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Chapter 6.

  • First session of the Thirtieth Congress
  • -- Mexican War --“Wilmot Proviso” -- campaign of 1848 -- letters to Herndon about young men in politics -- speech in Congress on the Mexican War -- second session of the Thirtieth Congress -- bill to prohibit slavery in the District of Columbia -- Lincoln's recommendations of office -- Seekers -- letters to Speed -- commissioner of the General land office -- Declines Governership of Oregon
    Very few men are fortunate enough to gain distinction during their first term in Congress. The reason is obvious. Legally, a term extends over two years; practically, a session of five or six months during the first, and three months during the second year ordinarily reduce their opportunities more than one half. In those two sessions, even if we presuppose some knowledge of parliamentary law, they must learn the daily routine of business, make the acquaintance of their fellow-members, who already, in the Thirtieth Congress, numbered something over two hundred, study the past and prospective legislation on a multitude of minor national questions entirely new to the new members, and perform the drudgery of haunting the departments in the character of unpaid agent and attorney to attend to the private interests of constituents — a physical task of no small proportions in Lincoln's day, when there was neither street-car nor omnibus in the “city of magnificent distances,” as Washington was nicknamed. Add to this that the principal [77] work of preparing legislation is done by the various committees in their committee-rooms, of which the public hears nothing, and that members cannot choose their own time for making speeches; still further, that the management of debate on prepared legislation must necessarily be intrusted to members of long experience as well as talent, and it will be seen that the novice need not expect immediate fame.

    It is therefore not to be wondered at that Lincoln's single term in the House of Representatives at Washington added practically nothing to his reputation. He did not attempt to shine forth in debate by either a stinging retort or a witty epigram, or by a sudden burst of inspired eloquence. On the contrary, he took up his task as a quiet but earnest and patient apprentice in the great workshop of national legislation, and performed his share of duty with industry and intelligence, as well as with a modest and appreciative respect for the ability and experience of his seniors.

    “As to speechmaking,” he wrote, “by way of getting the hang of the House, I made a little speech two or three days ago on a post-office question of no general interest. I find speaking here and elsewhere about the same thing. I was about as badly scared, and no worse, as I am when I speak in court. I expect to make one within a week or two in which I hope to succeed well enough to wish you to see it.” And again, some weeks later: “I just take my pen to say that Mr. Stephens of Georgia, a little, slim, pale-faced consumptive man with a voice like Logan's, has just concluded the very best speech of an hour's length I ever heard. My old, withered, dry eyes are full of tears yet.”

    He was appointed the junior Whig member of the Committee on Post-offices and Post-roads, and shared its prosaic but eminently useful labors both in the committee-room [78] and the House debates. His name appears on only one other committee,--that on Expenditures of the War Department,--and he seems to have interested himself in certain amendments of the law relating to bounty lands for soldiers and such minor military topics. He looked carefully after the interests of Illinois in certain grants of land to that State for railroads, but expressed his desire that the government price of the reserved sections should not be increased to actual settlers.

    During the first session of the Thirtieth Congress he delivered three set speeches in the House, all of them carefully prepared and fully written out. The first of these, on January 12, 1848, was an elaborate defense of the Whig doctrine summarized in a House resolution, passed a week or ten days before, that the Mexican War “had been unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President,” James K. Polk. The speech is not a mere party diatribe, but a terse historical and legal examination of the origin of the Mexican War. In the after-light of our own times which shines upon these transactions, we may readily admit that Mr. Lincoln and the Whigs had the best of the argument; but it must be quite as readily conceded that they were far behind the President and his defenders in political and party strategy. The former were clearly wasting their time in discussing an abstract question of international law upon conditions existing twenty months before. During those twenty months the American arms had won victory after victory, and planted the American flag on the “halls of the Montezumas.” Could even successful argument undo those victories or call back to life the brave American soldiers who had shed their blood to win them?

