Lincoln's Personal Life by Nathaniel Wright Stephenson - HTML preview

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Lincoln Emerges


While Lincoln was slowly struggling out of his last eclipse, giving most of his attention to the army, the Congressional Cabal was laboring assiduously to force the issue upon slavery. The keen politicians who composed it saw with unerring vision where, for the moment, lay their opportunity. They could not beat the President on any one issue then before the country. No one faction was strong enough to be their stand-by. Only by a combination of issues and a coalition of factions could they build up an anti-Lincoln party, check-mate the Administration, and get control of the government. They were greatly assisted by the fatuousness of the Democrats. That party was in a peculiar situation. Its most positive characters, naturally, had taken sides for or against the government. The powerful Southerners who had been its chief leaders were mainly in the Confederacy. Such Northerners as Douglas and Stanton, and many more, had gone over to the Republicans. Suddenly the control of the party organization had fallen into the hands of second-rate men. As by the stroke of an enchanter's wand, men of small caliber who, had the old conditions remained, would have lived and died of little consequence saw opening before them the role of leadership. It was too much for their mental poise. Again the subjective element in politics! The Democratic party for the duration of the war became the organization of Little Men. Had they possessed any great leaders, could they have refused to play politics and responded to Lincoln's all-parties policy, history might have been different. But they were not that sort. Neither did they have the courage to go to the other extreme and become a resolute opposition party, wholeheartedly and intelligently against the war. They equivocated, they obstructed, they professed loyalty and they practised-it would be hard to say what! So short-sighted was their political game that its effect continually was to play into the hands of their most relentless enemies, the grim Jacobins.

Though, for a brief time while the enthusiasm after Sumter was still at its height they appeared to go along with the all-parties program, they soon revealed their true course. In the autumn of 1861, Lincoln still had sufficient hold upon all factions to make it seem likely that his all-parties. program would be given a chance. The Republicans generally made overtures to the Democratic managers, offering to combine in a coalition party with no platform but the support of the war and the restoration of the Union. Here was the test of the organization of the Little Men. The insignificant new managers, intoxicated by the suddenness of their opportunity, rang false. They rejected the all-parties program and insisted on maintaining their separate party formation.[1] This was a turning point in Lincoln's career. Though nearly two years were to pass before he admitted his defeat, the all-parties program was doomed from that hour. Throughout the winter, the Democrats in Congress, though steadily ambiguous in their statements of principle, were as steadily hostile to Lincoln. If they had any settled policy, it was no more than an attempt to hold the balance of power among the warring factions of the Republicans. By springtime the game they were playing was obvious; also its results. They had prevented the President from building up a strong Administration group wherewith he might have counterbalanced the Jacobins. Thus they had released the Jacobins from the one possible restraint that might have kept them from pursuing their own devices.

The spring of 1862 saw a general realignment of factions. It was then that the Congressional Cabal won its first significant triumph. Hitherto, all the Republican platforms had been programs of denial. A brilliant new member of the Senate, john Sherman, bluntly told his colleagues that the Republican party had always stood on the defensive. That was its weakness. "I do not know any measure on which it has taken an aggressive position."[2] The clue to the psychology of the moment was in the raging demand of the masses for a program of assertion, for aggressive measures. The President was trying to meet this demand with his all-parties program, with his policy of nationalism, exclusive of everything else. And recently he had added that other assertion, his insistence that the executive in certain respects was independent of the legislative. Of his three assertions, one, the all-parties program, was already on the way to defeat Another, nationalism, as the President interpreted it, had alienated the Abolitionists. The third, his argument for himself as tribune, was just what your crafty politician might twist, pervert, load with false meanings to his heart's content. Men less astute than Chandler and Wade could not have failed to see where fortune pointed. Their opportunity lay in a combination of the two issues. Abolition and the resistance to executive "usurpation." Their problem was to create an anti-Lincoln party that should also be a war party. Their coalition of aggressive forces must accept the Abolitionists as its backbone, but it must also include all violent elements of whatever persuasion, and especially all those that could be wrought into fury on the theme of the President as a despot. Above all, their coalition must absorb and then express the furious temper so dear to their own hearts which they fondly believed-mistakenly, they were destined to discover-was the temper of the country.

