The congressional session opened on an unusually mild December day. The crowd that had come to witness the opening made it so that “Penn Ave is thronged from morning till late at night.” The Republican majority in this Congress included an unprecedented number of New Englanders, most of whom belonged to the party’s Radical faction. Of the 22 Senate committees, 16 were chaired by senators either from New England or born in New England but representing other states. The two most powerful members of the House of Representatives, House Speaker Galusha Grow and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Thaddeus Stevens, represented Pennsylvania but had been born and raised in New England.
The House began by approving a series of “buncombe resolutions” that were “sent forward to clear the way for the approach of the heavy artillery of bills and enactments.” The Senate formed a committee to announce to President Abraham Lincoln of its “organization & adjourned.” But underneath these routine matters, Congressman James W. Grimes of Iowa noted that there would be “more during the session than growling and showing our teeth” in regards to waging the war.
To that end, the Radicals set about trying to destroy the Confederacy not only through military means but also through the lifeblood of the southern economy–slavery. According to Senator James Blaine of Maine, “Congress had hardly come together when the change of opinion and action upon the Slavery question became apparent.” This was evidenced by the House rejecting a motion to reaffirm the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution of July 25, which had declared that the war was being waged solely to preserve the Union. The Washington Sunday Morning Chronicle seemed to capture the spirit of this new Congress by declaring, “Slavery, by inviting this war, has received its death-blow. It is now only necessary that the government be administered in the spirit of freedom to do away with this great evil.”
On December 4, Congressman Owen Lovejoy of Illinois introduced a measure revising the Articles of War by prohibiting the army from aiding in the capture of fugitive slaves. Fellow Congressman Thomas Eliot of Massachusetts offered a joint resolution stating that since “the safety of the State is the highest law,” it superseded “rights of property and dominates over civil relations,” and therefore the president should be authorized “to emancipate all persons held as slaves in any military district in a state of insurrection.” Those opposed to such measures were easily outvoted by the Republican and Radical majority.
Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois proposed expanding the Confiscation Act to include “the confiscation of the property of rebels, and giving freedom to the persons they hold in slavery.” The current act only provided for seizing slaves actively serving the Confederacy and placing them under Federal supervision. Trumbull’s bill would seize and free the slaves of anyone supporting the Confederacy in any way. Trumbull had once been a close political ally of President Lincoln, but they had since clashed on the slavery issue, prompting Trumbull to declare that the president lacked “the will necessary in this great emergency.”
Trumbull’s proposal was seconded in the House by James Campbell of Pennsylvania, and Thaddeus Stevens called on Lincoln “to be requested to declare free, and to direct all our generals and officers in command to order the freedom, of all slaves who shall leave their masters, or who shall aid in quelling this rebellion.” John Bingham of Ohio agreed: “It is the established law of nations that NECESSITY is the measure of violence in war… all else essential, however destructive of their lives and property, is justifiable–a right and a duty.”
Others called for repealing the Fugitive Slave Acts and banning slavery in the U.S. territories. Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, worked against slavery internationally by introducing measures to officially recognize the black republics of Haiti and Liberia, and to work more closely with Great Britain to ban Atlantic slave trading.
But despite the Radicals’ clamor against slavery, Democrats and moderate Republicans whose constituents wanted nothing to do with ending the institution held enough influence to either dilute the measures or prevent them from passing altogether. By the 19th, Congressman Bingham was forced to acknowledge that “all the Slaves ought to be declared free by law of Congress,” but “I cannot get such a bill through now.”
Aside from slavery, financing the war dominated debates. It was estimated that by the end of the fiscal year of June 30, 1862, the Federal debt would be $750 million, with only $165 million in revenue generated by taxation. Unprecedented tax increases were proposed, along with other measures such as increasing import tariffs on coffee, tea, sugar, and molasses. More proposals would be forthcoming upon receiving the Treasury Department’s annual report.
Regarding the military, Congress authorized the navy secretary to award the Medal of Honor to enlisted men in the Navy and Marine Corps. Creation of the Medal came about due to pressure from servicemen and the public. This was the highest military award ever granted by the U.S. Congress also approved an official thanks for “the gallant and patriotic services of the late Brig Gen Nathaniel Lyon, and the officers and soldiers under his command at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.”
In addition, the Senate held a memorial service for Edward D. Baker of Oregon, a fellow senator-turned-colonel, killed at Ball’s Bluff in October. In an unusual occurrence, President Lincoln visited the Senate chamber to attend the service.
The Senate addressed the defection of John C. Breckinridge to the Confederacy by approving a motion: “Whereas John C. Breckinridge, a member of this body from the State of Kentucky, has joined the enemies of his country, and is now in arms against the Government he had sworn to support,” it was resolved “that said John C. Breckinridge, the traitor, be, and he hereby is, expelled from the Senate.”
Breckinridge, the former U.S. vice president under James Buchanan, had attended the special congressional session earlier in the year but had since disavowed the Union and accepted a military commission as a Confederate brigadier general. Senators unanimously voted to expel him from the chamber, 36 to 0.
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