President Lincoln’s 1862 Message to Congress

December 1, 1862 – The second session of the lame duck Thirty-seventh U.S. Congress assembled at Washington and received President Abraham Lincoln’s annual message.

U.S. Capitol Building under construction | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this month, many northerners had condemned Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Democratic victories in the midterm elections, opposition to the war effort, and temperamental military commanders added to the president’s problems.

Democrats in Congress quickly condemned the Lincoln administration for violating civil liberties, especially the suspension of habeas corpus in September. Congressman S.S. Cox of Ohio introduced a resolution on the first day of the new session calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners and declaring that their imprisonment had been “unwarranted by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and… a usurpation of power never given up by the people to their rulers.”

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

In his message, Lincoln reported that foreign relations were satisfactory, adding a statement provided by Secretary of State William H. Seward: “If the condition of our relations with other nations is less gratifying than it has usually been at former periods, it is certainly more satisfactory than a nation so unhappily distracted as we are, might reasonably have anticipated.”

Commerce was adequate, and Federal receipts exceeded expenditures. Lincoln urged Congress to give “most diligent consideration” to the nation’s finances. According to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, there should be “a return to specie payments… at the earliest period compatible with due regard for all interests concerned,” and Congress should authorize the creation of a national banking system.

Lincoln also noted the Post Office’s “much improved” efficiency, the Interior Department’s successful suppression of the Sioux uprising, and the perceived benefits of having a new Department of Agriculture, which Congress recently created as a bureau within the executive branch. Lincoln also reported that the Navy Department now consisted of an unprecedented 427 warships, with 1,577 guns and a total capacity of 240,028 tons.

He avoided mentioning the politically volatile Emancipation Proclamation, instead reiterating support for his original plan of compensating slaveholders for gradually, voluntarily freeing their slaves. To that end, Lincoln proposed three constitutional amendments that would supersede his constitutionally dubious emancipation decree:

  • States abolishing slavery prior to 1900 would receive Federal subsidies
  • Slaves gaining freedom during the war would remain free, and if those slaves belonged to slaveholders loyal to the Union, those slaveholders would be compensated for their loss
  • Congress would provide for the colonization of free blacks outside the U.S. with their consent

These amendments were intended to prevent “vagrant destitution” that would result in the immediate liberation of all slaves.

Lincoln concluded:

“As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”

—–

References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 237; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8366-99, 8810; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 120; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 234; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 501; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 292; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q462

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