    It may be assumed as an axiom that Providence has [79] never gifted any political party with all of political wisdom or blinded it with all of political folly. Upon the foregoing point of controversy the Whigs were sadly thrown on the defensive, and labored heavily under their already discounted declamation. But instinct rather than sagacity led them to turn their eyes to the future, and successfully upon other points to retrieve their mistake. Within six weeks after Lincoln's speech President Polk sent to the Senate a treaty of peace, under which Mexico ceded to the United States an extent of territory equal in area to Germany, France, and Spain combined, and thereafter the origin of the war was an obsolete question. What should be done with the new territory was now the issue.

    This issue embraced the already exciting slavery question, and Mr. Lincoln was doubtless gratified that the Whigs had taken a position upon it so consonant with his own convictions. Already, in the previous Congress, the body of the Whig members had joined a small group of antislavery Democrats in fastening upon an appropriation bill the famous “Wilmot Proviso,” that slavery should never exist in territory acquired from Mexico, and the Whigs of the Thirtieth Congress steadily followed the policy of voting for the same restriction in regard to every piece of legislation where it was applicable. Mr. Lincoln often said he had voted forty or fifty times for the Wilmot Proviso in various forms during his single term.

    Upon another point he and the other Whigs were equally wise. Repelling the Democratic charge that they were unpatriotic in denouncing the war, they voted in favor of every measure to sustain, supply, and encourage the soldiers in the field. But their most adroit piece of strategy, now that the war was ended, was in their movement to make General Taylor. President. [80]

    In this movement Mr. Lincoln took a leading and active part. No living American statesman has ever been idolized by his party adherents as was Henry Clay for a whole generation, and Mr. Lincoln fully shared this hero-worship. But his practical campaigning as a candidate for presidential elector in the Harrison campaign of 1840, and the Clay campaign of 1844, in Illinois and the adjoining States, afforded him a basis for sound judgment, and convinced him that the day when Clay could have been elected President was forever passed.

    Mr. Clay's chance for an election is just no chance at all,” he wrote on April 30. “He might get New York, and that would have elected in 1844, but it will not now, because he must now, at the least, lose Tennessee, which he had then, and in addition the fifteen new votes of Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin .. In my judgment, we can elect nobody but General Taylor; and we cannot elect him without a nomination. Therefore don't fail to send a delegate.” And again on the same day: “Mr. Clay's letter has not advanced his interests any here. Several who were against Taylor, but not for anybody particularly before, are since taking ground, some for Scott and some for McLean. Who will be nominated neither I nor any one else can tell. Now, let me pray to you in turn. My prayer is that you let nothing discourage or baffle you, but that, in spite of every difficulty, you send us a good Taylor delegate from your circuit. Make Baker, who is now with you, I suppose, help about it. He is a good hand to raise a breeze.”

    In due time Mr. Lincoln's sagacity and earnestness were both justified; for on June 12 he was able to write to an Illinois friend:

    On my return from Philadelphia, where I had been [81] attending the nomination of ‘Old Rough,’ I found your letter in a mass of others which had accumulated in my absence. By many, and often, it had been said they would not abide the nomination of Taylor; but since the deed has been done, they are fast falling in, and in my opinion we shall have a most overwhelming, glorious triumph. One unmistakable sign is that all the odds and ends are with us-Barnburners, Native Americans, Tyler men, disappointed office-seeking Locofocos, and the Lord knows what. This is important, if in nothing else, in showing which way the wind blows. Some of the sanguine men have set down all the States as certain for Taylor but Illinois, and it as doubtful. Cannot something be done even in Illinois? Taylor's nomination takes the Locos on the blind side. It turns the war-thunder against them. The war is now to them the gallows of Haman, which they built for us, and on which they are doomed to be hanged themselves.

