon Cameron.

Stanton initially took the post with some reluctance.  He had been a respected member of (although a late addition to) President Buchanan’s Cabinet, serving as Attorney General from 1860-1861.  It has been suggested that during his brief role under Buchanan, he convinced the President to move away from his policy of leniency towards the secession of Southern states, and declare such acts as unconstitutional.

Stanton was to maintain his strong antagonism towards the South throughout his political career.  He was ruthless to Union officers and officials who expressed sympathy for the Southern cause.  He also appointed Lafayette Baker as head of the National Detective Police (NDP)–essentially the secret police/spy service for the Union; although quite efficient at his job, Baker was later known for dirty tactics, and according to some sources engaged in the torture of Confederate spies such as Belle Boyd.

Stanton’s one great tactical mistake during his management of the War came when he closed recruitment offices in 1862, under the false assumption that the Civil War would be ending soon thereafter.  This stem in the flow of new recruits likely hastened the addition of black soldiers to the war effort; 1863 marked the year when the first black regiments, such as the famous Massachusetts 54th, began to form.

Like many of his colleagues on the Cabinet, Stanton went from a great skeptic of Lincoln to being a great supporter.  Like the god he was named for, he had a quick and fiery temper, which he often launched and Lincoln or his subordinates.  Despite his many disagreements with the President, it was ultimately he who gave us one of the most lasting remarks about Lincoln:  “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton oversaw the capture and arrest of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.  Subsequently, Stanton remained on President Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet, where he argued fiercely against what he perceived as Johnson’s gentle treatment of the South during Reconstruction.  Stanton’s antagonism was actually at the root of Johnson’s later impeachment trials; the President tried to have Stanton removed from office without the knowledge or approval of the Senate, and thus earned their enmity.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing suggestions about Stanton was that he may have been behind the Lincoln assassination.  Although it is a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory, it was put forward by Stanton’s “superspy” Lafayette Baker, who was demoted when he was found to have tapped Stanton’s office telegraph line from Washington to Nashville after the war had ended.  Recalled after Lincoln’s assassination, Baker contributed to the capture of John Wilkes Booth and subsequently presented Stanton with Booth’s diary.  Later, when it was discovered that the diary was missing 18 pages, Baker suggested that Stanton had removed them to cover up his connection to the crime.  Baker died in 1868, under mysterious circumstances that were labeled “meningitis.”  More recent tests on his remains have suggested that he died of arsenic poisoning.

And so we are left to wonder:  did Mars attack?

11.3 Dig that Hair: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles


Gideon Welles, hair icon

Gideon Welles, hair icon

Facial hair was evidently the thing in Civil War America.  Part of Abraham Lincoln’s iconic image was the close-cropped beard that framed his face.  Robert E. Lee sported a full beard and mustache.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George McClellan had beards.  And who could forget General Ambrose Burnside’s imposing sideburns?  The were enough to scare the Confederacy into submission.  (They were so fierce, in fact, that the term “sideburns” actually derives from Burnside’s name.)

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ locks were no exception.  A big, bushy white beard with a curly, girly mop: he certainly set a standard for interesting hair trends in the 19th Century.

It’s not exactly the coif you would conjure for a Secretary of the Navy, is it?  It’s a bit extreme, even for the 1800s.  Given this, it’s not surprising that Welles came to this military jurisdiction largely via a career in law, journalism and politics in Connecticut.  After founding the Hartford Times in 1826, he served in the Connecticut state legislature from 1827-1835.  A Jacksonian Democrat for most of his life, Welles shifted to the Republican party as a means of protest because of his anti-slavery views.  When he was picked by Lincoln for the Cabinet post in 1861, he had just started another newspaper in Connecticut, the Republican-leaning Hartford Evening Press, and had served as a staunch political supporter of Lincoln’s.

However misguided his hair choices may have been, the misguidedness did not spill over into his role as head of the Navy.  He found the state of the Navy department in shambles when he first assumed office, especially after the departure of Southern naval leaders to join the Confederate cause.  In 1861, the Navy had 76 ships and 7600 sailors.  By 1865, it had nearly ten times that number.  Grudgingly (because he disagreed with the decision) he used this manpower to blockade Southern ports as part of the Anaconda Plan, which ultimately helped win the war–the South was financially strangled by their inability to sell cotton or to import goods and weapons.  For this success, Lincoln dubbed Welles his “Neptune.”

Despite quite vocal disagreements with other members of the Cabinet during throughout his tenure there, Welles remained in the Naval Secretary position through Andrew Johnson’s administration, and left office in 1869.  Largely due to his disagreement with Johnson about Reconstruction policies, he reverted to his membership in the Democratic Party.  Upon leaving Washington, he returned home to Connecticut to edit his newspapers and write.  His biography, Lincoln and Seward, was published in 1877.  He died of strep throat a year later.

