Mr. Lincoln and the force bill.
The bill referred to in the foregoing letter had been reported to the House, on the 18th of February, from the Committee on Military Affairs, by its chairman, the Hon. Benjamin Stanton, of Ohio. It extended the provisions of the Act of 1795, “for calling forth the militia,” and those of the Act of 1807, “for the employment of the land and naval forces of the United States,” so as not only to place the latter — the regular army and navy-at the disposal of the incoming President, but also to confer on him the plenary power to call out and control the militia, and to authorize him, beside, to accept the services of an unlimited number of volunteers,  who should be on the same footing as the regular forces of the United States, and whose officers should all be commissioned by himself. On the day after the introduction of the bill, and before an opportunity was had to examine its provisions, an attempt was made to pass it without debate, under the operation of the previous question. This effort, however, was successfully resisted, and a limited discussion of it was allowed, which lasted, at intervals, until the 1st of March--the Friday before Mr. Lincoln's inauguration-when it was understood that the measure would then be put upon its passage, so that the Senate might have an opportunity to act upon it before the end of the session. Observing Mr. Stanton's anxiety that day to get the floor for the avowed purpose of having the bill disposed of without further delay, and, knowing that if he should call it up, it would be carried by a large majority, inasmuch as the secession of the cotton States, and the consequent withdrawal of their members of Congress, had left the conservatives of both Houses completely in the power of the extremists of the dominant party, I resolved to make a personal appeal to him, in the forlorn hope that, possibly, he might be persuaded to refrain from pressing his measure to a vote. Accordingly, I went over to his desk, and used every argument I could think of to induce him to forego his determination. But all in vain. He was utterly obdurate; and I finally said to him:
Mr. Stanton, your bill is thwarting the efforts of the conservative men of Virginia, who are striving to prevent her secession, and to avert the calamity of civil war. If you persist in its passage, the effect will be to convince our people that the policy of coercion is a foregone conclusion. The secessionists of our State convention at Richmond, though now in a minority, will be enabled thereby to carry their point, and Virginia will be forced out of the Union against her will.“Well!” said he, folding his arms, and leaning back in his chair, “Well, what if she does go? If that is to be her course, so be it. I have contemplated the possibility of such a contingency for some time past. Governor Winslow, over there, can tell you of a talk I had with him on the subject two years ago. I said then, as I say now, that in the event of a separation of the North and South on the basis of our respective systems of labor-slave and free-I suppose we'll have to submit to it; and I have made up my mind to do so, provided we can keep up our social and commercial intercourse unrestricted between the sections.”  “ Though I have never allowed myself,” said I, “to look forward to such a contingency, and don't believe that there will be a permanent separation of the two sections on the basis of their labor systems, notwithstanding the untoward action and attitude of the cotton States, yet I consider it to be the bounden duty of us all in this crisis to do everything in our power to prevent the possibility of such a calamity. And as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I, therefore, beg and entreat you not to press this bill of yours.” “'Tis useless,” he replied, “to say anything further. I'm sorry that I cannot comply with your request; for the bill must pass, and pass the House this evening.” “Am I then to understand,” I asked, “that this is a party measure, and one that Mr. Lincoln approves of?” To which he replied by telling me that he himself had originated it; that no one else was responsible for its provisions, and that he had never spoken to Mr. Lincoln on the subject. Whereupon I remarked, “I am very glad to hear that, and will myself speak to him about it without delay I don't know him personally, but this is no time to stand on ceremony; so I shall go to him at once and ascertain, if possible, his opinion of the policy of such a movement as yours at this particular juncture; and, perhaps,” I added, as I turned to leave him, “Mr. Lincoln may not be so inflexible as you are in this matter, and can be induced to exert his influence to stop it in the Senate if too late to do so in the House.” “Yes, that's likely!” was his laconic rejoinder, qualified by an incredulous laugh. On my way to the cloak-room, I stopped to speak to two of my colleagues, Messrs. Thomas S. Bocock and Muscoe R. I. Garnett, who were standing together — in the area outside the bar of the House. Mentioning my purpose to see Mr. Lincoln, and the object of the visit, I requested them, if Stanton should call up the bill in my absence, to do me the favor to filibuster on it until I could get back to record my vote against it, which they promised to do; I, on my part, promising to report to them the particulars of my proposed interview. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon when I left the Capitol, and driving rapidly to Willard's, where the President-elect had a suite of rooms fronting the avenue, the first person I met on reaching the hotel was an old acquaintance from the county of Berkeley, Virginia, Colonel Ward H. Lamon, Mr. Lincoln's law partner and compagnon de voyage from Springfield to Washington, who, on learning my wishes, kindly undertook to ascertain if Mr.  