For a Vast Future Also: Essays from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

By Thomas F. Schwartz | Go to book overview

9
Lincoln and Chase:
A Reappraisal

John Niven

LINCOLN SCHOLARS and all who have a distinct interest in the Union’s conduct of the Civil War are well aware of the differences that developed between the president and the politically ambitious Salmon P. Chase, his secretary of the treasury. Many have seen in these differences a conflict between the radical and conservative elements of the Republican coalition over control of the administration, over its conduct of war, and particularly over its policy on emancipation, civil rights for the freedmen, and the eventual reconstruction of the rebellious states. Lincoln, it has been well argued, sought a moderate position on these divisive points among the radicals in Congress, those witiun his administration, and their conservative counterparts. Chase, especially, has been cast as the leading radical in the cabinet, With Montgomery Blair, the postmaster general, as the leading conservative. Other members of an unusually able but fiercely contentious group are ranked somewhere in between these two poles.

There is sound evidence for making such judgments. But like all generalizations, they tend to oversimplify a complex series of events. Specifically, they overlook Chase’s role as an indispensable manager of the nation’s wartime economy through his financial and fiscal policies that dealt with an unprecedented and extremely difficult situation. Nor have these alldiorities considered Chase’s personality, his majestic figure, his enormous self-confidence—just the right sort of person to deal with the rich, self-assured leaders of the eastern banking community. At the same time, he was a person with sufficient practical experience to cope with tough-minded members of the Senate and House finance committees in matters relating to the economy, as well as with temperamental cabinet colleagues. I dunk that

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