The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Holland)/Chapter XXI
Early in November, an event occurred which gave to our relations with England a very threatening aspect--an event which aroused the ire of the British people to a feverish pitch, encouraged the rebels, and filled with uneasiness the friends of the government. Although the blockade, under the energetic measures of the government, had become something very different from a blockade on paper, there were still many ports in the southern states which carried on a large contraband commerce, through the agency of blockade-runners, the majority of which were owned in England, and navigated by British seamen. The capture of the Hatteras forts and of the defenses of Port Royal Harbor had shut two of these ports; but Charleston, notwithstanding all the efforts of the blockading fleet, continued to receive numbers of foreign vessels, and to dispatch them in safety. On the twelfth of October, the steamship Theodora shot out of that harbor, with two notorious rebels on board, James M. Mason and John Slidell, both perjured senators of the United States, and accredited by the Davis government respectively to the governments of England and France. They went to get recognition for their government. They went as enemies of the United States.
Proceeding to Cuba, these emissaries took passage from Havana on the seventh of November, on the British mail steamer Trent, bound immediately for St. Thomas. On the following day, the Trent was hailed by the United States frigate San Jacinto, Captain Wilkes, who directed a shot across her bows to bring her to. Then two officers and twenty men, more or less, put off from the San Jacinto, boarded the Trent, and, after a search, took out Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell and their two secretaries, and, by force, against the protest of the Trent's officers, bore them to their vessel. These rebel emissaries Captain Wilkes brought to the United States, and they were lodged in Fort Warren.
The excitement which this affair produced in both countries was intense, and but little favorable to its calm consideration. It was unquestionably a doubtful proceeding, and cool British blood came up to a boiling heat wherever in England or her provinces the intelligence of the affair was published. The news found the loyal people of America smarting under a sense of the injustice of the relation which England had assumed toward their struggle, and sensitive to the insults which their people had received from the British press and public. America came to care less for England afterward; but then she was sensitive in every fiber to her opinion, her lack of sympathy, and her covert aid to the rebellion. To the American public the news of this capture was most grateful. They felt that whatever the laws of nations might be--and in these they were but little versed--it was morally right that these men should be in their power, and that it was morally wrong that any other power should have our traitors under its protection. So they greeted the event with huzzas, and made a hero of the impulsive Captain Wilkes, who, though a most loyal and excellent person, was possessed by a zeal that sometimes surpassed his discretion.
The effect of this capture was, of course, foreseen by the government; and on the thirtieth of November Mr. Seward communicated to Mr. Adams, our minister in England, a statement of the facts, with the assurance that Captain Wilkes had acted without any instructions from the government, and that our government was prepared to discuss the matter in a friendly spirit, so soon as the position of the British government should be made known. Earl Russell wrote under the same date to Lord Lyons, rehearsing his understanding of the facts of the case, and saying that his government was "willing to believe that the naval officer who committed the aggression was not acting in compliance with any authority from his government," because the government of the United States "must be fully aware that the British government could not allow such an affront to the national honor to pass without full reparation." The minister expressed the hope that the United States would, of its own motion, release the commissioners, and make an apology.
This was a very sensible and neighborly dispatch, but Earl Russell seems to have been subjected afterward to a pressure that changed his feelings and sharpened his policy, for, in a subsequent note, he transformed his polite dispatch into an insulting ultimatum. Lord Lyons was directed to wait seven days after having made his demand for reparation; and then, in case no answer should be given, or any other answer should be given than a full compliance with the terms of the demand, he should pack up the archives of the legation, and return to London, bringing his archives with him. Usually an ultimatum comes at the end of a long series of negotiations--after all the resources of diplomacy are exhausted--after there is plainly seen to be a warlike, or unreasonable, or contumacious spirit on the part of the power from which redress is sought. Earl Russell gave Mr. Lincoln his ultimatum at the start. It was an insult--a threat. It was uttered to gratify the war-like feeling of the British people. There is no question that they desired war; and when the British people are mentioned in this connection, those are meant who, in print and speech, represent them and assume to speak for them. War with America was looked upon in England as probable. Measures were taken to prepare for it. Indeed, many of the London journals regarded war as inevitable; and when the peaceful nature of Mr. Seward's first dispatches were known, the Morning Post hastened to publish in large type an official contradiction of the news. "The war will be terrible," said the London journals. "It will begin by a recognition of the South, by the alliance of the South, by the assured triumph of the South." That was the precise point. War was wanted by the people, that their cherished desire for the disruption of the Republic might be fulfilled; and they were disappointed when they found that even an impertinent ultimatum could not bring it.