    Nobody understood better than Mr. Lincoln the obvious truth that in politics it does not suffice merely to nominate candidates. Something must also be done to elect them. Two of the letters which he at this time wrote home to his young law partner, William H. Herndon, are especially worth quoting in part, not alone to show his own zeal and industry, but also as a perennial instruction and encouragement to young men who have an ambition to make a name and a place for themselves in American politics:

    Last night I was attending a sort of caucus of the Whig members, held in relation to the coming presidential election. The whole field of the nation was scanned, and all is high hope and confidence . . Now, as to the young men. You must not wait to be brought forward by the older men. For instance, do [82] you suppose that I should ever have got into notice if I had waited to be hunted up and pushed forward by older men? You young men get together and form a ‘Rough and Ready Club,’ and have regular meetings and speeches. . .. Let every one play the part he can play best,--some speak, some sing, and all ‘holler.’ Your meetings will be of evenings; the older men, and the women, will go to hear you; so that it will not only contribute to the election of ‘Old Zach,’ but will be an interesting pastime, and improving to the intellectual faculties of all engaged.

    And in another letter, answering one from Herndon in which that young aspirant complains of having been neglected, he says:

    The subject of that letter is exceedingly painful to me; and I cannot but think there is some mistake in your impression of the motives of the old men. I suppose I am now one of the old men; and I declare, on my veracity, which I think is good with you, that nothing could afford me more satisfaction than to learn that you and others of my young friends at home are doing battle in the contest, and endearing themselves to the people, and taking a stand far above any I have been able to reach in their admiration. I cannot conceive that other old men feel differently. Of course I cannot demonstrate what I say; but I was young once, and I am sure I was never ungenerously thrust back. I hardly know what to say. The way for a young man to rise is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that anybody wishes to hinder him. Allow me to assure you that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation. There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed, too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted [83] injury. Cast about, and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have ever known to fall into it.

    Mr. Lincoln's interest in this presidential campaign did not expend itself merely in advice to others. We have his own written record that he also took an active part for the election of General Taylor after his nomination, speaking a few times in Maryland near Washington, several times in Massachusetts, and canvassing quite fully his own district in Illinois. Before the session of Congress ended he also delivered two speeches in the House-one on the general subject of internal improvements, and the other the usual political campaign speech which members of Congress are in the habit of making to be printed for home circulation; made up mainly of humorous and satirical criticism, favoring the election of General Taylor, and opposing the election of General Cass, the Democratic candidate. Even this production, however, is lighted up by a passage of impressive earnestness and eloquence, in which he explains and defends the attitude of the Whigs in denouncing the origin of the Mexican War:

    If to say ‘the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President,’ be opposing the war, then the Whigs have very generally opposed it. Whenever they have spoken at all they have said this; and they have said it on what has appeared good reason to them. The marching an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure; but it does not appear so to us. So to call such an act, to us appears no other than a naked, impudent absurdity, and we speak of it accordingly. But if, when the war had begun, and had become the cause of the country, the giving [84] of our money and our blood, in common with yours, was support of the war, then it is not true that we have always opposed the war. With few individual exceptions, you have constantly had our votes here for all the necessary supplies. And, more than this, you have had the services, the blood, and the lives of our political brethren in every trial and on every field. The beardless boy and the mature man, the humble and the distinguished-you have had them. Through suffering and death, by disease and in battle, they have en-(lured, and fought and fell with you. Clay and Webster each gave a son, never to be returned. From the State of my own residence, besides other worthy but less known Whig names, we sent Marshall, Morrison, Baker, and Hardin; they all fought and one fell, and in the fall of that one we lost our best Whig man. Nor were the Whigs few in number or laggard in the day of danger. In that fearful, bloody, breathless struggle at Buena Vista, where each man's hard task was to beat back five foes or die himself, of the five high officers who perished, four were Whigs. In speaking of this, I mean no odious comparison between the lion-hearted Whigs and the Democrats who fought there. On other occasions, and among the lower officers and privates on that occasion, I doubt not the proportion was different. I wish to do justice to all. I think of all those brave men as Americans, in whose proud fame, as an American, I, too, have a share. Many of them, Whigs and Democrats, are my constituents and personal friends; and I thank them — more than thank them--one and all, for the high, imperishable honor they have conferred on our common State.

