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Chapter 23.

  • Cameron's report
  • -- Lincoln's letter to Bancroft -- annual message on slavery -- the Delaware experiment -- joint resolution on compensated abolishment -- first border State interview -- Stevens's comment- -- District of Columbia abolishment -- Committee on abolishment -- Hunter's order revoked -- antislavery measures of Congress -- second border State interview -- emancipation proposed and postponed
    The relation of the war to the institution of slavery has been touched upon in describing several incidents which occurred during 1861, namely, the designation of fugitive slaves as “contraband,” the Crittenden resolution and the confiscation act of the special session of Congress, the issuing and revocation of Fremont's proclamation, and various orders relating to contrabands in Union camps. The already mentioned resignation of Secretary Cameron had also grown out of a similar question. In the form in which it was first printed, his report as Secretary of War to the annual session of Congress which met on December 3, 1861, announced:

    If it shall be found that the men who have been held by the rebels as slaves are capable of bearing arms and performing efficient military service, it is the right, and may become the duty, of the government to arm and equip them, and employ their services against the rebels, under proper military regulation, discipline, and command.


    The President was not prepared to permit a member of his cabinet, without his consent, to commit the administration to so radical a policy at that early date. He caused the advance copies of the document to be recalled and modified to the simple declaration that fugitive and abandoned slaves, being clearly an important military resource, should not be returned to rebel masters, but withheld from the enemy to be disposed of in future as Congress might deem best. Mr. Lincoln saw clearly enough what a serious political role the slavery question was likely to play during the continuance of the war. Replying to a letter from the Hon. George Bancroft, in which that accomplished historian predicted that posterity would not be satisfied with the results of the war unless it should effect an increase of the free States, the President wrote:

    The main thought in the closing paragraph of your letter is one which does not escape my attention, and with which I must deal in all due caution, and with the best judgment I can bring to it.

    This caution was abundantly manifested in his annual message to Congress of December 3, 1861:

    In considering the policy to be adopted for suppressing the insurrection,

    he wrote, “I have been anxious and careful that the inevitable conflict for this purpose shall not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle. I have, therefore, in every case, thought it proper to keep the integrity of the Union prominent as the primary object of the contest on our part, leaving all questions which are not of vital military importance to the more deliberate action of the legislature .... The Union must be preserved; and hence all indispensable means must be employed. We should not be in haste to determine that [322] radical and extreme measures, which may reach the loyal as well as the disloyal, are indispensable.”

    The most conservative opinion could not take alarm at phraseology so guarded and at the same time so decided; and yet it proved broad enough to include every great exigency which the conflict still had in store.

    Mr. Lincoln had indeed already maturely considered and in his own mind adopted a plan of dealing with the slavery question: the simple plan which, while a member of Congress, he had proposed for adoption in the District of Columbia--the plan of voluntary compensated abolishment. At that time local and national prejudice stood in the way of its practicability; but to his logical and reasonable mind it seemed now that the new conditions opened for it a prospect at least of initial success.

    In the late presidential election the little State of Delaware had, by a fusion between the Bell and the Lincoln vote, chosen a Union member of Congress, who identified himself in thought and action with the new administration. While Delaware was a slave State, only the merest remnant of the institution existed there-seventeen hundred and ninety-eight slaves all told. Without any public announcement of his purpose, the President now proposed to the political leaders of Delaware, through their representative, a scheme for the gradual emancipation of these seventeen hundred and ninety-eight slaves, on the payment therefor by the United States at the rate of four hundred dollars per slave, in annual instalments during thirty-one years to that State, the sum to be distributed by it to the individual owners. The President believed that if Delaware could be induced to take this step, Maryland might follow, and that these examples would [323] create a sentiment that would lead other States into the same easy and beneficent path. But the ancient prejudice still had its relentless grip upon some of the Delaware law-makers. A majority of the Delaware House indeed voted to entertain the scheme. But five of the nine members of the Delaware Senate, with hot partizan anathemas, scornfully repelled the “abolition bribe,” as they called it, and the project withered in the bud.

    Mr. Lincoln did not stop at the failure of his Delaware experiment, but at once took an appeal to a broader section of public opinion. On March 6, 1862, he sent a special message to the two houses of Congress recommending the adoption of the following joint resolution:

    Resolved, that the United States ought to cooperate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.”

    “The point is not,” said his explanatory message, “that all the States tolerating slavery would very soon, if at all, initiate emancipation; but that while the offer is equally made to all, the more northern shall, by such initiation, make it certain to the more southern that in no event will the former ever join the latter in their proposed Confederacy. I say ‘initiation’ because, in my judgment, gradual, and not sudden, emancipation is better for all. . . . Such a proposition on the part of the general government sets up no claim of a right by Federal authority to interfere with slavery within State limits, referring, as it does, the absolute control of the subject in each case to the State and its people immediately interested. It is proposed as a matter [324] of perfectly free choice with them. In the annual message last December I thought fit to say, ‘The Union must be preserved; and hence, all indispensable means must be employed.’ I said this, not hastily, but deliberately. War has been made, and continues to be, an indispensable means to this end. A practical reacknowledgment of the national authority would render the war unnecessary, and it would at once cease. If, however, resistance continues, the war must also continue; and it is impossible to foresee all the incidents which may attend and all the ruin which may follow it. Such as may seem indispensable, or may obviously promise great efficiency toward ending the struggle, must and will come.”