It can not be said that this was the Republican program. The President's program, fully as positive as that of the Cabal, had as good a right to appropriate the party label-as events were to show, a better right. But the power of the Cabal was very great, and the following it was able to command in the country reached almost the proportions of the terrible. A factional name is needed. For the Jacobins, their allies in Congress, their followers in the country, from the time they acquired a positive program, an accurate label is the Vindictives.

During the remainder of the session, Congress may be thought of as having-what Congress seldom has-three definite groups, Right, Left and Center. The Right was the Vindictives; the Left, the irreconcilable Democrats; the Center was composed chiefly of liberal Republicans but included a few Democrats, those who rebelled against the political chicanery of the Little Men.

The policy of the Vindictives was to force upon the Administration the double issue of emancipation and the supremacy of Congress. Therefore, their aim was to pass a bill freeing the slaves on the sole authority of a congressional act. Many resolutions, many bills, all having this end in view, were introduced. Some were buried in committees; some were remade in committees and subjected to long debate by the Houses; now and then one was passed upon. But the spring wore through and the summer came, and still the Vindictives were not certainly in control of Congress. No bill to free slaves by congressional action secured a majority vote. At the same time it was plain that the strength of the Vindictives was slowly, steadily, growing.

Outside Congress, the Abolitionists took new hope. They had organized a systematic propaganda. At Washington, weekly meetings were held in the Smithsonian Institute, where all their most conspicuous leaders, Phillips, Emerson, Brownson, Garret Smith, made addresses. Every Sunday a service was held in the chamber of the House of Representatives and the sermon was almost always a "terrific arrangement of slavery." Their watch-word was "A Free Union or Disintegration." The treatment of fugitive slaves by commanders in the field produced a clamor. Lincoln insisted on strict obedience to the two laws, the Fugitive Slave Act and the First Confiscation Act. Abolitionists sneered at "all this gabble about the sacredness of the Constitution."[3] But Lincoln was not to be moved. When General Hunter, taking a leaf from the book of Fremont, tried to force his hand, he did not hesitate. Hunter had issued a proclamation by which the slaves in the region where he commanded were "declared forever free."

This was in May when Lincoln's difficulties with McClellan were at their height; when the Committee was zealously watching to catch him in any sort of mistake; when the House was within four votes of a majority for emancipation by act of Congress;[4] when there was no certainty whether the country was with him or with the Vindictives. Perhaps that new courage which definitely revealed itself the next month, may be first glimpsed in the proclamation overruling Hunter:

"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 can not feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field."[5]

The revocation of Hunter's order infuriated the Abolitionists. It deeply disappointed the growing number who, careless about slavery, wanted emancipation as a war measure, as a blow at the South. Few of either of these groups noticed the implied hint that emancipation might come by executive action. Here was the matter of the war powers in a surprising form. However, it was not unknown to Congress. Attempts had been made to induce Congress to concede the war powers to the President and to ask, not command, him to use them for the liberation of slaves in the Seceded States. Long before, in a strangely different connection, such vehement Abolitionists as Giddings and J. Q. Adams had pictured the freeing of slaves as a natural incident of military occupation.

What induced Lincoln to throw out this hint of a possible surrender on the subject of emancipation? Again, as so often, the silence as to his motives is unbroken. However, there can be no doubt that his thinking on the subject passed through several successive stages. But all his thinking was ruled by one idea. Any policy he might accept, or any refusal of policy, would be judged in his own mind by the degree to which it helped, or hindered, the national cause. Nothing was more absurd than the sneer of the Abolitionists that he was "tender" of slavery. Browning spoke for him faithfully, "If slavery can survive the shock of war and secession, be it so. If in the conflict for liberty, the Constitution and the Union, it must necessarily perish, then let it perish." Browning refused to predict which alternative would develop. His point was that slaves must be treated like other property. But, if need be, he would sacrifice slavery as he would sacrifice anything else, to save the Union. He had no intention to "protect" slavery.[6] In the first stage of Lincoln's thinking on this thorny subject, his chief anxiety was to avoid scaring off from the national cause those Southern Unionists who were not prepared to abandon slavery. This was the motive behind his prompt suppression of Fremont. It was this that inspired the Abolitionist sneer about his relative attitude toward God and Kentucky. As a compromise, to cut the ground from under the Vindictives, he had urged the loyal Slave States to endorse a program of compensated emancipation. But these States were as unable to see the handwriting on the wall as were the Little Men. In the same proclamation that overruled Hunter, while hinting at what the Administration might feel driven to do, Lincoln appealed again to the loyal Slave States to accept compensated emancipation. "I do not argue," said he, "I beseech you to make the argument for yourselves. You can not, if you would, be blind to the signs of the times. . . . 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."[7]

