I Quit. No, You’re Fired

Don’t look at him. Look at ME!!

The Secretary of the Treasury had to resign four times before Abraham Lincoln finally accepted.

Salmon P. Chase was a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 and like the other heavy hitters who ran against the Illinois “country lawyer”, Chase believed himself to be far superior and better qualified. After his victory in the presidential election, Lincoln appointed most of his rivals for the nomination to his Cabinet, making Chase Secretary of the Treasury.
Chase performed well at the Treasury Department, finding creative ways to finance the Civil War and instituting the issuance of paper money by the government to pay its debts. He became famous after ensuring that his face was printed on these “greenbacks.”

Despite his accomplishments, Chase’s relationship with the president was strained. Lincoln won over most of his rivals for the 1860 nomination, but not Chase, who always resented Lincoln’s victory. He believed he was better educated and had more credentials in public service. He had been governor of Ohio and a senator, compared to Lincoln’s one term in Congress. He also didn’t believe Lincoln should have any oversight over his department. Chase offered his resignation three times during the course of his service. Lincoln kept them all in his desk drawer, refusing each one.

The Secretary launched his own campaign for president in 1864 while still serving in the Cabinet. Lincoln was pressed to fire Chase once word of his campaign got out. Lincoln’s reply was “Let him alone. He can do no more harm where he is than on the outside.” Chase’s presidential campaign, never really viable to begin with, fizzled out after a string of Union victories on the battlefield.

Chase clashed with Lincoln over appointments to government posts in the Treasury Department. He appointed an unqualified former journalist to a Treasury post in New York in 1864 over the objection of one of that state’s senators and the president himself. Lincoln told him that the appointment was causing him political embarrassment and could not be approved.

Chase offered to resign for a fourth time. Lincoln sent back a short note accepting his resignation (which Chase, who didn’t come into the office the next day, didn’t get) and immediately nominated a successor. Chase, who expected his resignation to be turned down like before, was meeting with a Senator when news of his successor’s nomination came in. The Senator asked him if he had resigned. The stunned Chase said something along the lines of “Of course. I resign all the time. He ACCEPTED it????”

A delegation of congressmen went to see the President, who pulled each of Chase’s previous resignation letters out of his desk drawer and read them aloud.

There wasn’t much to say after that.

Lincoln said, “Chase has fallen into two bad habits. He thinks he has become indispensable to the country…and he cannot comprehend why the country doesn’t understand it. He also thinks he ought to be President…It is inconceivable to him why people have not found out; why they don’t, as one man, rise up and say so. These bad habits seem to have spoilt him. They have made him irritable, uncomfortable, so that he is never perfectly happy unless he is thoroughly miserable.”

Lincoln forestalled any temper tantrums (and political opposition from Chase in the upcoming election) by dangling an appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This kept Chase quiet, and Lincoln won re-election in 1864.

Not bad for a “country lawyer.”

For more stories like this check The History’s Trainwrecks Podcast at the links below:

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