If British statesmen sympathized with these views and feelings,--and some of them did,--it showed how poorly informed they were; for there was never anything in the difficulty, from the first, to give either government alarm. The British people found that there was a government at Washington,--calm, dignified and intelligent, not under the control of the mob at all, and showing, in the cool independence of its action, its entire freedom from the misdirected passions of the people. Only in the early approval of the Secretary of the Navy and of the lower House of Congress, awarded to Captain Wilkes, was there anything to give the British government cause of alarm, or ground of serious complaint; and the news of these ill-advised indorsements reached England after the tempest of passion had been spent.
On the twenty-sixth of December Mr. Seward addressed a note to Lord Lyons, in which he elaborately discussed all the questions growing out of the case. The paper was one of great moderation, and consummate ability--indeed, one of the finest to which he ever gave utterance. It was a profound lesson in the law of nations, which could not be read without benefit by statesmen everywhere. By it the British government learned that there were two sides to the case, and that there was something to be said upon the side of Captain Wilkes; for in it he argued most ingeniously, if not in all instances decisively, that Messrs. Mason and Slidell and their dispatches were contraband of war, that Captain Wilkes might lawfully stop and search the Trent for contraband persons and dispatches, and that he had the right to capture the persons presumed to have contraband dispatches. He did not, however, exercise the right of capture in the manner allowed and recognized by the laws of nations, as understood and practically entertained by the American government. "If I decide this case in favor of my own government," said Mr. Seward, "I must disavow its most cherished principles, and reverse and forever abandon its essential policy. If I maintain those principles and adhere to that policy, I must surrender the case itself." He therefore declared that the persons held in military custody in Fort Warren would be "cheerfully liberated." Mr. Seward could not forbear to say that, if the safety of the Union required their detention, they would have been detained; to draw a contrast between the action of our government and that of Great Britain under similar circumstances; and to indulge in the irony that "the claim of the British government is not made in a discourteous manner."
Earl Russell was satisfied with the "reparation." The prisoners were released, peace between the two nations was kept, the war feeling subsided, disunion sympathizers all over Europe were disgusted with Mr. Seward's pusillanimity, and at the South there was no attempt to disguise the disappointment felt at the result. The hopes excited in the South by the difficulty are well expressed in the language of Pollard's "History of the First Year of the War," which says: "Providence was declared to be in our favor; the incident of the Trent was looked upon almost as a special dispensation; and it was said in fond imagination that on its deck and in the trough of the weltering Atlantic the key of the blockade had at last been lost." The same author continues: "The surrender was an exhibition of meanness and cowardice unparalleled in the political history of the civilized world." Patriots may well be content with a decision which brought grief to their enemies everywhere, and raised the whole nation in the respect of Christendom.
On the second day of December, Congress met in regular session, and on the following day Mr. Lincoln sent in his annual message. The message opened with an allusion to the attitude of foreign governments, and a statement of the fact that, should those governments be controlled only by material considerations, they would find that the quickest and best way out of the embarrassments of commerce consequent upon the American difficulties, would be rather through the maintenance, than the destruction, of the Union. It was undoubtedly with reference to the excitement then existing concerning the Trent affair that he penned the sentence: "Since, however, it is apparent that here, as in every other state, foreign dangers necessarily attend domestic difficulties, I recommend that adequate and ample measures be adopted for maintaining the public defenses on every side."