Though Lincoln, at this moment, was anxiously watching the movement in Congress to force his hand, he was not apparently cast down. He was emerging from his eclipse. June was approaching and with it the final dawn. Furthermore, when he issued this proclamation on May nineteenth, he had not lost faith in McClellan. He was still hoping for news of a crushing victory; of McClellan's triumphal entry into Richmond. The next two months embraced both those transformations which together revolutionized his position. He emerged from his last eclipse; and McClellan failed him.

When Lincoln returned to Washington after his two days at the front, he knew that the fortunes of his Administration were at a low ebb. Never had he been derided in Congress with more brazen injustice. The Committee, waiting only for McClellan's failure, would now unmask their guns-as Chandler did, seven days later. The line of Vindictive criticism could easily be foreshadowed: the government had failed; it was responsible for a colossal military catastrophe; but what could you expect of an Administration that would not strike its enemies through emancipation; what a shattering demonstration that the Executive was not a safe repository of the war powers.

Was there any way to forestall or disarm the Vindictives? His silence gives us no clue when or how the answer occurred to him--by separating the two issues; by carrying out the hint in the May proclamation; by yielding on emancipation while, in the very act, pushing the war powers of the President to their limit, declaring slaves free by an executive order.

The importance of preserving the war power of the President had become a fixed condition of Lincoln's thought. Already, he was looking forward not only to victory but to the great task that should come after victory. He was determined, if it were humanly possible, to keep that task in the hands of the President, and out of the hands of Congress. A first step had already been taken. In portions of occupied territory, military governors had been appointed. Simple as this seemed to the careless observer, it focussed the whole issue. The powerful, legal mind of Sumner at once perceived its significance. He denied in the Senate the right of the President to make such appointments; he besought the Senate to demand the cancellation of such appointment. He reasserted the absolute sovereignty of Congress.[8] It would be a far-reaching stroke if Lincoln, in any way, could extort from Congress acquiescence in his use of the war powers on a vast scale. Freeing the slaves by executive order would be such a use.

Another train of thought also pointed to the same result. Lincoln's desire to further the cause of "the Liberal party throughout the world," that desire which dated back to his early life as a politician, had suffered a disappointment. European Liberals, whose political vision was less analytical than his, had failed to understand his policy. The Confederate authorities had been quick to publish in Europe his official pronouncements that the war had been undertaken not to abolish slavery but to preserve the Union. As far back as September, 1861, Carl Schurz wrote from Spain to Seward that the Liberals abroad were disappointed, that "the impression gained ground that the war as waged by the Federal government, far from being a war of principle, was merely a war of policy," and "that from this point of view much might be said for the South."[9] In fact, these hasty Europeans had found a definite ground for complaining that the American war was a reactionary influence. The concentration of American cruisers in the Southern blockade gave the African slave trade its last lease of life. With no American war-ship among the West Indies, the American flag became the safeguard of the slaver. Englishmen complained that "the swift ships crammed with their human cargoes" had only to "hoist the Stars and Stripes and pass under the bows of our cruisers."[10] Though Seward scored a point by his treaty giving British cruisers the right to search any ships carrying the American flag, the distrust of the foreign Liberals was not removed. They inclined to stand aside and to allow the commercial classes of France and England to dictate policy toward the United States. The blockade, by shutting off the European supply of raw cotton, on both sides the channel, was the cause of measureless unemployment, of intolerable misery. There was talk in both countries of intervention. Napoleon, especially, loomed large on the horizon as a possible ally of the Confederacy. And yet, all this while, Lincoln had it in his power at any minute to lay the specter of foreign intervention. A pledge to the "Liberal party throughout the world" that the war would bring about the destruction of slavery, and great political powers both in England and in France would at once cross the paths of their governments should they move toward intervention. Weighty as were all these reasons for a change of policy--turning the flank of the Vindictives on the war powers, committing the Abolitionists to the Administration, winning over the European Liberals--there was a fourth reason which, very probably, weighed upon Lincoln most powerfully of them all. Profound gloom had settled upon the country. There was no enthusiasm for military service. And Stanton, who lacked entirely the psychologic vision of the statesman, had recently committed an astounding blunder. After a few months in power he had concluded that the government had enough soldiers and had closed the recruiting offices.[11] Why Lincoln permitted this singular proceeding has never been satisfactorily explained.* Now he was reaping the fruits. A defeated army, a hopeless country, and no prospect of swift reinforcement! If a shift of ground on the question of emancipation would arouse new enthusiasm, bring in a new stream of recruits, Lincoln was prepared to shift.

