Six Months at the White House/XXXIII
The Hon. Robert Dale Owen was associated in a very interesting interview with Mr. Lincoln, which took place a few weeks prior to the issue of the President's Message for 1863, to which was appended the Proclamation of Amnesty. It had been understood in certain quarters that such a step was at this period in contemplation by the Executive. Being in Washington, Mr. Owen called upon the President on a Saturday morning, and said that he had a matter upon which he had expended considerable thought, which he wished to lay before him. Knowing nothing of the object, Mr. Lincoln replied: "You see how it is this morning; there are many visitors waiting; can't you come up to-morrow morning? I shall be alone then; and, if you have no scruples upon the subject, I can give you as much time as you wish." Mr. Owen assured him of his readiness to come at any hour most convenient, and ten o'clock was named. Punctual to the appointment, the hour found him at the house. A repeated summons at the bell brought no response, and he at length pushed open the door and walked leisurely up the stairs to the reception-room. Neither servant or secretary was to be seen. Presently Mr. Lincoln passed through the hall to his office, and all was still again. Looking vainly for a servant to announce his name, Mr. Owen finally went to the office-door, and knocked.
"Really," said he, "Mr. President, I owe you an apology for coming in upon you in this unceremonious way; but I have for some time been waiting the appearance of a servant."
"Oh," was the good-natured reply, "the boys are all out this morning. I have been expecting you; come in and sit down."
Proceeding directly to the subject he had in hand, at the same time unfolding a manuscript of large proportions, Mr. Owen said:
"I have a paper here, Mr. President, that I have prepared with some care, which I wish to read to you."
Mr. Lincoln glanced at the formidable document, (really much less voluminous than it appeared, being very coarsely written,) and then, half unconsciously relapsing into an attitude and expression of resignation to what he evidently considered an infliction which could not well be avoided, signified his readiness to listen. The article was a very carefully prepared digest of historical precedents in relation to the subject of amnesty, in connection with treason and rebellion. It analyzed English and continental history, and reviewed elaborately the action of President Washington in reference to Shay's and the subsequent whiskey rebellion.
"I had read but two or three pages," said Mr. Owen, in giving me this account, "when Mr. Lincoln assumed an erect posture, and, fixing his eyes intently upon me, seemed wholly absorbed in the contents of the manuscript. Frequently he would break in with: 'Was that so?' 'Please read that paragraph again,' etc. When at length I came to Washington's proclamation to those engaged in the whiskey rebellion, he interrupted me with: 'What! did Washington issue a proclamation of amnesty?' 'Here it is, sir,' was the reply. 'Well, I never knew that,' he rejoined; and so on through."
Upon the conclusion of the manuscript, Mr. Lincoln said: "Mr. Owen, is that for me?"
"Certainly, sir," said Mr. O., handing him the roll. "I understood that you were considering this subject, and thought a review of this kind might be interesting to you."
"There is a good deal of hard work in that document," continued Mr. Lincoln; "may I ask how long you were preparing it?"
"About three months; but then I have more leisure for such a work than you, Mr. President."
Mr. Lincoln took the manuscript, and, folding it up carefully, arose, and laid it away in the pigeon-hole marked "O," in his desk. Returning to his chair, he said: "Mr. Owen, it is due to you that I should say that you have conferred a very essential service, both upon me and the country, by the preparation of this paper. It contains that which it was exceedingly important that I should know, but which, if left to myself, I never should have known, because I have not the time necessary for such an examination of authorities as a review of this kind involves. And I want to say, secondly, if I had had the time, I could not have done the work so well as you have done it."
This frank and generous avowal--so unlike what might be expected, under similar circumstances, from most public men--was exceedingly characteristic of Mr. Lincoln.