The message announced the financial measures of the government to have been very successful; recommended a re-organization of the Supreme Court, the machinery of which the country had outgrown; suggested a codification or digest of the statutes of Congress, so as to reduce the six thousand pages upon which they were printed to the measure of a volume; indicated his wish that the Court of Claims should have power to make its decisions final, with only the right of appeal on questions of law to the Supreme Court; asked for increased attention on the part of Congress to the interests of agriculture; expressed his gratification with the success of efforts for the suppression of the African slave trade; and broached a plan for colonizing such slaves as had been freed by the operation of the confiscation act, passed on the previous sixth of August, on territory to be acquired. The progress made by the federal armies, and by his own careful and moderate management of affairs in the border states, is shown in the following passage:
"The last ray of hope for preserving the Union peaceably, expired at the assault upon Fort Sumter; and a general review of what has occurred since may not be unprofitable. What was painfully uncertain then, is much better defined and more distinct now; and the progress of events is plainly in the right direction. The insurgents confidently claimed a strong support from north of Mason and Dixon's line; and the friends of the Union were not free from apprehension on the point. This, however, was soon settled definitely, and on the right side. South of the line, noble little Delaware led off right from the first. Maryland was made to seem against the Union. Our soldiers were assaulted, bridges were burned, and railroads torn up within her limits; and we were many days, at one time, without the ability to bring a single regiment over her soil to the capital. Now her bridges and railroads are repaired and open to the Government; she already gives seven regiments to the cause of the Union, and none to the enemy; and her people, at a regular election, have sustained the Union by a larger majority and a larger aggregate vote than they ever before gave to any candidate or any question. Kentucky, too, for some time in doubt, is now decidedly and, I think, unchangeably ranged on the side of the Union. Missouri is comparatively quiet, and, I believe, can not again be overrun by the insurrectionists. These three states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, neither of which would promise a single soldier at first, have now an aggregate of not less than forty thousand in the field for the Union; while of their citizens, certainly not more than a third of that number, and they of doubtful whereabouts and doubtful existence, are in arms against it. After a somewhat bloody struggle of months, winter closes on the Union people of Western Virginia, leaving them masters of their own country.
"An insurgent force of about fifteen hundred, for months dominating the narrow peninsular region constituting the counties of Accomac and Northampton, and known as the Eastern Shore of Virginia, together with some contiguous parts of Maryland, have laid down their arms; and the people there have renewed their allegiance to, and accepted the protection of the old flag. This leaves no armed insurrectionist north of the Potomac, or east of the Chesapeake.
"Also, we have obtained a footing at each of the isolated points on the southern coast, of Hatteras, Port Royal, Tybee Island near Savannah, and Ship Island; and we likewise have some general accounts of popular movements in behalf of the Union in North Carolina and Tennessee."These things demonstrate that the cause of the Union is advancing steadily and certainly southward."
In the development of the insurrection, Mr. Lincoln detected a growing enmity to the first principle of popular government--the rights of the people. In the grave and well considered public documents of the rebels he found labored arguments to prove that "large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself," he adds, "is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people." Proceeding from this, Mr. Lincoln said:
"It is not needed, nor fitting here, that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of the government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer, is fixed in that condition for life.
"Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed; nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.
"Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital, producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of the community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and those few avoid labor themselves, and, with their capital, hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class--neither work for others, nor have others working for them. In most of the southern states, a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters; while in the northern, a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families--wives, sons, and daughters--work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital--that is, they labor with their own hands, and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed, and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class."Again: as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these states, a few years back in their lives, were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system, which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress, and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty--none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which, if surrendered, will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of liberty shall be lost."