    The Republican journals of the North devoted considerable discussion to the President's message and plan, which, in the main, were very favorably received. Objection was made, however, in some quarters that the proposition would be likely to fail on the score of expense, and this objection the President conclusively answered in a private letter to a senator.

    “As to the expensiveness of the plan of gradual emancipation, with compensation, proposed in the late message, please allow me one or two brief suggestions. Less than one half-day's cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars per head. . . Again, less than eighty-seven days cost of this war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky, and Missouri. . . . Do you doubt that taking the initiatory steps on the part of those States and this District would shorten the war more than eighty-seven days, and thus be an actual saving of expense?”

    Four days after transmitting the message the President called together the delegations in Congress from [325] the border slave States, and in a long and earnest personal interview, in which he repeated and enforced the arguments of his message, urged upon them the expediency of adopting his plan, which he assured them he had proposed in the most friendly spirit, and with no intent to injure the interests or wound the sensibilities of the slave States. On the day following this interview the House of Representatives adopted the joint resolution by more than a two-thirds vote; ayes eighty-nine, nays thirty-one. Only a very few of the border State members had the courage to vote in the affirmative. The Senate also passed the joint resolution, by about a similar party division, not quite a month later; the delay occurring through press of business rather than unwillingness.

    As yet, however, the scheme was tolerated rather than heartily indorsed by the more radical elements in Congress. Stevens, the cynical Republican leader of the House of Representatives, said:

    I confess I have not been able to see what makes one side so anxious to pass it, or the other side so anxious to defeat it. I think it is about the most diluted milk-and-water-gruel proposition that was ever given to the American nation.

    But the bulk of the Republicans, though it proposed no immediate practical legislation, nevertheless voted for it, as a declaration of purpose in harmony with a pending measure, and as being, on the one hand, a tribute to antislavery opinion in the North, and, on the other, an expression of liberality toward the border States. The concurrent measure of practical legislation was a bill for the immediate emancipation of the slaves in the District of Columbia, on the payment to their loyal owners of an average sum of three hundred dollars for each slave, and for the appointment of a commission [326] to assess and award the amount. The bill was introduced early in the session, and its discussion was much stimulated by the President's special message and joint resolution. Like other antislavery measures, it was opposed by the Democrats and supported by the Republicans, with but trifling exceptions; and by the same majority of two thirds was passed by the Senate on April 3, and the House on April 11, and became a law by the President's signature on April 16.

    “” he Republican majority in Congress as well as the President was thus pledged to the policy of compensated abolishment, both by the promise of the joint resolution and the fulfilment carried out in the District bill. If the representatives and senators of the border slave States had shown a willingness to accept the generosity of the government, they could have avoided the pecuniary sacrifice which overtook the slave owners in those States not quite three years later. On April 14, in the House of Representatives, the subject was taken up by Mr. White of Indiana, at whose instance a select committee on emancipation, consisting of nine members, a majority of whom were from border slave States, was appointed; and this committee on July 16 reported a comprehensive bill authorizing the President to give compensation at the rate of three hundred dollars for each slave to any one of the States of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, that might adopt immediate or gradual emancipation. Some subsequent proceedings on this subject occurred in Congress in the case of Missouri; but as to the other States named in the bill, either the neglect or open opposition of their people and representatives and senators prevented any further action from the committee.

    Meanwhile a new incident once more brought the [327] question of military emancipation into sharp public discussion. On May 9, General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, which consisted mainly of some sixty or seventy miles of the South Carolina coast between North Edisto River and Warsaw Sound, embracing the famous Sea Island cotton region which fell into Union hands by the capture of Port Royal in 1861, issued a military order which declared:

    Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States --Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina-heretofore held as slaves are therefore declared forever free.

    The news of this order, coming by the slow course of ocean mails, greatly surprised Mr. Lincoln, and his first comment upon it was positive and emphatic. “No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me,” he wrote to Secretary Chase. Three days later, May 19, 1862, he published a proclamation declaring Hunter's order entirely unauthorized and void, and adding:

    I further make known that whether it be competent for me, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, to declare the slaves of any State or States free, and whether, at any time, in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself, and which I cannot feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field. These are totally different questions from those of police regulations in armies and camps.

    This distinct reservation of executive power, and equally plain announcement of the contingency which would justify its exercise, was coupled with a renewed [328] recital of his plan and offer of compensated abolishment, and reinforced by a powerful appeal to the public opinion of the border slave States.

    “I do not argue,” continued the proclamation, “I beseech you to make the arguments for yourselves. You cannot, if you would, be blind to the signs of the times. I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partizan politics. This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproaches upon any. It acts not the Pharisee. The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything. Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as in the providence of God it is now your high privilege to do. May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it.”

