June 22, 2018
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The hasty exit of a U.S. secretary of state and what the Senate had to do with it

By Bob Rackmales, Special to the BDN

As the public waits expectantly for President Barack Obama to end the suspense over his choice to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, some Maine history buffs may recall what may be the most misbegotten appointment of a secretary of state in the nation’s history.

The date was March 5, 1869, the date on which President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Elihu Benjamin Washburne to the position. On that same day, the U.S. Senate, without debate, approved the nomination. Washburne, who was born in Livermore, Maine, in 1816, but moved to Galena, Ill., in 1840, was a prominent member of Congress who had been an early friend and supporter of Abraham Lincoln and was influential in promoting the military career of fellow Galena resident Grant.

Had the Senate not acted as quickly as it did, Washburne would not today be listed among the holders of the prestigious office of U.S. secretary of state. On March 10, 1869, five days after being confirmed, Washburne resigned his office in a letter to Grant stating “a proper discharge of the duties of the office would involve more labor and responsibility than I am willing to undertake in justice to the public interest and myself.”

While history records a number of requests from nominees to withdraw their names prior to confirmation, Washburne appears to have set a record of some sort for speed of resignation following confirmation. Grant was clearly not taken by surprise, since on the same day he appointed former New York Gov. Hamilton Fish, who replaced Washburne on March 15, served for eight years and is regarded as one of the best secretaries of state in U.S. history.

Why such a hasty exit? Historian David McCullough, in his recent book “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” claims, based on a family memoir, that immediately after his appointment, “He had been stricken suddenly by what was called at the time a ‘congestive chill’ and remained desperately ill for days.” An even more recent book, “Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris,” by Michael Hill (who was McCullough’s research assistant) also suggests that medical factors were the prime reason for Washburn’s resignation. However, he does not claim there was a significant change in his health between March 5 and 10, leaving open the question of what caused him to change his mind and step down.

Most historians of the period, however, do not believe that health concerns were the driving factor in what many contemporaries concluded was an example of Grant’s ineptness at the outset of his administration. The New York Times, known even then for its access to informed sources, in a dispatch of March 5, 1869, reported the initial reactions to Grant’s Cabinet nominations:

“It is a painful duty to say that great disappointment and profound regret prevails in consequence of these selections … and this among the warmest supporters of the President. The eminently respectable character of the men is everywhere conceded, but their fitness for their positions is the subject of criticism on every hand … Mr. Washburne, there is good reason for believing, will remain in the Department of State for but a short time.”

The Times’ reporter was not merely engaging in inspired guesswork but recording what a few Grant intimates knew at the time, and most historians now accept this as the most plausible explanation for an otherwise almost bizarre sequence of events: Grant had made what he himself later referred to as a “courtesy appointment.” In other words, Grant never intended Washburne to serve as secretary of state, only that he briefly hold the title of secretary of state.

The State Department’s official biography of Washburne puts it this way: “Grant’s appointment was intended as a personal yet temporary means to honor Washburne.” Whether the appointment in fact honored him (especially given the chorus of criticism it evoked) or was, in the words of one of his biographers, a “barren compliment,” is moot. Within a short time of his resignation, he was appointed minister to France, a post he had eagerly sought, and there is some evidence he may have accepted even a truncated appointment to the Cabinet in the belief that it would enhance his prestige in Paris.

Too much has changed since 1869 to draw analogies between the first Grant administration and the second Obama administration in terms of either personalities or policies. Of one thing we can be sure. Whether Obama makes a controversial or safe choice of nominee, the Senate will indeed hold hearings and subject that individual to questioning. We are so used to hearing complaints, often justified, about the slowness and partisan nature of the confirmation process that we sometimes forget that when the Senate fails to carry out its responsibility, out of excessive deference to the president, it may do not only the public, but the president himself, a disservice.

Bob Rackmales lives in Northport.

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