Aside from the bills passed for sustaining the war, and sustaining the President in his mode of and means for suppressing the rebellion, very little important action was taken by this session of Congress, that did not relate to slavery. The question of "arbitrary arrests," of which the enemies of the President made loud complaint, came up, and Mr. Lincoln was sustained in the House by a vote of one hundred and eight to twenty-six. A provision was made for the issue of legal-tender notes, for increasing the internal revenue, and establishing a basis for the payment of interest on loans, in accordance with the policy of Mr. Chase, the distinguished Secretary of the Treasury; and a confiscation act was passed, more stringent than its predecessor.
We now enter upon a review of that series of measures and movements which culminated in the overthrow of slavery; and, as Mr. Lincoln has been assailed on one side for being too slow, and on the other for being too precipitate, these movements and measures deserve careful consideration.
If there is one thing that stands out more prominently than any other in Mr. Lincoln's history, it is his regard for the Constitution and the laws. Especially was this the case in relation to that clause of the Constitution which protected slavery, and all the laws by which the relation of master and slave was preserved. This was not attributable to his love of slavery, for he hated it; but it was because that on this point only was he suspected, and on this point only was there any sensitiveness in the nation. He voluntarily and frequently declared that he considered the slaveholders entitled to a fugitive slave law. By the Constitution he was determined to stand; yet there is evidence that from the first he considered emancipation to be the logical result of persistence in rebellion. As the rebellion progressed, and the rebels themselves had forfeited all right to constitutional protection for their peculiar institution, he felt himself still withheld from meddling with slavery by any sweeping measure, for, in the four border states--Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri--which had not seceded, the government had many friends, whose hands he felt it his duty to strengthen by every possible means. He saw the time of emancipation coming, but he wished to save them; and this was the principal reason for his delay. How faithfully he endeavored to do this, and with how little avail, will appear in the narrative. Amid the attacks of bitter political foes, and the reproaches of well-meaning but impatient friends, he had a difficult path to pursue.
Following Mr. Lincoln's lead, Mr. Seward had announced to foreign governments that no change in the institutions of the South was contemplated. General McClellan had abundant reason in the President's position for assuring the people of Virginia, as he did, that he contemplated nothing of the kind. But the people were becoming discontented with this mild policy, and Congress obeyed their voice by an early tabling of the Crittenden resolution, which had satisfied that body at their session in July.
Mr. Lincoln was quick to see the tendency of the public mind, and began at once to shape his measures for the result which could not long be delayed. On the sixth of March, he sent a message to Congress, recommending the passage of a joint resolution which should be substantially as follows:
"Resolved: That the United States ought to co-operate with any state which may gradually adopt abolishment of slavery, giving to such state pecuniary aid, to be used by such state in its discretion, to compensate for inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system."
"If the proposition contained in the resolution docs not meet the approval of Congress and the country," added Mr. Lincoln, "there is an end; but if it does command such approval, I deem it of importance that the states and people immediately interested should be at once distinctly notified of the fact, so that they may begin to consider whether to accept or reject it." It was Mr. Lincoln's opinion that one of the severest blows the rebellion could receive would be the abolition of slavery in the border states. To deprive the rebels of the hope of securing the still loyal slave states, he believed would be substantially to end the rebellion. If these states should abolish slavery, it would in effect be saying to the confederacy, "We will join you under no circumstances." He believed that gradual was better than sudden emancipation; and that, as a war measure, the government would make the scheme of compensation a paying one. Still true to his old tenderness on the subject of national interference with slavery, he took pains to show that his plan threw the whole matter into the hands of the states themselves.
There was kindly warning to his friends in the border slave states, in these words:
"In the annual message of 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 re-acknowledgment 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 proposition now made (though an offer only), I hope it may be esteemed no offense to ask whether the pecuniary consideration tendered would not be of more value to the states and private persons concerned, than are the institutions and property in it, in the present aspect of affairs.
"While it is true that the adoption of the proposed resolution would be merely initiatory, and not within itself a practical measure, it is recommended in the hope that it would soon lead to important practical results. In full view of my great responsibility to God and my country, I earnestly beg the attention of Congress and the people to the subject."
