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Chapter 33.

  • The Thirteenth amendment
  • -- the President's speech on its adoption -- the two constitutional amendments of Lincoln's term- -- Lincoln on peace and slavery in his annual message of December 6, 1864 -- Blair's Mexican project- -- the Hampton Roads conference
    A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery throughout the United States had passed the Senate on April 8, 1864, but had failed of the necessary two-thirds vote in the House. The two most vital thoughts which animated the Baltimore convention when it met in June had been the renomination of Mr. Lincoln and the success of this constitutional amendment. The first was recognized as a popular decision needing only the formality of an announcement by the convention; and the full emphasis of speech and resolution had therefore been centered on the latter as the dominant and aggressive reform upon which the party would stake its political fortunes in the presidential campaign. Mr. Lincoln had himself suggested to Mr. Morgan the wisdom of sounding that key-note in his opening speech before the convention; and the great victory gained at the polls in November not only demonstrated his sagacity, but enabled him to take up the question with confidence among his recommendations to Congress in the annual message of December 6, 1864. Relating the fate of the measure at the preceding session, he said:

    Without questioning the wisdom or patriotism of [472] those who stood in opposition, I venture to recommend the reconsideration and passage of the measure at the present session. Of course the abstract question is not changed, but an intervening election shows, almost certainly, that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not. Hence there is only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States for their action. And as it is to so go at all events, may we not agree that the sooner the better? It is not claimed that the election has imposed a duty on members to change their views or their votes any further than, as an additional element to be considered, their judgment may be affected by it. It is the voice of the people, now for the first time heard upon the question. In a great national crisis like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable-almost indispensable. And yet no approach to such unanimity is attainable unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority, simply because it is the will of the majority. In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union; and among the means to secure that end, such will, through the election, is most clearly declared in favor of such constitutional amendment.

    The joint resolution was called up in the House on January 6, 1865, and general discussion followed from time to time, occupying perhaps half the days of that month. As at the previous session, the Republicans all favored, while the Democrats mainly opposed it; but important exceptions among the latter showed what immense gains the proposition had made in popular opinion and in congressional willingness to recognize and embody it. The logic of events had become more powerful than party creed or strategy. For fifteen years the Democratic party had stood as sentinel and [473] bulwark to slavery, and yet, despite its alliance and championship, the “peculiar institution” was being consumed in the fire of war. It had withered in popular elections, been paralyzed by confiscation laws, crushed by executive decrees, trampled upon by marching Union armies. More notable than all, the agony of dissolution had come upon it in its final stronghold — the constitutions of the slave States. Local public opinion had throttled it in West Virginia, in Missouri, in Arkansas, in Louisiana, in Maryland, and the same spirit of change was upon Tennessee, and even showing itself in Kentucky. The Democratic party did not, and could not, shut its eyes to the accomplished facts.

    The issue was decided on the afternoon of January 311, 865. The scene was one of unusual interest. The galleries were filled to overflowing, and members watched the proceedings with unconcealed solicitude. “Up to noon,” said a contemporaneous report, “the pro-slavery party are said to have been confident of defeating the amendment; and after that time had passed, one of the most earnest advocates of the measure said: ‘‘Tis the toss of a copper.’ ” At four o'clock the House came to a final vote, and the roll-call showed: yeas, one hundred and nineteen; nays, fifty-six; not voting, eight. Scattering murmurs of applause followed affirmative votes from several Democratic members; but when the Speaker finally announced the result, members on the Republican side of the House sprang to their feet, and, regardless of parliamentary rules, applauded with cheers and hand-clappings — an exhibition of enthusiasm quickly echoed by the spectators in the crowded galleries, where waving of hats and handkerchiefs and similar demonstrations of joy lasted for several minutes.

