« PreviousContinue »
On the 9th of December, 1863, Mr. Lincoln sent in his annual message to Congress, which had assembled on the seventh. It represented the country as holding satisfactory relations with foreign powers; spoke favorably of the establishment of an international telegraph across the Atlantic; referred to the movements abroad for emigration to this country, to fill the demand for labor in every field of industry; stated that the operations of the Treasury Department had been successfully conducted during the year; and gave a general historical account of the operations of the army and navy. Eleven months had passed since the final proclamation of emancipation was issued; and Mr. Lincoln took up the matter to see what progress had been made under its operations. The policy of emancipation and of the employment of black soldiers had changed the aspect of affairs; and, though it was immediately followed by dark and doubtful days, the results had vindicated its wisdom. The rebel borders had been pressed still further back; the rebel territory had been divided by the opening of the Mississippi; Tennessee and Arkansas had been substantially cleared of insurgent control; and, in these states, influential citizens were declaring openly for emancipation. Maryland and Missouri, neither of which states, three years previously, would tolerate any restraint upon the extension of slavery into new territories, were disputing only as to the best mode of removing it from their own limits. Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full one hundred thousand were in the military service of the United States, and about one-half of them were bearing arms in the ranks. No servile insurrection, or tendency to violence or cruelty, had marked the measures of emancipation and the arming of the blacks. The tone of public feeling abroad had improved under the influence of the policy, while the government had been encouraged and supported by elections at home. The new reckoning showed that the crisis which threatened to divide the friends of the Union was passed.
The message treated with considerable detail a question which had, from the first, been one of great importance, and which, it was seen, would grow more important with the progress of events. On the day previous to the delivery of the message, he had issued a proclamation of amnesty, to all those engaged in the rebellion who should take an oath to support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the states under it, with the acts of Congress passed during the rebellion, and the proclamations of the President concerning slaves. This proclamation made certain exceptions of persons in the civil and military service of the rebel government, and of persons who had left the civil and military service of the United States to aid in the rebellion. It further declared that whenever, in any of the rebel states, a number of persons, not less than one-tenth of the qualified voters, should take this oath, and establish a state government which should be republican, it should be recognized as the true government of the state. These were the principal provisions of the proclamation; and to them the President called congressional attention.
He had issued it, he said, “looking to the present and the future, and with reference to a resumption of the national authority in the states wherein that authority had been suspended." He had given the form of an oath; but no man was coerced to take it. Men were only promised pardon in case they should voluntarily take it. Amnesty was offered, so that, if, in any of the rebel states, a state government should be set up, in the mode prescribed, it should be recognized and guaranteed by the United States, and protected against inyasion and domestic violence. The following passage is his justification for prescribing the peculiar oath which he had made the condition of pardon:
" An attempt to guarantee and protect a revived, state government, constructed in whole or in preponderating part from the very element against whose hostility and violence it is to be protected, is simply absurd. There must be a test by which to separate the opposing elements, so as to build only from the sound; and that test is a sufficiently liberal one which accepts as sound whoever will make a sworn recantation of his former unsoundness. But, if it be proper to require, as a test of admission to the political body, an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and to the Union under it, why also to the laws and proclamations in regard to slavery? Those laws and proclamations were enacted, and put forth, for the purpose of aiding in the suppression of the rebellion. To give them their fullest effect, there had to be a pledge for their maintenance. In my judgment, they have aided and will further aid the cause for which they were intended. To now abandon them, would be not only to relinquish a lever of power, but would also be a cruel and an astounding breach of faith. I may add, at this point, that while I remain in my present position, I shall not attempt to retract, or modify, the Emancipation Proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.
“For these and other reasons, it is thought best that support of these measures shall be included in the oath; and it is believed that the Executive may lawfully claim it, in return for pardon and restoration of forfeited rights, which he has a clear constitutional power to withhold altogether, or grant upon the terms which he shall deem wisest for the public interest. It should be observed, also, that this part of the oath is subject to the modifying and abrogating power of legislation and supreme judicial decision.”
This proclamation was issued as a rallying point for those loyal or penitent elements which were believed to exist in many of the insurgent states, and which, in the confusion of plans for reconstruction, were lying dormant, and without practical advantage to the states themselves and to the government. He believed his plan of reconstruction would save labor, and avoid great confusion. On the 24th of March, 1864, he issued a supplementary and explanatory proclamation, defining more carefully the cases in which rebels were to be pardoned, and the manner in which they were to avail themselves of the benefits of the amnesty. He shut out many from the benefits of the proclamation, though he excluded none from personal application to the President for clemency:
The action of Congress during this session was not of notable importance. Important subjects were discussed at length; but they were not embodied in measures, or, rather, the measures sought to be enacted were not successfully carried through. A bill for the establishment of a Bureau of Freedmen's Affairs passed the House, but failed in the Senate; while a resolution to submit to a vote of the states an amendment of the Constitution, permanently prohibiting the existence of slavery in the states and territories of the Union, was passed by the Senate, but rejected by the House. The fugitive slave law-one of those compromise measures which were to silence the anti-slavery agitation forever, and be a final settlement of the slavery question—was repealed, with surprising ease and unanimity. A heated debate occurred upon a resolution introduced by Speaker Colfax, for the expulsion from the House of Alexander Long of Ohio, for declaring himself in favor of recognizing the rebel confederacy. A two-thirds vote being necessary for the purpose of the resolution, and this vote not being obtainable, the mover contented himself with a substitute, declaring Mr. Long an unworthy member of the House. During the discussion of the resolution, Mr. Harris of Maryland thanked God that the South had not yet been brought into subjection, and prayed God that it might not be; and straightway a resolution was introduced for his expulsion, which failed of passage by lack of the requisite two-thirds vote. He was, however, “severely censured; and, although no extreme measures were effected in these cases, the debate had a healthy influence, in defining the boundaries of legitimate debate on the great questions which agitated the country.
Ån outeropping of the Missouri imbroglio showed itself above the surface during the session. General F. P. Blair resigned his seat in the House, and resumed his place in the army, at the close of a discussion introduced by one of his colleagues, who charged him with improprieties in the administration of affairs in his department. Although he cleared himself of the charges, the House called upon the President for an explanation of his restoration to command. The President gave them a reply at length, and frankly stated all the circumstances of the case. The two facts which the letter and all the correspondence in the case reveal most prominently, were, that Mr. Lincoln had a strong personal friendship for General Blair, and a firm belief in his anti-slavery principles and sentiments; and that he wished him to be where he could do the government the most good in the prosecution of the war. Mr. Lincoln's representation of the case was, that General Blair and General Schenck of Ohio, having been elected to Congress, were permitted to resign their commissions, and take their seats, with the distinct verbal understanding with the President and the Secretary of War that they might, at their pleasure, withdraw their resignations, leave their places in the House, and return to the field. It is apparent that Mr. Lincoln wished for General Blair's aid in the organization of the House, and, after that, in the field, if he could be most useful to the government there. The arrangement seems to have been a little irregular, though entered upon with the best motives. It was one of Mr. Lincoln's short cuts out of the labyrinth of “red tape,” in which it was always difficult for him to walk. In a letter which he wrote to Montgomery Blair, he revealed one of the motives which actuated him in making the arrangement. “It will relieve him (the General) from a dangerous position, or a misunderstanding,” said he, “ as I think he is in danger of being permanently separated from those with whom only he can ever have a real sympathy--the sincere opponents of slavery.”