It took no special degree of sagacity to learn what this passage meant; but those for whom this thoughtful measure was intended, though the resolution went through both Houses of Congress, and stood as a pledge of compensation for emancipation, turned their backs upon it. Only a very few members from the border states voted for it. But the President could not let the matter stop there. He saw that emancipation would surely come as a war measure; and that these slave states that had stood by him through much difficulty, would lose, in that event, that which the Constitution recognized as their property.
Before the close of the session, he invited the senators and representatives from those states to a conference, at the Executive Mansion. It was early in July; and, while Congress had been talking and acting, McClellan had been fighting with very unsatisfactory results. The nation was depressed by reverses; and Mr. Lincoln wished to give these men and the people they represented another chance to escape from the loss which he felt must soon befall them. Having convened them, he read to them this carefully prepared address, in which he argued his own case and theirs, and appealed to them to save themselves and the country:
"Gentlemen--After the adjournment of Congress, now near, I shall have no opportunity of seeing you for several months. Believing that you of the border states hold more power for good than any other equal number of members, I feel it a duty which I cannot justifiably waive, to make this appeal to you.
"I intend no reproach or complaint when I assure you that, in my opinion, if you all had voted for the resolution in the gradual emancipation message of last March, the war would now be substantially ended. And the plan therein proposed is yet one of the most potent and swift means of ending it. 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, as long as you show a determination to perpetuate 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.
"Most of you have treated me with kindness and consideration; and I trust you will not now think I improperly touch what is exclusively your own, when, for the sake of the whole country, I ask, can you, for your states, do better than to take the course I urge? Discarding punctilio and maxims adapted to more manageable times, and looking only to the unprecedentedly stern facts of our case, can you do better in any possible event? You prefer that the constitutional relation of the states to the nation shall be practically restored without disturbance of the institution: and if this were done, my whole duty, in this respect, under the Constitution and my oath of office, would be performed. But it is not done, and we are trying to accomplish it by war. The incidents of the war cannot be avoided. 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! How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it! How much better for you, as seller, and the nation, as buyer, to sell out and buy out that without which the war never could have been, than to sink both the thing to be sold and the price of it in cutting one another's throats!
"I do not speak of emancipation at once, but of a decision at once to emancipate gradually. Room in South America for colonization can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance; and, when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go.
"I am pressed with a difficulty not yet mentioned--one which threatens division among those who, united, are none too strong. An instance of it is known to you. General Hunter is an honest man. He was, and I hope still is, my friend. I valued him none the less for his agreeing with me in the general wish that all men everywhere could be free. He proclaimed all men free within certain states, and I repudiated the proclamation. He expected more good and less harm from the measure than I could believe would follow. Yet, in repudiating it, I gave dissatisfaction, if not offense, to many whose support the country cannot afford to lose. And this is not the end of it. The pressure in this direction is still upon me, and is increasing. By conceding what I now ask, you can relieve me, and, much more, can relieve the country in this important point."Upon these considerations I have again begged your attention to the message of March last. Before leaving the capital, consider and discuss it among yourselves. You are patriots and statesmen, and as such I pray you consider this proposition; and at the least commend it to the consideration of your states and people. As you would perpetuate popular government for the best people in the world, I beseech you that you do in nowise omit this. Our common country is in great peril, demanding the loftiest views and boldest action to bring a 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."
What Mr. Lincoln said in this paper, touching the dissatisfaction with which his revocation of General Hunter's order of emancipation had been received, was true. People were tired of the governmental protection of slavery in the rebel states; and they had reason to be. Mr. Lincoln felt all this, but he could not forsake his friends, until he had tried every means to save them. In his revocation of General Hunter's order, one of the most beautiful and touching appeals that man ever penned, occurs an appeal which the mistaken men before him had already had the opportunity of reading. In that paper, after quoting the resolution which Congress had passed pledging the country to compensation for emancipation, he said:
"To the people of those states I now earnestly appeal. I do not argue--I beseech you to make the argument 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 partisan politics. This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproaches upon any. It acts not the Pharisee. The changes it contemplates would come gently as the dews of Heaven, not rending nor 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."
