Compensated Emancipation and the Hampton Roads Fallout

February 10, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln unveiled a new plan for slave emancipation, and members of Congress demanded to know what happened at Hampton Roads.

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: histmag.org

After returning from the Hampton Roads conference, Lincoln met with his cabinet and presented a scheme to compensate slaveholders if their state governments voted to return to the Union and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Slaveholders in the loyal border states would also be compensated if they voluntarily freed their slaves. Lincoln proposed that Congress appropriate “four hundred millions of dollars,” payable in 6-percent Federal bonds, and distribute them to each participating state according to its slave population in the 1860 census.

Half the subsidy would be paid if “all resistance to the national authority shall be abandoned and cease” by April 1. The other half would be paid if the states ratified the amendment by July 1. Once these conditions were met, Lincoln would declare the war ended and the “armies… reduced to a basis of peace.” He would pardon political dissidents, restore confiscated property (except slaves), and urge Congress to be liberal “upon all points not lying within executive control.”

This was a more detailed version of a compensated emancipation plan that Lincoln had suggested to the Confederate envoys during the Hampton Roads conference in exchange for peace. He asked his cabinet ministers for their advice, and to his surprise, they unanimously opposed this proposal.

Interior Secretary John Usher feared that the Radical Republicans in Congress “would make it the occasion of a violent assault on the president” for offering such leniency toward the South. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton argued that such a plan was wasteful and unnecessary since the slaves had already been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Treasury Secretary William P. Fessenden asserted “that the only way to effectually end the war was by force of arms, and that until the war was thus ended no proposition to pay money would come from us.”

Lincoln countered that he was presenting this plan “as a measure of strict and simple economy.” The monetary figure equated to continuing the war for another 200 days, and he desperately wanted it to end. He said:

“How long has this war lasted, and how long do you suppose it will still last? We cannot hope that it will end in less than a hundred days. We are now spending three millions a day, and that will equal the full amount I propose to pay, to say nothing of the lives lost and property destroyed.”

When this did not move the cabinet members, Lincoln sighed, “You are all against me.” On the back of his written proposal, Lincoln wrote under the date of 5 Feb 1865: “Today these papers, which explain themselves, were drawn up and submitted to the Cabinet and unanimously disapproved by them.” Lincoln signed his name and filed it away. He never raised the issue of compensated emancipation again. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles later wrote that “the earnest desire of the President to conciliate and effect peace was manifest, but there may be such a thing as so overdoing as to cause a distrust or adverse feeling.”

In reality, the Radicals seeking to punish the Confederacy would have never approved Lincoln’s plan. Many of them had already condemned Lincoln for even meeting with the Confederate envoys at Hampton Roads. Thaddeus Stevens, the leading Radical in the House of Representatives, strongly criticized the president for negotiating with “rebels,” and he led the majority in approving a resolution demanding that Lincoln submit a formal report on what had been discussed. House Speaker Schuyler Colfax assured Lincoln that such a report “cannot fail to increase the confidence of the American people in you.”

At the same time, Charles Sumner, the leading Radical in the Senate, introduced a resolution asking for “any information in his (Lincoln’s) possession concerning recent conversations or communications with certain rebels.” A heated debate ensued in which conservative Republicans, Lincoln’s firmest allies, accused Radicals and Democrats of conspiring to infringe on the president’s constitutional power to negotiate treaties. The Radicals angrily denied such charges, but the resolution passed nonetheless.

Lincoln complied with Congress by submitting a formal report (actually written by Secretary of State William H. Seward) on the 10th. Correspondent and Lincoln friend Noah Brooks reported from the congressional gallery: “The reading began in absolute silence. Looking over the hall, one might say that the hundreds seated or standing within the limits of the great room had been suddenly turned to stone.”

Many congressmen who had been skeptical of Lincoln slowly realized that he had stood firm in his commitment to restore the Union and end slavery. Brooks reported:

“When the reading was over, and the name of the writer at the end of the communication was read by the clerk with a certain grandiloquence, there was an instant and irrepressible storm of applause, begun by the members on the floor, and taken up by the people in the gallery. It was instantaneous, involuntary, and irrepressible, and the Speaker only perfunctorily attempted to quell it. It was like a burst of refreshing rain after a long and heartbreaking drought.”

A Democrat spoke for the small minority who urged Congress to support an armistice, declaring, “I am in favor of appealing from guns and bayonets and artillery to reason, to sense, to Christianity, and to civilization.” Stevens responded by quoting Jefferson Davis: “Sooner than we should be united again, I would be willing to yield up everything I have on earth; and if it were possible, I would yield up my life a thousand times rather than succumb.” He continued:

“And yet a man calling himself a patriot and an American rises upon this floor and sends forth to the country a denunciation of the President of the United States for not entering into negotiations with men holding these doctrines and entertaining these views. I will apply no epithets to such a man; I do not know that I could use any which would be sufficiently merited.”

Thus, the war would continue until the Confederacy surrendered unconditionally.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11949-60; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16241-70; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 550; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 692-93, 695-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 634-35, 637; 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), Q165

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