    A salute of one hundred guns soon made the occasion [474] the subject of comment and congratulation throughout the city. On the following night a considerable procession marched with music to the Executive Mansion to carry popular greetings to the President. In response to their calls he appeared at a window and made a brief speech, of which only an abstract report was preserved, but which is nevertheless important as showing the searching analysis of cause and effect this question had undergone in his mind, the deep interest he felt in it, and the far-reaching consequences he attached to the measure and its success:

    The occasion was one of congratulation to the country and to the whole world. But there is a task yet before us — to go forward and have consummated by the votes of the States that which Congress had so nobly begun yesterday. He had the honor to inform those present that Illinois had already to-day done the work. Maryland was about half through, but he felt proud that Illinois was a little ahead. He thought this measure was a very fitting, if not an indispensable, adjunct to the winding up of the great difficulty. He wished the reunion of all the States perfected, and so effected as to remove all causes of disturbance in the future; and to attain this end it was necessary that the original disturbing cause should, if possible, be rooted out. He thought all would bear him witness that he had never shrunk from doing all that he could to eradicate slavery, by issuing an emancipation proclamation. But that proclamation falls far short of what the amendment will be when fully consummated. A question might be raised whether the proclamation was legally valid. It might be urged that it only aided those that came into our lines, and that it was inoperative as to those who did not give themselves up; or that it [475] would have no effect upon the children of slaves born hereafter; in fact, it would be urged that it did not meet the evil. But this amendment is a king's cure-all for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up. He would repeat that it was the fitting, if not the indispensable, adjunct to the consummation of the great game we are playing.

    Widely divergent views were expressed by able constitutional lawyers as to what would constitute a valid ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment; some contending that ratification by three fourths of the loyal States would be sufficient, others that three fourths of all the States, whether loyal or insurrectionary, was necessary. Mr. Lincoln, in a speech on Louisiana reconstruction, while expressing no opinion against the first proposition, nevertheless declared with great argumentative force that the latter “would be unquestioned and unquestionable” ; and this view appears to have governed the action of his successor.

    As Mr. Lincoln mentioned with just pride, Illinois was the first State to ratify the amendment. On December 18, 1865, Mr. Seward, who remained as Secretary of State in the cabinet of President Johnson, made official proclamation that the legislatures of twenty-seven States, constituting three fourths of the thirty-six States of the Union, had ratified the amendment, and that it had become valid as a part of the Constitution. Four of the States constituting this number-Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas were those whose reconstruction had been effected under the direction of President Lincoln. Six more States subsequently ratified the amendment, Texas ending the list in February, 1870.

    The profound political transformation which the American Republic had undergone can perhaps best [476] be measured by contrasting the two constitutional amendments which Congress made it the duty of the Lincoln administration to submit officially to the States. The first, signed by President Buchanan as one of his last official acts, and accepted and indorsed by Lincoln in his inaugural address, was in these words:

    No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere within any State with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

    Between Lincoln's inauguration and the outbreak of war, the Department of State transmitted this amendment to the several States for their action; and had the South shown a willingness to desist from secession and accept it as a peace offering, there is little doubt that it would have become a part of the Constitution. But the thunder of Beauregard's guns drove away all possibility of such a ratification, and within four years the Lincoln administration sent forth the amendment of 1865, sweeping out of existence by one sentence the institution to which it had — in its first proposal offered a virtual claim to perpetual recognition and tolerance. The “new birth of freedom” which Lincoln invoked for the nation in his Gettysburg address, was accomplished.

    The closing paragraphs of President Lincoln's message to Congress of December 6, 1864, were devoted to a summing up of the existing situation. The verdict of the ballot-box had not only decided the continuance of a war administration and war policy, but renewed the assurance of a public sentiment to sustain its prosecution. Inspired by this majestic manifestation of the popular will, he was able to speak of the future with hope and confidence. But with characteristic prudence [477] and good taste, he uttered no word of boasting, and indulged, in no syllable of acrimony; on the contrary, in terms of fatherly kindness he again offered the rebellious States the generous conditions he had previously tendered them.