Still forbearing, still arguing, still beseeching, Mr. Lincoln stood before these border-state legislators, for whose sake he was suffering sharp reproach in the house of his best friends; but they were unmoved. They could not read the signs of the times. Only nine of the twenty-nine who responded gave words of friendliness and approval. If, since then, they have found themselves and their friends in distress through the destruction of their property, they can have no reproaches to cast upon the patient man who so faithfully besought them to save themselves while there was an opportunity.
Two acts were passed by this session which respectively called out a message from the President. The confiscation act, to which allusion has already been made, touched a subject on which he had peculiar views. It would be difficult to express in the English language the basis of the right of Congress to free the slaves of rebels, in clearer and more unanswerable tones than Mr. Lincoln used when he wrote: "It is startling to say that Congress can free a slave within a state, and yet, were it said that the ownership of the slave had first been transferred to the nation, and that Congress had then liberated him, the difficulty would vanish; and this is the real case. The traitor against the general government forfeits his slave, at least as justly as he does any other property; and he forfeits both to the government against which he offends. The government, so far as there can be ownership, owns the forfeited slaves; and the question for Congress, in regard to them, is,--Shall they be made free, or sold to new masters? I see no objection to Congress deciding in advance that they should be free." The argument of a whole volume would not make the subject clearer.
The other act abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, and he merely pointed out an oversight in the bill, expressing at the same time his gratification that it recognized the two principles of colonization and compensation. It must have been with peculiar satisfaction that he thus completed a work which he began while he was a member of Congress himself, many years before.
Late in the session, Mr. Lincoln sent to Congress the draft of a bill for the compensation of any state that might abolish slavery within its limits; which, although it was referred to a committee, was not acted upon, as there appeared no disposition on the part of the border states to respond to the action which Congress had already taken.
Meantime, and especially after the enactment of the confiscation bill, presses and people maintained their clamor for a sweeping proclamation of emancipation. The clamor took a direct and definite form in a letter addressed by Horace Greeley, through the New York Tribune. The letter was severe in its terms, and intemperate in spirit. Any President who had occupied the office previous to Mr. Lincoln, would have passed over such a letter in silence, however much it might have annoyed or pained him. Mr. Lincoln, however, never thought of his dignity, and saw no reason why the President of the United States should not appear in a newspaper, as well as other men. He accordingly replied to Mr. Greeley, under date of August twenty-second, in a letter which, for conciseness and lucidity, may well be regarded as a model, whether the position assumed in it was sound or otherwise. Mr. Lincoln wrote as follows:
"Hon. Horace Greeley, Dear Sir: I have just read yours of the nineteenth instant, addressed to myself through the New York Tribune.
"If there be in it any statements or assumptions of fact which I may know to be erroneous, I do not now and here controvert them.
"If there be any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here argue against them.
"If there be perceptible in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend whose heart I have always supposed to be right.
"As to the policy I 'seem to be pursuing,' as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. I would save the Union. I would save it in the shortest way under the Constitution.
"The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be--the Union as it was.
"If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them.
"If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.
"My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery.
"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
"What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
"I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I believe doing more will help the cause.
"I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
"I have here stated my purpose according to my views of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.
"Yours, A. Lincoln."
Mr. Lincoln was anxious to take no steps which be should be obliged to retrace through the lack of popular support, and at this time he was carefully measuring the public opinion on the subject of emancipation. A part of the preliminary work he had accomplished. He had performed with the tenderest and most assiduous fidelity all his duty toward the border slave states. He had warned them, besought them, advised them, to get out of the way of an event which he felt certain would come. He knew that the institution of slavery would not be worth a straw, in any state, after it should be destroyed in the rebel states. But they turned a deaf ear to his warnings and entreaties; and in this manner, if not in the manner desired, took themselves out of his way.
