WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN ONE OF YOUR BEST PEOPLE HAS A SERIOUS CHARACTER FLAW?
Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase never let go of his singular goal to become President.
The following anecdote from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln fully explains why Abraham Lincoln tolerated Chase:
Chase’s incessant presidential ambitions “reminded Lincoln of the time when he was ‘plowing corn on a Kentucky farm’ with a lazy horse that suddenly sped forward energetically to ‘the end of the furrow.’ Upon reaching the horse, he discovered ‘an enormous chin-fly fastened upon him, and knocked him off,’ not wanting ‘the old horse bitten in that way.’ His companion said that it was a mistake to knock it off, for ‘that’s all that made him go.’ ‘Now,’ Lincoln concluded, ‘if Mr. [Chase] has a presidential chin-fly biting him, I’m not going to knock him off, if it will only make his department go.’”[i]
In the greatest crisis the nation had ever faced, money problems were not an option, and Chase was an excellent administrator with connections to the financial world; not to mention he ran a very tight ship at the Treasury Department.
However, the Presidential ambition he carried threatened to bring everyone else in the administration down.
Chase was a member of the more radical, abolitionist wing of the party and still had a lot of friends in Congress, many of whom were his allies in his Presidential campaigns of 1856 and 1860.
He hosted many dinner parties for, and wrote many letters to, them, which became essentially Lincoln-bashing sessions.
In these communications, he and others portrayed the President as weak and indecisive, especially on the issue of slavery; a puppet of the more conservative Secretary of State William Seward.
Chase stepped up his behind-the-scenes attacks after Lincoln told the cabinet about his plan for the Emancipation Proclamation.
The document basically quashed Chase’s would-be abolitionist platform in the 1864 contest, leaving him with nothing to really distinguish himself from Lincoln.
He would have to work harder to defeat his boss for the Presidency.
In the mid-term elections of 1862, the Republicans had lost a substantial amount of their majority in Congress – and Chase saw an opportunity.
Chase told his friends in the Senate that all of the failures of the administration in the first two years could be laid at the feet of Seward, who supposedly was exerting undue influence on the President.
When these senators declared that Lincoln needed to get rid of Seward, Lincoln suspected that Chase was behind it.
So he invited the senators over to the White House for a frank chat with the cabinet – including Chase.
In front of his fellow cabinet members, Chase was forced to tell the truth, which was that the cabinet was entirely functional and that Lincoln was very independent in the decisions that he made – nobody was telling the President what to do.
In October 1863, Chase proposed to Lincoln that he go out and campaign for the Republicans; thinking mainly for himself as an opportunity to campaign for president.
Elections for governor of Ohio and Pennsylvania were being held, and Lincoln could not afford to lose them along with some congressional elections being held the following month.
Lincoln knew all along what Chase was thinking about doing, but gave his endorsement for the plan anyway, knowing that Chase’s appearance would do more good than harm in the short run.
With the exception of New Jersey, Republicans cleaned up in the November elections.
Throughout his tenure at the Treasury Department, Chase filled job openings with his own supporters, and Lincoln’s friends could not understand why the President continued to approve appointments for avid Chase supporters who were known to be hostile to the President’s interests.
Lincoln replied that he would rather let “Chase have his own way in these sneaking tricks than getting into a snarl with him by refusing him what he asks.”
So long as Abraham Lincoln knew he had the support of the public, he decided to let Chase dig his own political grave.
In 1864, a committee was created to elect Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase for President – supposedly without Chase’s knowledge.
The group printed a circular lambasting Abraham Lincoln as a “compromiser,” and was sent to 100 leading Republicans throughout the Union to rally support.
When the circular leaked to The Constitutional Union newspaper, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles said,
“Its recoil will be more dangerous I apprehend than its projectile. That is, it will damage Chase more than Lincoln.”
He was right.
In several states, Republicans in state legislatures met and passed unanimous resolutions endorsing Lincoln for reelection.
Chase’s home state of Ohio was one of those states, effectively killing any chance Chase had for the nomination.
Chase, of course, maintained to Lincoln that he knew nothing of the committee or the circular.
Lincoln, probably knowing full well that Chase was lying, still told him that he believed him so that Chase could continue with public integrity as Secretary of the Treasury.[ii]
Lincoln finally accepted Chase’s resignation in mid-1864 (his third such resignation).
Unsuccessful in obtaining the nomination, Chase then campaigned on behalf of Lincoln.
When the job for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court became available, Lincoln gave the job to Chase over men who were much more loyal to the President.
Lincoln thought that Chase was simply the best man for the job, even after all the stunts that Chase pulled, as he knew that no other judge would defend the rights of African-Americans better than Chase.
Lincoln told Chase’s friend John Alley,
“To have done otherwise I should have been recreant to my convictions of duty to the Republican Party and to the country. As to his talk about me, I do not mind that. Chase is, on the whole, a pretty good fellow and a very able man. His only trouble is that he has ‘the White House fever’ a little too bad, but I hope this may cure him and that he will be satisfied.” [iii]
Lincoln found that hiring overly ambitious people such as Chase is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, they’re self-driven, which means less need to manage from above, but on the other, it means they have to be watched to make sure that they’re not causing any damage to your organization.
The keys are to be patient and watch their actions carefully, and then act when the time is right.
- Chase turned out to be the advocate for African-Americans that Lincoln thought he would be.
- Chase was instrumental in ensuring that the Union Army had everything it needed to succeed.
- Lincoln was able to control the damage that Chase did; and ignore his actions when he was harmless.
- Chase eventually undid himself politically.
Make sure you have the discipline, experience, and wisdom to control talented troublemakers before you bring them in. If they are doing no harm to you or your organization, let them learn their lessons on their own. If they are causing harm, you have two choices: Handle them so they become harmless, or let them go and find someone else.
[ii] Ibid (p. 607)