    During the second session of the Thirtieth Congress Mr. Lincoln made no long speeches, but in addition to the usual routine work devolved on him by the committee [85] of which he was a member, he busied himself in preparing a special measure which, because of its relation to the great events of his later life, needs to be particularly mentioned. Slavery existed in Maryland and Virginia when these States ceded the territory out of which the District of Columbia was formed. Since, by that cession, this land passed under the exclusive control of the Federal government, the “institution” within this ten miles square could no longer be defended by the plea of State sovereignty, and antislavery sentiment naturally demanded that it should cease. Pro-slavery statesmen, on the other hand, as persistently opposed its removal, partly as a matter of pride and political consistency, partly because it was a convenience to Southern senators and members of Congress, when they came to Washington, to bring their family servants where the local laws afforded them the same security over their black chattels which existed at their homes. Mr. Lincoln, in his Peoria speech in 1854, emphasized the sectional dispute with this vivid touch of local color:

    The South clamored for a more efficient fugitive-slave law. The North clamored for the abolition of a peculiar species of slave trade in the District of Columbia, in connection with which, in view from the windows of the Capitol, a sort of negro livery-stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets, precisely like droves of horses, had been openly maintained for fifty years.

    Thus the question remained a minor but never ending bone of contention and point of irritation, and excited debate arose in the Thirtieth Congress over a House resolution that the Committee on the Judiciary be instructed to report a bill as soon as practicable prohibiting the slave trade in the District of Columbia. In [86] this situation of affairs, Mr. Lincoln conceived the fond hope that he might be able to present a plan of compromise. He already entertained the idea which in later years during his presidency he urged upon both Congress and the border slave States, that the just and generous mode of getting rid of the barbarous institution of slavery was by a system of compensated emancipation, giving freedom to the slave and a money indemnity to the owner. He therefore carefully framed a bill providing for the abolishment of slavery in the District upon the following principal conditions:

    First. That the law should be adopted by a popular vote in the District.

    Second. A temporary system of apprenticeship and gradual emancipation for children born of slave mothers after January I, 1850.

    Third. The government to pay full cash value for slaves voluntarily manumitted by their owners.

    Fourth. Prohibiting bringing slaves into the District, or selling them out of it.

    Fifth. Providing that government officers, citizens of slave States, might bring with them and take away again, their slave house-servants.

    Sixth. Leaving the existing fugitive-slave law in force.

    When Mr. Lincoln presented this amendment to the House, he said that he was authorized to state that of about fifteen of the leading citizens of the District of Columbia, to whom the proposition had been submitted, there was not one who did not approve the adoption of such a proposition. He did not wish to be misunderstood. He did not know whether or not they would vote for this bill on the first Monday in April; but he repeated that out of fifteen persons to whom it had been submitted, he had authority to say that every one of [87] them desired that some proposition like this should pass.

    While Mr. Lincoln did not so state to the House, it was well understood in intimate circles that the bill had the approval on the one hand of Mr. Seaton, the conservative mayor of Washington, and on the other hand of Mr. Giddings, the radical antislavery member of the House of Representatives. Notwithstanding the singular merit of the bill in reconciling such extremes of opposing factions in its support, the temper of Congress had already become too hot to accept such a rational and practical solution, and Mr. Lincoln's wise proposition was not allowed to come to a vote.