His letter to Horace Greeley was, without doubt, intended to prepare the mind of the country for emancipation, and to exhibit the principles and exigencies by which he should be controlled in proclaiming it. He was clearing away obstacles, and preparing his ground; and, in connection with events which wait for record, the time for action came at last.
Mr. Cameron was not very successful in the administration of the affairs of his bureau. It is no derogation to his ability as a statesman to say that, for the discharge of the duties of the war office, at the time he occupied it, he had no eminent fitness. It was not the office he would have chosen for himself. He had immense and almost countless contracts at his disposal, and could give to them but little personal care. That he was overreached, under the circumstances, was almost a matter of course, and many of his contracts were very bad ones. Congress, after his resignation, censured him for his loose way of doing business, in intrusting Alexander Cummings of New York with the expenditure of large sums of money without restriction; but Mr. Lincoln, by a special message, assumed all the responsibility of Mr. Cummings' appointment to this duty and responsibility. Mr. Cameron resigned his position on the 11th of January, 1862; and Mr. Lincoln showed what he thought of the charges of fraud against him, by appointing him minister to Russia. Nevertheless, it was to be said of him that Mr. Chase found it difficult to raise money while he remained to make contracts. He resigned while the House was busy with overhauling his affairs; and it occurred that he sent in his resignation on the same day on which Mr. Dawes of Massachusetts was making a powerful speech against him, and on which the special committee on government contracts made a report severely condemning his operations.
Mr. Lincoln appointed Edwin M. Stanton of Ohio to the office thus vacated. Mr. Stanton was a democrat, and had been a member of Mr. Buchanan's cabinet--was, indeed, the first one in that cabinet to protest against the downright treason into which it was drifting. He was a man of indomitable energy, devoted loyalty and thorough honesty. Contractors could not manipulate him, and traitors could not deceive him. Impulsive, perhaps, but true; willful, it is possible, but placable; impatient, but persistent and efficient,--he became, at once, one of the most marked and important of the members of the cabinet. Mr. Lincoln loved him and believed in him from first to last. When inquired of concerning the reasons for his appointment, Mr. Lincoln said he rather wished, at first, to appoint a man from one of the border states, but he knew the New England people would object; and then, again, it would have given him great satisfaction to appoint a man from New England, but that would displease the border states. On the whole, he thought he had better take a man from some intervening territory; "and, to tell you the truth, gentlemen," said he, "I don't believe Stanton knows where he belongs himself." The gentlemen proceeding to discuss Mr. Stanton's impulsiveness, Mr. Lincoln said: "Well, we may have to treat him as they are sometimes obliged to treat a Methodist minister I know of out west. He gets wrought up to so high a pitch of excitement in his prayers and exhortations, that they are obliged to put bricks into his pockets to keep him down. We may be obliged to serve Stanton the same way, but I guess we'll let him jump awhile first."
The country has sometimes thought the time for bricks had come; but, on the whole, the leaders of the rebellion have had greatest cause of complaint. Mr. Stanton's place in history will be a proud one.
Malcontents, who felt that everything went wrong because there was something wrong in the cabinet, were much encouraged by the change that had been made, and personally and by letter urged Mr. Lincoln to make further changes. A number of them called upon him to insist on changes that they considered absolutely necessary. Mr. Lincoln heard them through, and then, with his peculiar smile, said, "Gentlemen, the case reminds me of a story of an old friend of mine out in Illinois. His homestead was very much infested with those little black and white animals that we needn't call by name; and, after losing his patience with them, he determined to sally out and inflict upon them a general slaughter. He took gun, clubs and dogs, and at it he went, but stopped after killing one, and returned home. When his neighbors asked him why he had not fulfilled his threat of killing all there were on his place, he replied that his experience with the one he had killed was such that he thought he had better stop where he was."
This story was told with no disrespect to Mr. Cameron, or to the other members of his cabinet, for he honored them all; but it was told to get rid of his troublesome advisers. They went away forgetting that they had failed to make any impression on the President--forgetting that they had failed in their errand utterly--and laughing over the story by which the President had dismissed them.