The Special Session of the 37th U.S. Congress

The 37th Congress of the United States assembled in special session as requested by President Abraham Lincoln’s militia proclamation of April 15. By this time, 11 states had joined the Confederacy, leaving just 23 states with representation. A small number of Unionist congressmen from the Confederate states also remained. Without the Democrat-dominated South, Republicans held strong majorities in the House of Representatives (106 to 70) and the Senate (31 to 17).

The Republicans were divided between conservatives, who supported President Lincoln’s policy of preserving the Union without interfering with slavery, and Radicals, who saw the war as an opportunity to destroy slavery in America. The Radicals held strong influence in the Senate, where they caucused frequently “so as to leave no chance for hesitation, or division, amongst themselves.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, a conservative, referred to these Radical caucuses as “despotic, mandatory, and decisive.”

The Radicals’ influence was much weaker in the House, but the Republicans overall had a strong influence in that body as well. Democrats held only about 25 percent of each chamber’s seats, and they were demoralized by losses of the presidency, Congress, and nearly every northern state governorship and legislature. The recent death of their leader, Stephen A. Douglas, was just as dispiriting. And they were divided over whether they should support a Republican-controlled war.

Many congressmen in the slaveholding border states belonged to the Constitutional Union faction, the only other party with real influence, and they generally supported the Lincoln administration. But they would not support any measures even hinting at freeing the slaves in their states, and as such they would be a major obstacle to any Radical moves toward emancipation.

Reverend T.H. Stockton, the House chaplain, delivered a prayer to open the session on the 4th: “Oh Lord our God, if there must be war–oh, that there might be peace! –but if there must be war, if Thou dost indeed ordain and sanction war, may it not be a bloody and ruinous war. May it rather be an armed, might, irresistible migration–a migration of true love…”

Republicans elected Galusha A. Grow, a Pennsylvania abolitionist, as House speaker. Grow declared that “if the republic is to be dismembered and the sun of its liberty must go out in endless night, let it set amid the roar of cannon and the din of battle, when there is no longer an arm to strike or a heart to bleed in its cause.” Grow rewarded his supporters by appointing Francis P. Blair, Jr. as chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee, which held strong influence over the war effort, and Thaddeus Stevens as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which controlled taxing and spending legislation.

The next day, both chambers of Congress assembled in a joint session as the congressional clerk read President Lincoln’s message, dated July 4. Revisiting the Fort Sumter dispute, the president explained that the South Carolinians had needlessly attacked a Federal garrison that posed no real threat to them, even though Lincoln had deployed warships and soldiers to reinforce the fort.

Lincoln stated that the Sumter mission was “intended to be ultimately used, or not, according to circumstances,” and hinted that if he could have reinforced Fort Pickens, he would have aborted the Sumter expedition (reinforcing Pickens “would be a clear indication of policy,” which “would better enable the country to accept the evacuation of Fort Sumter, as a military necessity.”).

Placing full blame on southerners, Lincoln stated, “It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war-power, in defense of the Government, forced upon him.” He disregarded claims by Confederate leaders that they only sought to form their own nation, not to assail the Federal government. Lincoln also did not acknowledge attempts by Confederate envoys to negotiate a peace, pay their share of the Federal debt, or compensate for lost Federal property.

Lincoln provided further justification for invading the South by writing that the Confederacy “presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy–a government of the people by the same people–can, or can not, maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes?” However, many northern Democrats would counter that maintaining Federal territory was contingent upon consent from the states since they had formed the Federal government.

Despite the fact that secession had been approved by either conventions or popular vote in 11 states, Lincoln intimated that most southerners did not want to secede. Lincoln also refused to acknowledge the possibility that secession might have been a constitutional right. Instead, he asserted that states’ efforts to leave the Union had placed them in rebellion to the Federal authority.

Referring to the Ex Parte Merryman court case in May, Lincoln declared that infringements on civil liberties such as suspending writs of habeas corpus were necessary for the wartime emergency. Denying constitutional freedoms would become a weapon to use against secessionists. He noted, “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”

Lincoln did not explain why he had selected July 4 as the day for Congress to gather. Instead, he asked Congress to retroactively endorse all the actions he had taken since the war began, even while conceding that strong opposition to his policies remained in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Despite this opposition, Lincoln rejected Kentucky’s wish to maintain an armed neutrality, arguing that such a stance would eventually embolden secessionists and further divide the Union: “To prevent the Union forces passing one way, or the disunion the other, over their soil, would be disunion completed… At a stroke it would take all the trouble off the hands of secession, except only what proceeds from the external blockade.”

He also asked the members to “give the legal means for making this contest a short, and a decisive one,” seeking “at least four hundred thousand men, and four hundred millions of dollars… a less sum per head, than was the debt of our revolution.” A “right result, at this time will be worth more to the world, than ten times the men, and ten times the money…” However, Lincoln also admitted that “one of the greatest perplexities of the government, is to avoid receiving troops faster than it can provide for them.”

The president, mindful of the delicate situation in the border states, did not mention slavery in this message. He also avoided any intimations that the southern states had been treasonous in seceding.

This message, combined with his April 15 militia proclamation, maintained the legally questionable premise that this war would be waged against the “insurrection” of individual southerners who joined in “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” This clearly demonstrated that administration policy would be to treat this conflict like suppressing an uprising, not invading an independent nation.

The large majorities of Republicans in both houses of Congress strongly approved Lincoln’s message. Congressman Philip Foulke of Illinois declared that “while we hold in one hand the sword of justice… it becomes our solemn and Christian duty to offer with the other continuously to our deluded brethren the olive branch of peace.” Debates began over measures to finance the war as Lincoln had requested began immediately.


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