    The triumphant election of General Taylor to the presidency in November, 1848, very soon devolved upon Mr. Lincoln the delicate and difficult duty of making recommendations to the incoming administration of persons suitable to be appointed to fill the various Federal offices in Illinois, as Colonel E. D. Baker and himself were the only Whigs elected to Congress from that State. In performing this duty, one of his leading characteristics, impartial honesty and absolute fairness to political friends and foes alike, stands out with noteworthy clearness. His term ended with General Taylor's inauguration, and he appears to have remained in Washington but a few days thereafter. Before leaving, he wrote to the new Secretary of the Treasury:

    Colonel E. D. Baker and myself are the only Whig members of Congress from Illinois--I of the Thirtieth, and he of the Thirty-first. We have reason to think the Whigs of that State hold us responsible, to some extent, for the appointments which may be made of our citizens. We do not know you personally, and our efforts to see you have, so far, been unavailing. I therefore hope I am not obtrusive in saying in this way, for [88] him and myself, that when a citizen of Illinois is to be appointed, in your department, to an office, either in or out of the State, we most respectfully ask to be heard.

    On the following day, March 10, 1849, he addressed to the Secretary of State his first formal recommendation. It is remarkable from the fact that between the two Whig applicants whose papers are transmitted, he says rather less in favor of his own choice than of the opposing claimant.

    Sir: There are several applicants for the office of United States Marshal for the District of Illinois, among the most prominent of whom are Benjamin Bond, Esq., of Carlyle, and — Thomas, Esq., of Galena. Mr. Bond I know to be personally every way worthy of the office; and he is very numerously and most respectably recommended. His papers I send to you; and I solicit for his claims a full and fair consideration. Having said this much, I add that in my individual judgment the appointment of Mr. Thomas would be the better,

    Your obedient servant, A. Lincoln.

    (Indorsed on Mr. Bond's papers.)

    In this and the accompanying envelop are the recommendations of about two hundred good citizens, of all parts of Illinois, that Benjamin Bond be appointed marshal for that district. They include the names of nearly all our Whigs who now are, or have ever been, members of the State legislature, besides forty-six of the Democratic members of the present legislature, and many other good citizens. I add that from personal knowledge I consider Mr. Bond every way worthy of the office, and qualified to fill it. Holding the individual opinion that the appointment of a different gentleman would be better, I ask especial attention and [89] consideration for his claims, and for the opinions expressed in his favor by those over whom I can claim no superiority.

    There were but three other prominent Federal appointments to be made in Mr. Lincoln's congressional district, and he waited until after his return home so that he might be better informed of the local opinion concerning them before making his recommendations. It was nearly a month after he left Washington before he sent his decision to the several departments at Washington. The letter quoted below, relating to one of these appointments, is in substance almost identical with the others, and particularly refrains from expressing any opinion of his own for or against the policy of political removals. He also expressly explains that Colonel Baker, the other Whig representative, claims no voice in the appointment.

    “Dear Sir: I recommend that Walter Davis be appointed Receiver of the Land Office at this place, whenever there shall be a vacancy. I cannot say that Mr. Herndon, the present incumbent, has failed in the proper discharge of. any of the duties of the office. He is a very warm partizan, and openly and actively opposed to the election of General Taylor. I also understand that since General Taylor's election he has received a reappointment from Mr. Polk, his old commission not having expired. Whether this is true the records of the department will show. I may add that the Whigs here almost universally desire his removal.”

    If Mr. Lincoln's presence in Washington during two sessions in Congress did not add materially to either his local or national fame, it was of incalculable benefit in other respects. It afforded him a close inspection of the complex machinery of the Federal government and its relation to that of the States, and enabled him to [90] notice both the easy routine and the occasional friction of their movements. It brought him into contact and, to some degree, intimate companionship with political leaders from all parts of the Union, and gave him the opportunity of joining in the caucus and the national convention that nominated General Taylor for President. It broadened immensely the horizon of his observation, and the sharp personal rivalries he noted at the center of the nation opened to him new lessons in the study of human nature. His quick intelligence acquired knowledge quite as, or even more, rapidly by process of logical intuition than by mere dry, laborious study; and it was the inestimable experience of this single term in the Congress of the United States which prepared him for his coming, yet undreamed-of, responsibilities, as fully as it would have done the ordinary man in a dozen.

