1863: Amasa McCoy to James Bedell McKean

This intriguing letter was penned by Amasa McCoy (1822-18xx), a well-known orator who was on the faculty of the National Law School at Albany as a professor of logic and rhetoric in the decade prior to the Civil War. He was praised by newspapers for “his labors on behalf of the Union during the war.” He gave numerous patriotic orations for the benefit of the hospitals for sick and wounded soldiers—one such speech delivered in the Capitol before the President and his Cabinet. In 1867, McCoy was hired by Mary Lincoln to work with her son Tad to correct his speech impediment.

McCoy wrote the letter to James Bedell McKean (1821-1879) who was elected as a Republican to the 36th and 37th U.S. Congresses, serving as chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the State Department. McKean was colonel of the 144th New York State Militia as well.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State; McCoy urged a vote of no-confidence in Seward by the US Congress

In his letter, McCoy expresses his opinion that the actions taken by William H. Seward, while serving as Secretary of State in Lincoln’s cabinet, have been treasonous. He was not alone in expressing these views for Wendell Phillips delivered lectures with a similar theme in late November 1862 in which he stated, “I do not say he [Seward] is a traitor; I do not say that McClellan is a traitor. I do not care for the motives of one single man in the twenty millions that make up our population. Hearts are nothing to us; conduct is everything. Whether George B. McClellan were a traitor or not, there is not a traitor in Jefferson Davis’ Cabinet, who could have acted better for the service of the South than he. Whether Wm. H. Seward means honestly by the North or not, we need not determine. We are not here to blame him. He is what his father and mother, and school, and the influences of sixty years have made him—a good tool for some purposes, but not fit for us now. A good man to make “irrepressible” speeches, but not, when cannon are sounding, and States grappling at each other’s throats, and the great elements of society crashing and jostling against each other like frigates in a storm—not the man to see the blue heavens beyond and put a firm hand on the helm and guide the ship of State safely to port.” [Portland weekly Advertiser, 22 Nov. 1862, from speech before the Boston Mercantile Association.]


Harrisburg, Pa.
24 January 1863

Honorable James B. McKean
Member of Congress

My dear Colonel:

I am in receipt of your favor of the 22nd instant. I am very sensible of your kindness in laying my communications before so distinguished and influential a colleague as Mr. Arnold.

You express some fear that Mr. Lincoln “would not gather any better about him.” Even if they were not better naturally, my dear Colonel, yet if they came in as the result of this pressure of public opinion, they would certainly better execute that opinion. So far, public opinion—as declared by the Acts of Congress—has been defeated by Mr. Seward.  Congress, the Army, the Navy, the people, all are defeated by this one man. Mr. Seward’s the escape valve through which the just rage, the righteous anger of all true patriots, has been whiffed off into the clouds, instead of being turned scalding hot upon the rebels. Talk of the right of a state to nullify—why all your solemn acts of legislation by which you aim to brand and punish this as treason, are all nullified, are all made contemptible, by the sleight-of-hand tricks of this one performer.

But I assume that the action of the patriots of the House would be fully understood by the patriots of the Senate. [Here I am interrupted by duties connected with my making engagements, and now, February 3rd, return to finish my letter] and that the Senate would only ratify the right sort of appointments. And that some Senators would privately make this known to the President.

I assume further that the action of the House would not be like the action of Senators—a mere suggestion, a request, a petition. A public no-confidence vote by the House of Representatives would have the force of law; it would be the act of the law-making power of this nation, representing the sovereignty of the American people. As such the President would see that he must obey; or that this law-making power would be heard from again. The British Parliament once changed the ministry the second time in three days.

I can well understand how a Congressman may start back at such a demonstration. But let no one who refuses to make it complain of McClellan for not making a demonstration on Richmond.

Why has not the rebel Capitol been taken by the National forces? Because the National Capitol has been taken by the Rebel forces! The State Department and through that department, the Executive Mansion is under the control of the Rebels’ best friend.

Colonel McKean, I am no alarmist. I indulge in no frights and starts. My words to the people are always the words of faith and hope. But this I say to you, as a private citizen to one in power, that the question before you patriots in Congress is simply whether you will take this Government out of the hands of its enemies and put it into the hands of its friends. Do the Executive Departments of the United States belong to the United States? Or do they belong to the Rebels and should they be administered in the interests of the Rebels, and the Rebel’s friends?

