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What Was Abraham Lincoln's Attitude Toward the Constitution?

When Abraham Lincoln took office in March of 1861, the United States Treasury was completely bankrupt, the growth of the country's money supply being at a scant 1% after having fallen to a negative 4% in the economic crash of 1857. General Donn Piatt related how a plan was concocted by a New England financier named Amasa Walker to replenish the depleted Treasury by issuing Coupon Treasury Notes, which drew 7.5 percent semi-annual interest payments, were convertible after three years into six percent 5-20 and 10-40 gold-bearing bonds, and which, by Act of Congress, were exempted from taxation. This national debt would be funded by pledging the property and future labor of the American people.

When this plan was presented to Lincoln, he was delighted. However, when then-Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Portland Chase first learned of the scheme, he cautioned, "[T]here is one little obstacle in the way, that makes the plan impracticable, and that is the Constitution." When Chase's concerns were relayed to the President, Lincoln responded, "[G]o back to Chase and tell him not to bother himself about the Constitution. Say that I have that sacred instrument here at the White House, and I am guarding it with great care." When Chase would not relent, Lincoln called a conference with him and related the following story:

Chase... down in Illinois, I was held to be a pretty good lawyer.... This thing reminds me of a story I read in a newspaper the other day. It was of an Italian captain, who run his vessel on a rock and knocked a hole in her bottom. He set his men to pumping, and he went to prayers before a figure of the Virgin in the bow of the ship. The leak gained on them. It looked at last as if the vessel would go down with all on board. The captain, at length, in a fit of rage, at not having his prayers answered, seized the figure of the Virgin and threw it overboard. Suddenly the leak stopped, the water was pumped out, and the vessel got safely into port. When docked for repairs, the statue of the Virgin Mary was found stuck headforemost in the hole.... Chase, I don't intend precisely to throw the Virgin Mary overboard, and by that I mean the Constitution, but I will stick it into the hole if I can.

Lincoln went on to say, "These rebels are violating the Constitution to destroy the Union; I will violate the Constitution if necessary, to save the Union; and I suspect, Chase, that our Constitution is going to have a rough time of it before we get done with this row" (source: Don Piatt, essay: "Salmon P. Chase," North American Review [1886], Volume CXLIII, pages 606-607).

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