    “The national resources, then, are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible. The public purpose to reestablish and maintain the national authority is unchanged, and, as we believe, unchangeable. The manner of continuing the effort remains to choose. On careful consideration of all the evidence accessible, it seems to me that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union-precisely what we will not and cannot give. His declarations to this effect are explicit and oft-repeated. ... What is true, however, of him who heads the insurgent cause is not necessarily true of those who follow. Although he cannot reaccept the Union, they can. Some of them, we know, already desire peace and reunion. The number of such may increase. They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution. After so much, the government could not, if it would, maintain war against them. The loyal people would not sustain or allow it. If questions should remain, we would adjust them by the peaceful means of legislation, conference, courts, and votes, operating only in constitutional and lawful channels .... In presenting the abandonment of armed resistance to the national authority, on the part of the insurgents, as the only indispensable condition to ending the war on the part of the government, I retract nothing heretofore said as to slavery. I repeat the declaration made a year [478] ago, that ‘While I remain in my present position I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation, nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.’ If the people should, by whatever mode or means, make it an executive duty to reenslave such persons, another, and not I, must be their instrument to perform it. In stating a single condition of peace, I mean simply to say that the war will cease on the part of the government whenever it shall have ceased on the part of those who began it.”

    The country was about to enter upon the fifth year of actual war; but all indications were pointing to a speedy collapse of the rebellion. This foreshadowed disaster to the Confederate armies gave rise to another volunteer peace negotiation, which, from the boldness of its animating thought and the prominence of its actors, assumes a special importance. The veteran politician Francis P. Blair, Sr., who, from his long political and personal experience in Washington, knew, perhaps better than almost any one else, the individual characters and tempers of Southern leaders, conceived that the time had come when he might take up the role of successful mediator between the North and the South. He gave various hints of his desire to President Lincoln, but received neither encouragement nor opportunity to unfold his plans. “Come to me after Savannah falls,” was Lincoln's evasive reply. On the surrender of that city, Mr. Blair hastened to put his design into execution, and with a simple card from Mr. Lincoln, dated December 28, saying, “Allow the bearer, F. P. Blair, Sr., to pass our lines, go south and return,” as his only credential, set out for Richmond. From General Grant's camp he forwarded two letters to Jefferson Davis: one, a brief request to be [479] allowed to go to Richmond in search of missing title papers presumably taken from his Maryland home during Early's raid; the other, a longer letter, explaining the real object of his visit, but stating with the utmost candor that he came wholly unaccredited, save for permission to pass the lines, and that he had not offered the suggestions he wished to submit in person to Mr. Davis to any one in authority at Washington.

    After some delay, he found himself in Richmond, and was accorded a confidential interview by the rebel President on January 12, 1865, when he unfolded his project, which proved to be nothing less than a proposition that the Union and Confederate armies cease fighting each other and unite to drive the French from Mexico. He supported this daring idea in a paper of some length, pointing out that as slavery, the real cause of the war, was hopelessly doomed, nothing now remained to keep the two sections of the country apart except the possible intervention of foreign soldiery. Hence, all considerations pointed to the wisdom of dislodging the French invaders from American soil, and thus baffling “the designs of Napoleon to subject our Southern people to the ‘Latin race.’ ”

    “He who expels the Bonaparte-Hapsburg dynasty from our southern flank,” the paper said further, “will ally his name with those of Washington and Jackson as a defender of the liberty of the country. If in delivering Mexico he should model its States in form and principle to adapt them to our Union, and add a new southern constellation to its benignant sky While rounding off our possessions on the continent at the Isthmus, . . . he would complete the work of Jefferson, who first set one foot of our colossal government on the Pacific by a stride from the Gulf of Mexico.” [480]

    “I then said to him, ‘There is my problem, Mr. Davis; do you think it possible to be solved?’ After consideration, he said: ‘I think so.’ I then said, ‘You see that I make the great point of this matter that the war is no longer made for slavery, but monarchy. You know that if the war is kept up and the Union kept divided, armies must be kept afoot on both sides, and this state of things has never continued long without resulting in monarchy on one side or the other, and on both generally.’ He assented to this.”