*Stanton's motive was probably economy. Congress was terrified by the expense of the war. The Committee was deeply alarmed over the political effect of war taxation. They and Stanton were all convinced that McClellan was amply strong enough to crush the Confederacy.

 But even in this dire extremity, he would not give way without a last attempt to save his earlier policy. On July twelfth, he called together the Senators and Representatives of the Border States. He read to them a written argument in favor of compensated emancipation, the Federal government to assist the States in providing funds for the purpose.

"Let the States that are in rebellion," said he, "see definitely and certainly that in no event will the States you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not much longer maintain the contest. But you can not divest them of their hope to ultimately have you with them so long as you show a determination to perpetuate the institution within your own States. . . . 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 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."[12]

 He made no impression. They would commit themselves to nothing. Lincoln abandoned his earlier policy.

Of what happened next, he said later, "It had got to be. . . . 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. . "[13]

The next day he confided his decision and his reasons to Seward and Welles. Though "this was a new departure for the President," both these Ministers agreed with him that the change of policy had become inevitable.[14]

Lincoln was now entirely himself, astute in action as well as bold in thought. He would not disclose his change of policy while Congress was in session. Should he do so, there was no telling what attempt the Cabal would make to pervert his intention, to twist his course into the semblance of an acceptance of the congressional theory. He laid the matter aside until Congress should be temporarily out of the way, until the long recess between July and December should have begun. In this closing moment of the second session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress, which is also the opening moment of the great period of Lincoln, the feeling against him in Congress was extravagantly bitter. It caught at anything with which to make a point. A disregard of technicalities of procedure was magnified into a serious breach of constitutional privilege. Reviving the question of compensated emancipation, Lincoln had sent a special message to both Houses, submitting the text of a compensation bill which he urged them to consider. His enemies raised an uproar. The President had no right to introduce a bill-into Congress! Dictator Lincoln was trying in a new way to put Congress under his thumb.[15]

In the last week of the session, Lincoln's new boldness brought the old relation between himself and Congress to a dramatic close. The Second Confiscation Bill had long been under discussion. Lincoln believed that some of its provisions were inconsistent with the spirit at least of our fundamental law. Though its passage was certain, he prepared a veto message. He then permitted the congressional leaders to know what he intended to do when the bill should reach him. Gall and wormwood are weak terms for the bitterness that may be tasted in the speeches of the Vindictives. When, in order to save the bill, a resolution was appended purging it of the interpretation which Lincoln condemned, Trumbull passionately declared that Congress was being "coerced" by the President. "No one at a distance," is the deliberate conclusion of Julian who was present, "could have formed any adequate conception of the hostility of the Republican members toward Lincoln at the final adjournment, while it was the belief of many that our last session of Congress had been held in Washington. Mr. Wade said the country was going to hell, and that the scenes witnessed in the French Revolution were nothing in comparison with what we should see here."[16]

Lincoln endured the rage of Congress in unwavering serenity. On the last day of the session, Congress surrendered and sent to him both the Confiscation Act and the explanatory resolution. Thereupon, he indulged in what must have seemed to those fierce hysterical enemies of his a wanton stroke of irony. He sent them along with his approval of the bill the text of the veto message he would have sent had they refused to do what he wanted.[17] There could be no concealing the fact that the President had matched his will against the will of Congress, and that the President had had his way.

Out of this strange period of intolerable confusion, a gigantic figure had at last emerged. The outer and the inner Lincoln had fused. He was now a coherent personality, masterful in spite of his gentleness, with his own peculiar fashion of self-reliance, having a policy of his own devising, his colors nailed upon the masthead.