President Lincoln’s 1861 Message to Congress

The day after Congress assembled, President Abraham Lincoln submitted his first state of the Union message. In accordance with the tradition begun by Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln did not appear in person before Congress, but rather sent it for a clerk to read into the record. In it, Lincoln declared, “A disloyal portion of the American people have during the whole year been engaged in an attempt to divide and destroy the Union.”

Lincoln provided a status on all executive departments. In an unprecedented move, he announced that he supported extending diplomatic recognition to the only two black republics in the world, Haiti and Liberia: “If any good reason exists why we should persevere longer in withholding our recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Hayti and Liberia, I am unable to discern it.”

Regarding the Treasury Department, Lincoln wrote, “It is gratifying to know that the expenditures made necessary by the rebellion are not beyond the resources of the loyal people, and to believe that the same patriotism which has thus far sustained the Government will continue to sustain it till peace and union shall again bless the land.” This did not reflect the growing financial difficulties facing the country at that time.

Regarding the navy, Lincoln wrote that “… it may almost be said that a navy has been created and brought into service since our difficulties commenced.” By this time, the two blockading squadrons in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico had grown so large that they became four. The navy, which had less than 9,000 officers and men before the war, now had 24,000.

Noting that the Supreme Court had three vacancies, Lincoln stated, “I have so far forborne making nominations to fill these vacancies (because)… I have been unwilling to throw all the appointments northward, thus disabling myself from doing justice to the South on the return of peace; although I may remark that to transfer to the North one which has heretofore been in the South would not, with reference to territory and population, be unjust.”

Lincoln reviewed the Confiscation Act, which enabled Federal commanders to seize slaves used “for insurrectionary purposes” and decreed that disloyal slaveholders “forfeited” their rights to own slaves. He expressed hope that the border states would “pass similar enactments,” and if so, Congress should “provide for accepting such persons from such States, according to some mode of valuation.” According to Lincoln, states that voluntarily freed their slaves should be compensated, “in lieu, pro tanto, of direct taxes, or upon some other plan to be agreed on with such States respectively.” And slaves in those states would “be at once deemed free” by the Federal government.

Addressing fears that freed slaves would compete with whites for jobs, Lincoln reiterated his support for black colonization (i.e., deportation) “at some place or places in a climate congenial to them. It might be well to consider, too, whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization.”

Referencing Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, Lincoln remarked that colonization may “involve the acquiring of territory… If it be said that the only legitimate object of acquiring territory is to furnish homes for white men, this measure effects that object, for the emigration of colored men leaves additional room for white men remaining or coming here.”

Turning to the war, Lincoln contended that “I have been anxious and careful that the inevitable conflict for this purpose shall not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle” by making this a war to preserve the Union only. However, Lincoln stated, “The Union must be preserved, and hence, all indispensable means must be employed. We should not be in haste to determine that radical and extreme measures, which may reach the loyal as well as the disloyal, are indispensable.”

Lincoln boasted that Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were now under Unionist control. Those states “have now an aggregate of not less than 40,000 in the field for the Union, while of their citizens certainly not more than a third of that number, and they of doubtful whereabouts and doubtful existence, are in arms against us.” However, Lincoln did not mention that Kentucky and Missouri had dual Unionist and secessionist governments.

Recounting the retirement of Winfield Scott, Lincoln stated, “The retiring chief repeatedly expressed his judgment in favor of General (George B.) McClellan for the position, and in this the nation seemed to give a unanimous concurrence.” The president then paid a curious compliment to the new general-in-chief: “It has been said that one bad general is better than two good ones, and the saying is true if taken to mean no more than that an army is better directed by a single mind, though inferior, than by two superior ones at variance and cross-purposes with each other.”

Lincoln noted the Confederacy’s tendency toward despotism: “It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government–the rights of the people.” Arguing that only a small minority of southerners actually supported the Confederacy, the president stated, “Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.”

Lincoln then turned to labor, and the principle that any free person could rise to prominence in America:

“Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.”

Lincoln concluded his message with: “The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day; it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”

Lincoln did not directly address or defend his suspensions of writs of habeas corpus and other violations of civil liberties. He also made no mention of the Trent affair, which prompted laughs from members of Congress; some even exclaimed, “Mr. Lincoln forgot it!” However, Lincoln did not want to publicly address the matter because the State Department was still waiting for the official British response.

Lincoln also did not include Simon Cameron’s original report on the War Department, which included the controversial passage: “Those who make war against the Government justly forfeit all rights of property… It is as clearly a right of the Government to arm slaves, when it may become necessary, as it is to use gun-powder taken from the enemy.” Lincoln was not ready to allow slaves to serve in the army in any capacity other than as laborers.

The president disappointed abolitionists by refusing to use slavery as a weapon to destroy the Confederacy. Abolitionist Strubal York wrote to Senator Lyman Trumbull, both from Lincoln’s home state of Illinois:

“Such a Message! Not one single manly, bold, dignified position taking it from beginning to end–No response to the popular feeling–no battlecry to the 500,000 gallant soldiers now in the field, but a tame, timid, timeserving common place sort of an abortion of a Message, cold enough with one breath, to freeze hell over. I have not seen one intelligent man who approves of it. I take it there are none such in the limits of the Free States… Mr. Lincoln must have been facing southward when he wrote this thing.”

Criticism and praise for Lincoln’s message to Congress continued throughout the month.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
  • Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.

Leave a Reply