Why did Jefferson Davis give orders to hang Butler? Because Butler—treating treason as treason—was damaging the Rebel cause. Why did Mr. Seward remove Butler? Because Butler was damaging the Rebel cause. Who are the best friends of the Rebellion? Jefferson David and William H. Seward. Who are the worst enemies of the enemies of the Rebellion? Jefferson Davis and William H. Seward. Who communicated to Jefferson Davis the fact that Butler was to be removed? Who?

History will affirm that so solemn and so awful a cause was never so cruelly trifled with. And it remains to be seen whether history will have to affirm also that all this was seen by Congress and yet they did not stop it.

Colonel McKean and Colonel Van Valkenburg and Colonel Van Wyck are about to return to their commands. But they have a solemn duty to perform, as members of Congress before they look those men in the face as colonels. No triumph in the field can make good this monstrous treachery in the Cabinet. Crush the military power of the Rebellion tomorrow and Mr. Seward will still sacrifice all the objects for which the war was waged. I do not say that this is Mr. Seward’s purpose. For all I know, Mr. Seward’s intentions may  be good. But as a great moralist says: “Hell is paved with good intentions.”

I shall continue to hope for the best and in my small way on the platform, I shall continue to persuade others to hope and never, never, never to despair of the Republic. But if you patriots in Congress adjourn and leave the Executive Departments in the present hands, I shall fear that History will hereafter revert to it as an evacuation on the part of Congress—as a surrender on the part of Congress—as a surrender to the rebel’s friends—as a surrender to the rebels themselves!

The words I quoted from Mr. Chase were only examples of perhaps a two hours’ conversation. I will now quote more and perhaps they will give you more hope from this sort of action.

Upon Mr. Chase’s saying, as he did twice, “I sometimes wish we had a dictator,” I said, “Mr. Chase, that reflects in one direction—upon the president. How a dictator cannot be had. And is it necessary? My theory of Mr. Lincoln is that if his whole Cabinet voted one way, always on the policy that treason is treason, and to be made infamous, Mr. Lincoln would yield. Now is not my theory correct?” Mr. Chase in reply, “Yes, it is. If the Cabinet were a unit in the right direction, Mr. Lincoln would acquiesce, and that would accomplish the object.

Have I not then some ground for the belief that seven great-souled and brave-hearted patriots, constantly around the President, will act as the medium of the loyal public sentiment of the country; and so execute the laws of Congress, carry out the will of the Nation, and vindicate the authority of the National Government. Whereas, it is the ambition of Mr. Seward to nullify the laws of Congress, to defeat the will of the Nation, and to surrender the authority of the Government. And so far he has succeeded; and if you adjourn and leave him in power, he will sell out the very soul of the Nation to Jefferson Davis and the Devil.

Personally I have no feelings towards Mr. Seward except those of a private citizen who has received from him letters of praise and other marks of consideration beyond his deserts. But as he despises my views with regard to his duties in this crisis (he was not named or personally referred to when I spoke in your Hall, but Senator Pomeroy told me that he kept his eye constantly on Mr. Seward and that he turned white, red, purple, and all sorts of colors) so I despise and abhor his views. I have marked his course. I have read his Diplomatic and other correspondence, and the result is, that hook upon him as the one great fountain-head of treason. He may think he is doing Gov. service but to me, his treachery is James Buchanan’s treachery continued.

And now, who shall deliver us from the body of this death? No one can do it but members of Congress. And members of Congress can do it only by a solemn public act as the purse-holding, the sword-wielding, the law-making power of this nation. There is no other way under the whole heavens by which this fatal hand can be removed from the throat of this Republic. Stop this “fire in the rear,” and our brave soldiers will take care of the traitors in arms; but only Congress can crush out this cruel, this wicked, this infamous, this damnable treason in the Cabinet. And my heart’s prayer to God is that Congress will act accordingly and act at once. “Where the offense lies—let the great ax fall!”

Please send me a line and believe me, my dear Colonel, with just honor and thanks for your steadfast, zealous, and self-sacrificing patriotism, very sincerely yours, — Amasa McCoy

P. S.  I sent 400 of these “Memorials” to Washington on Christmas and another 150 on New Years. Do you think they came to hand?



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