    Mr. Lincoln had frankly acknowledged to his friend Speed, after his election in 1846, that “being elected to Congress, though I am very grateful to our friends for having done it, has not pleased me as much as I expected.” It has already been said that an agreement had been reached among the several Springfield aspirants, that they would limit their ambition to a single term, and take turns in securing and enjoying the coveted distinction; and Mr. Lincoln remained faithful to this agreement. When the time to prepare for the election of 1848 approached, he wrote to his law partner:

    It is very pleasant to learn from you that there are some who desire that I should be reflected. I most heartily thank them for their kind partiality; and I can say, as Mr. Clay said of the annexation of Texas, that ‘personally I would not object’ to a reelection, although I thought at the time, and still think, it would be quite [91] as well for me to return to the law at the end of a single term. I made the declaration that I would not be a candidate again, more from .a wish to deal fairly with others, to keep peace among our friends, and to keep the district from going to the enemy, than for any cause personal to myself; so that, if it should so happen that nobody else wishes to be elected, I could not refuse the people the right of sending me again. But to enter myself as a competitor of others, or to authorize any one so to enter me, is what my word and honor forbid.

    Judge Stephen T. Logan, his late law partner, was nominated for the place, and heartily supported not only by Mr. Lincoln, but also by the Whigs of the district. By this time, however, the politics of the district had undergone a change by reason of the heavy emigration to Illinois at that period, and Judge Logan was defeated.

    Mr. Lincoln's strict and sensitive adherence to his promises now brought him a disappointment which was one of those blessings in disguise so commonly deplored for the time being by the wisest and best. A number of the Western members of Congress had joined in a recommendation to President-elect Taylor to give Colonel E. D. Baker a place in his cabinet, a reward he richly deserved for his talents, his party service, and the military honor he had won in the Mexican War. When this application bore no fruit, the Whigs of Illinois, expecting at least some encouragement from the new administration, laid claim to a bureau appointment, that of Commissioner of the General Land Office, in the new Department of the Interior, recently established.

    “I believe that, so far as the Whigs in Congress are concerned,” wrote Lincoln to Speed twelve days before [92] Taylor's inauguration, “I could have the General Land Office almost by common consent; but then Sweet and Don Morrison and Browning and Cyrus Edwards all want it, and what is worse, while I think I could easily take it myself, I fear I shall have trouble to get it for any other man in Illinois.”

    Unselfishly yielding his own chances, he tried to induce the four Illinois candidates to come to a mutual agreement in favor of one of their own number. They were so tardy in settling their differences as to excite his impatience, and he wrote to a Washington friend:

    I learn from Washington that a man by the name of Butterfield will probably be appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office. This ought not to be. . . . Some kind friends think I ought to be an applicant, but I am for Mr. Edwards. Try to defeat Butterfield, and, in doing so, use Mr. Edwards, J. L. D. Morrison, or myself, whichever you can to best advantage.

    As the situation grew persistently worse, Mr. Lincoln at length, about the first of June, himself became a formal applicant. But the delay resulting from his devotion to his friends had dissipated his chances. Butterfield received the appointment, and the defeat was aggravated when, a few months later, his unrelenting spirit of justice and fairness impelled him to write a letter defending Butterfield and the Secretary of the Interior from an attack by one of Lincoln's warm personal but indiscreet friends in the Illinois legislature. It was, however, a fortunate escape. In the four succeeding years Mr. Lincoln qualified himself for better things than the monotonous drudgery of an administrative bureau at Washington. It is probable that this defeat also enabled him more easily to pass by another [93] temptation. The Taylor administration, realizing its ingratitude, at length, in September, offered him the governorship of the recently organized territory of Oregon; but he replied:

    On as much reflection as I have had time to give the subject, I cannot consent to accept it.

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