    This proclamation of President Lincoln's naturally created considerable and very diverse comment, but much less than would have occurred had not military events intervened which served in a great degree to absorb public attention. At the date of the proclamation McClellan, with the Army of the Potomac, was just reaching the Chickahominy in his campaign toward Richmond; Stonewall Jackson was about beginning his startling raid into the Shenandoah valley; and Halleck was pursuing his somewhat leisurely campaign against Corinth. On the day following the proclamation the victorious fleet of Farragut reached Vicksburg in its first ascent of the Mississippi. Congress was busy with the multifarious work that crowded the closing weeks of the long session; and among this congressional work the debates and proceedings upon several measures of positive and immediate antislavery legislation were significant “signs of [329] the times.” During the session, and before it ended, acts or amendments were passed prohibiting the army from returning fugitive slaves; recognizing the independence and sovereignty of Haiti and Liberia; providing for carrying into effect the treaty with England to suppress the African slave trade; restoring the Missouri Compromise and extending its provisions to all United States Territories; greatly increasing the scope of the confiscation act in freeing slaves actually employed in hostile military service; and giving the President authority, if not in express terms, at least by easy implication, to organize and arm negro regiments for the war.

    But between the President's proclamation and the adjournment of Congress military affairs underwent a most discouraging change. McClellan's advance upon Richmond became a retreat to Harrison's Landing. Halleck captured nothing but empty forts at Corinth. Farragut found no cooperation at Vicksburg, and returned to New Orleans, leaving its hostile guns still barring the commerce of the great river. Still worse, the country was plunged into gloomy forebodings by the President's call for three hundred thousand new troops.

    About a week before the adjournment of Congress the President again called together the delegations from the border slave States, and read to them, in a carefully prepared paper, a second and most urgent appeal to adopt his plan of compensated abolishment.

    “Let the States which are in rebellion see definitely and certainly that in no event will the States you represent ever join their proposed confederacy, and they cannot much longer maintain the contest. But you cannot divest them of their hope to ultimately have you with them so long as you show a determination to perpetuate [330] the institution within your own States. Beat them at elections, as you have overwhelmingly done, and, nothing daunted, they still claim you as their own. You and I know what the lever of their power is. Break that lever before their faces, and they can shake you no more forever. . . . If the war continues long, as it must if the object be not sooner attained, the institution in your States will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion-by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of its value is gone already. How much better for you and for your people to take the step which at once shortens the war and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event. How much better to thus save the money which else we sink forever in the war. . . . Our common country is in great peril, demanding the loftiest views and boldest action to bring it speedy relief. Once relieved, its form of government is saved to the world, its beloved history and cherished memories are vindicated, and its happy future fully assured and rendered inconceivably grand. To you, more than to any others, the privilege is given to assure that happiness and swell that grandeur, and to link your own names therewith forever.”

    Even while the delegations listened, Mr. Lincoln could see that events had not yet ripened their minds to the acceptance of his proposition. In their written replies, submitted a few days afterward, two thirds of them united in a qualified refusal, which, while recognizing the President's patriotism and reiterating their own loyalty, urged a number of rather unsubstantial excuses. The minority replies promised to submit the proposal fairly to the people of their States, but could of course give no assurance that it would be welcored [331] by their constituents. The interview itself only served to confirm the President in an alternative course of action upon which his mind had doubtless dwelt for a considerable time with intense solicitude, and which is best presented in the words of his own recital.

    “It had got to be,” said he, in a conversation with the artist F. B. Carpenter, “midsummer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been. pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game. I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy; and, without consultation with, or the knowledge of, the cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and after much anxious thought called a cabinet meeting upon the subject. . . . All were present excepting Mr. Blair, the Postmaster-General, who was absent at the opening of the discussion, but came in subsequently. I said to the cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them, suggestions as to which would be in order after they had heard it read.”

    It was on July 22 that the President read to his cabinet the draft of this first emancipation proclamation, which, after a formal warning against continuing the rebellion, was in the following words:

    And I hereby make known that it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of Congress, to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure for tendering pecuniary aid to the free choice or rejection of any and all States which may then be recognizing and practically sustaining the authority of the United States, and which may then have voluntarily adopted, [332] or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, gradual abolishment of slavery within such State or States; that the object is to practically restore, thenceforward to be maintained, the constitutional relation between the general government and each and all the States wherein that relation is now suspended or disturbed; and that for this object the war, as it has been, will be prosecuted. And as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States, do order and declare that on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or States wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever be free.

    Mr. Lincoln had given a confidential intimation of this step to Mr. Seward and Mr. Welles on the day following the border State interview, but to all the other members of the cabinet it came as a complete surprise. Blair thought it would cost the administration the fall elections. Chase preferred that emancipation should be proclaimed by commanders in the several military districts. Seward, approving the measure, suggested that it be postponed until it could be given to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case then, upon the greatest disasters of the war. Mr. Lincoln's recital continues:

    The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force. It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was that I put the draft of the proclamation aside, as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory.

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