But however changeable his life may have been, one thing in Gideon Welles’ life remained constant: his hair.  No doubt he would have won any hair-related throwdowns among the Team of Rivals (although he did have some competition in Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as we will see tomorrow.)  Lincoln wouldn’t have a chance.

11.2 What’s in a Name? Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase


Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury was named after a fish.

Well, I don’t know that for sure.  Maybe “Salmon” is a family name.  Or maybe the Chase clan had a little Irish in them, and were familiar with the Celtic legend of the “salmon of wisdom” and decided to make one of their young sons its namesake.  Or maybe they were inspired by the story of Sacagawea, and named the wee baby Chase after her birthplace, Salmon, Idaho.  Or maybe they just loved their Omega 3s.

There is also the outside possibility that they considered “Salmon” in its definition as the Anglo-Saxon derivation of “son of Solomon,” and being a religious family, named him accordingly.  After all, King Solomon was rich, married and/or bedded lots of Biblical era chicks, and had some of the most interesting verses in the Bible dedicated to him–the Song of Songs.  (Been to a Catholic wedding in the U.S. in the past few years?  Ever heard a reading that includes  “my love is like a gazelle or a young stag…”–the one that isn’t 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind”?  Yup, that’s the Song of Songs.)

Believe it or not, any of the above could be true, because Salmon Chase was born in New Hampshire, and you never know what folks from New Hampshire are capable of.  All of that “live free or die” craziness.  (That’s why Massachusetts folks flock there to do their tax-free shopping on the weekends, and then high-tail it home afterwards to wrap themselves in the comfort of a regular income tax.)  And there were other precedents of wacky naming practices in the Chase family; for instance, the uncle who helped to raise young Salmon, an Episcopal bishop, was named Philander Chase.  Philander.  He was a bishop.  The Chase women must have had a pretty interesting sense of humor.)

But what’s in a name, right?  (After all, we just elected a man with one of the most ethnically unusual names in modern political history.)

Chase, like Secretary of State William Seward, was also much more qualified for the office of President than Lincoln.  He had served as U.S. Senator from Ohio for a term from 1849-1855 before assuming the governorship of Ohio from 1856-1860; at which time he sought the Republican Party’s nomination for President.  By then, Chase had developed quite a name for himself not only as a voice against slavery, but also as an abolitionist.  He was even more famous than Seward for his defense of fugitive slaves; in fact, he took one of his cases all the way to the Supreme Court, in the famous Jones v. Van Zandt.  (The case involved a Kentucky slaveowner–Jones–who sued abolitionist/Underground Railroad conductor Van Zandt for monetary damages after Van Zandt was caught helping several of Jones’s slaves escape.  Chase represented the abolitionist, and lost in a unanimous 9-0 decision.)


Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill

Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill, discontinued since 1945

As Secretary of the Treasury, Chase wielded a fair amount of power during the Civil War era.  He oversaw the war coffers, which were incredibly stretched during that time, leading him to create government bonds to finance it.  He also instituted the national banking system, as well as introduced the first national paper currency to the U.S. (prior to this, paper currency was non-standard and issued by individual states.)  Not surprisingly, the ever-ambitious Chase, who also had to design the paper currency once it was created, put his own image on the notes.  (Maybe they should have called him humility.)  Constantly attempting to gain leverage over Lincoln, Chase threatened to/attempted to resign from his Cabinet post 3 times; on each occasion Lincoln, in an effort to appease Chase, asked him to stay so there might be stability in government leadership during wartime.

In 1865, Chase’s 4th resignation was accepted by Lincoln.  (Which apparently took Chase by surprise.)  In order to appease high-ranked Chase supporters in the Republican party (as well as, perhaps, to keep Chase from challenging him for reelection), Lincoln nominated Chase for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1864.  He held the post from 1864 until his death in 1873; ever convinced of his own readiness for high political office, however, Chase did pursue the potential for a Democratic nomination for President in 1868, but it didn’t come to fruition.  As Chief Justice, he presided over Andrew Johnson’s impeachment proceedings, and appointed the first African-American lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Although Chase has largely been forgotten in modern America, his legacy lives on in a few interesting ways.  First, although it has no relation to the man himself, Chase Manhattan Bank was named for him.  Also, his was the first and only image to appear on the $10,000 bill, the last of which was printed in 1945.  (Making him one of the elite club of non-Presidents to grace the face of U.S. paper money–others include Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.)