In 1864 Abraham Lincoln was elected for a second term as President. During the first term, Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, had connived, behind Lincoln’s back but not without Lincoln’s knowledge, to be nominated by the Republican Party in place of Lincoln for the 1864 election. Just before the election, Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had died, leaving a vacancy for Lincoln to fill. In December, Lincoln offered the cherished post to Chase.
Swallowing Pride as a Substitute for Humility
When he told Chase’s friend John Alley what he had done, Alley exclaimed, “Mr. President, this is an exhibition of magnanimity and patriotism that could hardly be expected of anyone. After what he has said against your administration, which has undoubtedly been reported to you, it was hardly to be expected that you would bestow the most important office within your gift on such a man.”
Lincoln replied, “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.”
Lincoln’s act of “magnanimity” (generosity, forgiveness) toward Chase seems to be, at the same time, an act of humility. It’s generous because of the prized good that he bestows willingly on another, but it’s humble because it seems that Lincoln is not reacting at all to the blows against his “dignity” that Chase repeatedly dealt him by belittling his presidency. His “ego” seems to present no barrier to his acting as he should towards the Republican Party and his country: “As to his talk about me, I do not mind that.”
Probably no other man than Lincoln would have had, in this age of the world, the degree of magnanimity to thus forgive and exalt a rival who had so deeply and so unjustifiably intrigued against him. It is however only another most marked illustration of the greatness of the President. (The quotations are in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 680.).Perhaps Lincoln minded a bit more than he admits here. He later told someone else that he “would rather have swallowed his Buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase,” but the decision was right for the country. The Buckhorn chair went unscathed, but in nominating Chase Lincoln apparently did swallow something that felt pretty prickly going down—his pride. The flavor and texture of this pride are Lincoln’s personal resentment at Chase’s disrespect, and a consequent urge to take revenge, or at least withhold the honor that Chase treasured.
Had Lincoln satisfied this resentment, as many in his position would have, he might have experienced a delicious satisfaction in the thought of Chase’s disappointment. In handing Chase the nomination, Lincoln denied himself that petty and merely personal pleasure, and kept his sights trained on the good of the country and the doing of his duty.Some pride is a very good thing—good for us and good for our family, community, and work, and good in itself.That Lincoln needed to swallow his pride to do what he took to be the right thing clearly shows that he had some pride to swallow. Had his statement about not minding been literally true, it would have expressed an extraordinarily perfected humility. But apparently Lincoln was more like the rest of us than that. Doing the “humble” thing in the circumstances required swallowing his pride.