    The substantial accuracy of Mr. Blair's report is confirmed by the memorandum of the same interview which Jefferson Davis wrote at the time. In this conversation, the rebel leader took little pains to disguise his entire willingness to enter upon the wild scheme of military conquest and annexation which could easily be read between the lines of a political crusade to rescue the Monroe Doctrine from its present peril. If Mr. Blair felt elated at having so quickly made a convert of the Confederate President, he was further gratified at discovering yet more favorable symptoms in his official surroundings at Richmond. In the three or four days he spent at the rebel capital he found nearly every prominent personage convinced of the hopeless condition of the rebellion, and even eager to seize upon any contrivance to help them out of their direful prospects.

    But the government councils at Washington were not ruled by the spirit of political adventure. Abraham Lincoln had a loftier conception of patriotic duty, and a higher ideal of national ethics. His whole interest in Mr. Blair's mission lay in the rebel despondency it disclosed, and the possibility it showed of bringing the Confederates to an abandonment of their resistance. Mr. Davis had, indeed, given Mr. Blair a letter, to be [481] shown to President Lincoln, stating his willingness, “notwithstanding the rejection of our former offers,” to appoint a commissioner to enter into negotiations “with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” This was, of course, the old impossible attitude. In reply the President wrote Mr. Blair on January 18 the following note:

    Sir: You having shown me Mr. Davis's letter to you of the twelfth instant, you may say to him that I have constantly been, am now, and shall continue ready to receive any agent whom he, or any other influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me, with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.

    With this, Mr. Blair returned to Richmond, giving Mr. Davis such excuses as he could hastily frame why the ,President had rejected his plan for a joint invasion of Mexico. Jefferson Davis therefore had only two alternatives before him-either to repeat his stubborn ultimatum of separation and independence, or frankly to accept Lincoln's ultimatum of reunion. The principal Richmond authorities knew, and some of them admitted, that their Confederacy was nearly in collapse. Lee sent a despatch saying he had not two days rations for his army. Richmond was already in a panic at rumors of evacuation. Flour was selling at a thousand dollars a barrel in Confederate currency. The recent fall of Fort Fisher had closed the last avenue through which blockade-runners could bring in foreign supplies. Governor Brown of Georgia was refusing to obey orders from Richmond, and characterizing them as “despotic.” Under such circumstances a defiant cry of independence would not reassure anybody; nor, on the other hand, was it longer possible to remain silent. Mr. Blair's first visit had created general interest; when [482] he came a second time, wonder and rumor rose to fever heat.

    Impelled to take action, Mr. Davis had not the courage to be frank. After consultation with his cabinet, a peace commission of three was appointed, consisting of Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President; R. M. T. Hunter, senator and ex-Secretary of State; and John A. Campbell, Assistant Secretary of War-all of them convinced that the rebellion was hopeless, but unwilling to admit the logical consequences and necessities. The drafting of instructions for their guidance was a difficult problem, since the explicit condition prescribed by Mr. Lincoln's note was that he would receive only an agent sent him “with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.” The rebel Secretary of State proposed, in order to make the instructions “as vague and general as possible,” the simple direction to confer “upon the subject to which it relates” ; but his chief refused the suggestion, and wrote the following instruction, which carried a palpable contradiction on its face:

    In conformity with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are requested to proceed to Washington City for informal conference with him upon the issues involved in the existing war, and for the purpose of securing peace to the two countries.

    With this the commissioners presented themselves at the Union lines on the evening of January 29, but instead of showing their double-meaning credential, asked admission, “in accordance with an understanding claimed to exist with Lieutenant-General Grant.” Mr. Lincoln, being apprised of the application, promptly despatched Major Thomas T. Eckert, of the War Department, with written directions to admit them under safe-conduct, if they would say in writing that they [483] came for the purpose of an informal conference on the basis of his note of January 18 to Mr. Blair. The commissioners, having meantime reconsidered the form of their application and addressed a new one to General Grant which met the requirements, were provisionally conveyed to Grant's headquarters; and on January 31 the President commissioned Secretary Seward to meet them, saying in his written instructions:

    You will make known to them that three things are indispensable, to wit: First. The restoration of the national authority throughout all the States. Second. No receding by the Executive of the United States on the slavery question from the position assumed thereon in the late annual message to Congress, and in preceding documents. Third. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government. You will inform them that all propositions of theirs, not inconsistent with the above, will be considered and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality. You will hear all they may choose to say, and report it to me. You will not assume to definitely consummate anything.