Lincoln, whom he had just left alone, would see me. He soon came down with an invitation to walk up stairs, and as I did so, accompanied by the Colonel, I noticed that the corridors were strictly guarded by policemen — an unnecessary but natural precaution under the circumstances of apprehension and excitement that then prevailed in Washington. On being introduced, Mr. Lincoln greeted me with great kindness and cordiality. “I'm glad to see you,” said he; “always glad to see an Old Line Whig. Sit down.” Apologizing for disturbing him, I said: “I've no doubt that the unusual demands now made on your time and energies require you to have more rest than is likely to be allowed you here by the public; but my visit is not one of conventional formality or idle curiosity, as I come upon an important matter now pending in the House, and, therefore, trust that I am not trespassing too far on your courtesy in calling this evening.” “Not a bit of it,” he replied; “not a bit. I'm really glad you have come, and wish that more of you Southern gentlemen would call and see me, as these are times when there should be a full, fair, and frank interchange of sentiment and suggestion among all who have the good of the country at heart. So draw up your chair, and tell me what's going on in the House to-day.” Thus encouraged, showing him a copy of Stanton's Force bill, I called his attention to some of its extraordinary features, and to the fact that it was “bristling all over with war.” I spoke of the angry feeling it had excited in Congress, and of the painful anxieties it had caused throughout Virginia; how it had demoralized the members of her State convention, and was frustrating the patriotic efforts of her conservative citizens to keep her from seceding. I told him, also, how determined the friends of the measure were to force it through the House that evening, and how much reason there was to fear that its passage would do irreparable injury to the cause of the Union. “Consequently, Mr. Lincoln,” said I, “I have ventured to come to you to tell you frankly what I think of the policy of this bill — to ask your opinion of it, and to invoke your influence in having it defeated.” While I was making these remarks, Mr. Lincoln listened to me with patient politeness, and when I paused for a reply, he said: “You must allow me the Yankee privilege of answering your questions by first asking a few myself. During the late Presidential canvass, were you not chairman of the National Executive Committee of the party that supported Bell and Everett?”  “Yes,” said I, “of the Constitutional Union party.” “The campaign motto or platform of which,” he continued, “was “The Union, the Constitution, and enforcement of the laws”?” “It was,” I replied; “and I think that it was not only the briefest, but about the best and most comprehensive platform that could have been adopted for that canvass.” “And you still stand by it, of course 2?” said he. “I certainly do,” was my reply. “Then,” he remarked, “there is no reason why we should not be of the same mind in this emergency, if I understand the meaning of your platform. How do you, yourself, interpret it?” “It's meaning,” I answered, “is obvious. It has nothing hidden in it-nothing more than meets the eye. We go for The Union as our fathers made it — to be a shield of protection over our heads, and not a sword of subjugation at our hearts; for The Constitution as they designed it, to be equally binding on both sections, North as well as South, in all its compromises, and in all its requirements; and for “the enforcement of the laws” by peaceable and constitutional means, not by bayonets-Federal bayonets, especially, Mr. Lincoln.” “Then your idea is,” said he, “that Federal bayonets should not be used for the enforcement of laws within the limits of a State” “As a general rule, unquestionably not,” I answered; “but, of course, there are exceptional cases, such as have already occurred-cases of invasion, insurrection, etc.-when the civil authorities of a State, finding themselves inadequate to the duty of protecting their people, or unable to enforce the laws within the limits of their jurisdiction, may rightfully require the Federal forces to assist them; in which event, it becomes the duty of the General Government, on application of the Legislature of the State, or of its Executive, when the Legislature cannot be convened, to furnish the required aid.” “And, now,” said he, “to apply your platform to the present condition of affairs in those Southern States of the Union which are assuming to be no longer part of it. How about enforcing the laws in them, just now — the laws of the United States?” “Inasmuch,” I replied, “as the difficulties of doing so peaceably, under existing circumstances, are exceeded only by the dangers of attempting it forcibly, the practical question to be determined beforehand is whether the experiment is worth a civil war. Which consideration,” I added, “brings us back to the object of my visit, and I therefore again take the liberty of asking if you approve of  Congress passing such a Force bill now as this of Stanton's, and whether you will not aid us in defeating it?” “Of course,” said he, “I am extremely anxious to see these sectional troubles settled peaceably and satisfactorily to all concerned. To accomplish that, I am willing to make almost any sacrifice, and to do anything in reason consistent with my sense of duty. There is one point, however, I can never surrender — that which was the main issue of the Presidential canvass and decided at the late election concerning the extension of slavery in the Territories.” “As to that matter,” I replied, “however important it may have heretofore seemed to some persons, we can well afford to remit it to the remote future, when there may be a practical necessity for its consideration, inasmuch as it has dwindled into utter insignificance before that portentous issue now so unexpectedly before us.” “Unexpectedly, indeed, and portentous enough in all conscience!” said he; “but I trust that matters are not as bad as they appear.” “ Bad as they certainly are,” I replied, “they will be infinitely worse before long if the utmost care be not taken to allay the present excitement, and to preserve the existing status between the sections until some such plan as that of Mr. Crittenden's, for