December 8, 1863 – The first session of the Thirty-Eighth U.S. Congress assembled in Washington and received President Abraham Lincoln’s annual message.
In this new Congress, Republicans held majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. However, Democrats had made substantial gains due to their victories in the mid-term elections of November 1862. Also, the Republicans were becoming increasingly split between the Radicals (those who sought harsh subjugation of the South) and the conservatives (those who sought a more conciliatory conquest of the South).
The first order of business in the House was to elect a new speaker, as the previous speaker, Republican Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, had been voted out of office. The Radicals supported Schuyler Colfax, but the conservatives resisted; Lincoln led the conservatives in deeming Colfax “a little intriguer–plausible but not trustworthy.”
Lincoln and the conservatives looked for someone who could unify not only the Republican Party, but also ally with pro-war Democrats to form a “National Union” party dedicated to winning the war. As such, Lincoln supported Francis P. Blair, Jr., scion of the famous Blair political family (brother Montgomery Blair was Lincoln’s postmaster general). However, Blair had left politics to become a general in the Army of the Tennessee.
The conservatives next looked to Elihu Washburne of Illinois, but Washburne could not garner enough support in the House to make an effective run. Lincoln then sought a compromise by meeting with Colfax and having him pledge to stay neutral in the upcoming debates between the Radicals and conservatives. With Lincoln’s backing, Colfax became the House speaker.
Members quickly submitted resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment permanently abolishing slavery, and debate opened later this month. Congress approved a resolution thanking Major General Ulysses S. Grant for his recent military victories and creating a gold medal in his honor. Washburne introduced a bill reinstating the army rank of lieutenant general, which had previously been held only by George Washington and Winfield Scott (Scott’s was a brevet rank). Washburne, one of Grant’s biggest supporters, clearly had Grant in mind for this new rank.
President Lincoln’s annual message to Congress was read in both chambers on the 8th. The opening included summaries of the reports submitted by the cabinet officers. Lincoln stated that foreign relations were peaceful: “The efforts of disloyal citizens of the United States to involve us in foreign wars, to aid an inexcusable insurrection, have been unavailing.”
He heralded a recent treaty signed with Great Britain ending the African slave trade between the two nations: “That inhuman and odious traffic has been brought to an end.” After noting affairs in other countries, he turned to the territories. Although “Indian disturbances in New Mexico have not been entirely suppressed,” Native American relations seemed stable following last year’s Sioux uprising. Lincoln expressed support for negotiating treaties–
“… extinguishing the possessory rights of the Indians to large and valuable tracts of land. It is hoped that the effect of these treaties will result in the establishment of permanent friendly relations with such of these tribes as have been brought into frequent and bloody collision with our outlying settlements and emigrants.”
Turning to the northern home front, Lincoln stated that those “dark and doubtful days” of a year ago had given way to a more hopeful time. He explained:
“The rebel borders are pressed still farther back, and by the complete opening of the Mississippi the country dominated by the rebellion is divided into distinct parts, with no practical communication between them. Tennessee and Arkansas have been substantially cleared of insurgent control, and influential citizens in each, owners of slaves and advocates of slavery at the beginning of the rebellion, now declare openly for emancipation in their respective States. Of those States not included in the emancipation proclamation, Maryland, and Missouri, neither of which three years ago would tolerate any restraint upon the extension of slavery into new territories, only dispute now as to the best mode of removing it within their own limits.”
The president reported:
“Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full 100,000 are now in the United States military service, about one-half of which number actually bear arms in the ranks; thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men.”
Lincoln lauded the fact that, contrary to southern fears, “no servile insurrection, or tendency to violence or cruelty, has marked the measures of emancipation and arming the blacks.” Unlike the previous year’s message, Lincoln did not reiterate any support or plans for colonizing blacks outside the U.S. This indicated the administration’s shift from deportation to emancipation.
Lincoln asserted that the recent state elections were “highly encouraging” in terms of war policy. As such, “we have the new reckoning. The crisis which threatened to divide the friends of the Union (i.e., Radicals, conservatives, and War Democrats) is past.”
He also announced that he would issue a proclamation related to bringing the Confederate states back into the Union, which he attached to his annual message. He provided a summary of this proclamation, which would be released to the public the next day. Lincoln concluded:
“Hence our chiefest care must still be directed to the Army and Navy, who have thus far borne their harder part so nobly and well; and it may be esteemed fortunate that in giving the greatest efficiency to these indispensable arms we do also honorably recognize the gallant men, from commander to sentinel, who compose them, and to whom more than to others the world must stand indebted for the home of freedom disenthralled, regenerated, enlarged, and perpetuated.”
The president omitted several items that other politicians thought worth noting. He did not touch upon his establishment of the first national Thanksgiving holiday, he did not note the significance of completing construction on the U.S. Capitol dome, and he did not mention the important role blacks were playing in turning the tide of the war.
Opposition newspapers naturally criticized Lincoln’s message. However, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that no message since George Washington’s had “given such general satisfaction.” The press would be even more vocal both for and against Lincoln when he issued his proclamation on restoring the Union the next day.
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