    Mr. Seward started on the morning of February i, and simultaneously with his departure the President repeated to General Grant, the monition already sent him two days before: “Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder, or delay your military movements or plans.” Major Eckert had arrived while Mr. Seward was yet on the way, and on seeing Jefferson Davis's instructions, promptly notified the commissioners that they could not proceed further without complying strictly with President Lincoln's terms. Thus, at half-past 9 on the night of February I, their mission was practically at an end, though next day they again recanted and accepted the President's conditions in writing. [484] Mr. Lincoln, on reading Major Eckert's report on the morning of February 2, was about to recall Secretary Seward by telegraph, when he was shown a confidential despatch from General Grant to the Secretary of War, stating his belief that the intention of the commissioners was good, and .their desire for peace sincere, and regretting that Mr. Lincoln could not have an interview with them. This communication served to change his purpose. Resolving not to neglect the indications of sincerity here described, he telegraphed at once, “Say to the gentlemen I will meet them personally at Fortress Monroe as soon as I can get there,” and joined Secretary Seward that same night.

    On the morning of February 3, 1865, the rebel commissioners were conducted on board the River Queen, lying at anchor near Fort Monroe, where President Lincoln and Secretary Seward awaited them. It was agreed beforehand that no writing or memorandum should be made at the time, so the record of the interview remains only in the separate accounts which the rebel commissioners wrote out afterward from memory, neither Mr. Seward nor President Lincoln ever having made any report in detail. In a careful analysis of these reports, the first striking feature is the difference of intention between the parties. It is apparent that Mr. Lincoln went honestly and frankly to offer them the best terms he could to secure peace and reunion, but to abate no jot of official duty or personal dignity; while the main thought of the commissioners was to evade the express condition on which they had been admitted to conference, to seek to postpone the vital issue, and to propose an armistice by debating a mere juggling expedient against which they had in a private agreement with one another already committed themselves. [485]

    At the first hint of Blair's Mexican project, however, Mr. Lincoln firmly disclaimed any responsibility for the suggestion, or any intention of adopting it, and during the four hours talk led the conversation continually back to the original object of the conference. But though he patiently answered the many questions addressed him by the commissioners, as to what would probably be done on various important subjects that must arise at once if the Confederate States consented, carefully discriminating in his answers between what he was authorized under the Constitution to do as Executive, and what would devolve upon coordinate branches of the government, the interview came to nothing. The commissioners returned to Richmond in great disappointment, and communicated the failure of their efforts to Jefferson Davis, whose chagrin was equal to their own. They had all caught eagerly at the hope that this negotiation would somehow extricate them from the dilemmas and dangers of their situation. Davis took the only course open to him after refusing the honorable peace Mr. Lincoln had tendered. He transmitted the commissioners' report to the rebel Congress, with a brief and dry message stating that the enemy refused any terms except those the conqueror might grant; and then arranged as vigorous an effort as circumstances permitted once more to “fire the Southern heart.” A public meeting was called, where the speeches, judging from the meager reports printed, were as denunciatory and bellicose as the bitterest Confederate could desire. Davis particularly is represented to have excelled himself in defiant heroics. “Sooner than we should ever be united again,” he said, “he would be willing to yield up everything he had on earth — if it were possible, he would sacrifice a thousand lives” ; and he further announced his confidence [486] that they would yet “compel the Yankees, in less than twelve months, to petition us for peace on our own terms.”

    This extravagant rhetoric would seem merely grotesque, were it not embittered by the reflection that it was the signal which carried many additional thousands of brave soldiers to death, in continuing a palpably hopeless military struggle.

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