a general convention, can be carried into effect, which, as the Peace Conference here has failed to secure a compromise, is the ultimate reliance left us for that object.” I then went on to say: “Mr. Lincoln, it may seem presumptuous in me to express my opinion to you on these subjects so decidedly. But I speak frankly, because I feel deeply their vital importance to the whole country, and especially to the people of the district which I represent, which is a border district, stretching along the Potomac from the Alleghenies to tidewater, and which, in the event of a sectional civil war, will not only be the first to suffer from its effects, but will feel them first, last, and all the time, and in all their intensity. I speak to you as a Union man, from a Union county, of a Union district, of a Union State--a State which has done more to make and to maintain the Union than any of her sister States have had it in their power to do, and which now, from her known conservatism, her acknowledged prestige in national politics, and her geographical position, midway between the angry sections, can do more than any other State to preserve the peace and to bring about, by her mediatorial influence, a satisfactory adjustment of these fearful complications in spite of the opposition of those twin foes of the Union--the fanatical faction of Abolitionists in the North, and that of the no less fanatical secessionists per se in the South-provided only that a little more time be allowed her to continue her  patriotic efforts to these ends. You will, therefore, I trust, not impute my earnestness to presumption when I say to you, in all sincerity, that the passage of this Force bill will paralyze the Unionists of Virginia, and be the means of precipitating her into secession-a calamity which, at this juncture, will unquestionably involve the whole country in a civil war.” After a silence of some seconds, during which Mr. Lincoln seemed to be absorbed in thought, he presently looked up with a smile, and said: “Well, I'll see what can be done about the bill you speak of. I think it can be stopped, and that I may promise you it will be.” Thanking him most cordially and sincerely for his kindness in acceding to my request, I then inquired if I might announce from my place in the House that he did not approve of the measure. “By no means,” said he, “for that would make trouble. The question would at once be asked, what right I had to interfere with the legislation of this Congress. Whatever is to be done in the matter, must be done quietly.” “But, as I have promised two of my colleagues,” said I, “to let them know the result of this interview, I hope you will at least allow me to acquaint them, confidentially, with the substance of your conversation 2” To this he assented, and warmly thanking him again, I got up to take leave; but, on his insisting that I should resume my seat, I remained in conversation with him some fifteen minutes longer. As what subsequently passed between us had no special bearing on the object of my visit, it is needless now to make any further reference to it, except to say, that it served to deepen the impression already made upon me by the interview, that M3r. Lincoln was a kind-hearted man; that he was, at that time, willing to allow the moderate men of the South a fair opportunity to make further efforts for a settlement of our intestine and internecine difficulties, and that he was by no means disposed to interfere, directly or indirectly, with the institutions of slavery in any of the States, or to yield to the clamorous demand of those bloody-minded extremists, who were then so very keen to cry “havoc!” and “let slip the dogs of war;” and afterward so exceedingly careful, with the characteristic caution of their kind, to keep out of harm's way during the continuance of hostilities. Having concluded my visit, I was about to return to the Capitol, when, perceiving that the House flag was down (a recess having been ordered from five until seven o'clock the same evening), I went at once to my room (at-Willard's, where I boarded that winter), and employed myself until dinner in making full notes of the foregoing conversation, while it was fresh in my memory.  On the re-assembling of the House that evening, naturally anxious to know what would be the fate of the Force bill, I closely watched the proceedings; some of which, upon a proposition to suspend the rules, to receive the report of the Peace Congress, were of an exciting character, and afforded a significant illustration of the truth of the proverb that “extremes meet;” for when the ayes and nays were called, Abolitionists and Secessionists per se were found voting together against the suspension. It was nearly ten o'clock before Mr. Stanton succeeded in getting the bill up for consideration, and immediately thereupon, a leading Republican member from Mr. Lincoln's own State (Mr. Washburne, our distinguished Minister to France), moved an adjournment; but a question of order having arisen, Mr. Washburne's motion was not entertained. Shortly afterward, Mr. Stanton moved the previous question on the engrossment of the bill, which was followed by another motion to adjourn, made by a prominent Republican from Pennsylvania (Mr. Hickman), which was not put to vote, because the floor had not been yielded to Mr. Hickman by Mr. John Cochrane, of New York, who was entitled to it, but who himself, before taking his seat, renewed the motion for an adjournment; and although it was well understood on both sides of the House that Cochrane's motion involved the fate of the bill, it was finally agreed to by a vote of seventy-seven to sixty. So the House adjourned that evening, and the Thirty-sixth Congress expired on the following Monday, without having given to Mr. Lincoln the power asked for — to call out the militia, and to accept the services of volunteers. Yet, alas! in little more than a month thereafter, he allowed himself to be persuaded to issue his proclamation for that purpose, the sad results of which are recorded on the bloodiest pages of our country's history.