A Radical Change in Our Social System

When President Abraham Lincoln returned from his visit to the Virginia Peninsula, Senator Orville Browning noted that the president was “grieved with what he had witnessed.” Not only was Lincoln convinced that “McClellan would not fight,” but his “Harrison’s Bar Letter” indicated that McClellan intended to use his influence in the Democratic party to undermine administration policy. Browning said that Lincoln therefore “resolved to make one more earnest effort with the delegations from the border States, to initiate a policy of voluntary emancipation by those States.”

The president brought together a group of 27 congressmen from Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware in his White House office a week before Congress adjourned. Lincoln announced that “The unprecedentedly stern facts of our case” could no longer be denied. Lincoln said, “If you all had voted for the resolution in the gradual emancipation message of last March, the war would not be substantially ended. Discarding punctillio, and maxims adapted to more manageable times, can you do better in any possible event?”

He said the best answer, despite its unpopularity, would be for the congressmen to persuade their state legislatures to approve his plan for gradual, compensated emancipation: “How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event.”

Lincoln told them that they needed to act quickly, before Congress adjourned: “I do not speak of emancipation at once, but of a decision at once to emancipate gradually… consider and discuss it among yourselves, at the least, commend it to the consideration of your states and people.” This was of vital importance, said Lincoln, because “our common country is in great peril, demanding the loftiest views, and boldest actions to bring it speedy relief.”

The president then referred to his cancellation of Major General David Hunter’s emancipation proclamation in May. He said, “Gen. Hunter is an honest man. I valued him none the less for his agreeing with me in general wish that all men everywhere, could be free… in repudiating it (Hunter’s proclamation), I gave dissatisfaction, if not offence, to many whose support the country can not afford to lose. And this is not the end of it. The pressure, in this direction, is still upon me, and is increasing.”

Abolishing slavery would benefit the border states because it would end southern attempts to bring those states into the Confederacy: “You and I know what the lever of their power is. Break that lever before their faces and they can shake you no more forever.”

Lincoln also warned them that slavery may soon be abolished anyway, and without compensation: “If the war continues long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it.” Citing his long-favored policy of black deportation, Lincoln said, “Room in South America for colonization can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance, and when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go.”

He continued, “By conceding what I now ask, you can relieve me, and much more, can relieve the country in this important point. As you would perpetuate popular government for the best people in the world, I beseech you that you do in no wise omit this.”

Despite prior rejection, Lincoln still held out hope that the border staters would act upon his proposal. He said to two of his House allies, Isaac Arnold and Owen Lovejoy, “Oh, if the border States would accept my proposition! Then… you, Lovejoy, and Arnold, and all of us, would not have lived in vain! The labor of your life, Lovejoy, would be crowned with success–you would live to see the end of slavery.”

Two days later, Lincoln tried to nudge the congressmen by sending a message to Congress that contained “the draft of a Bill to compensate any State which may abolish slavery within it’s (sic) limits.” This reiterated Lincoln’s request earlier in the year for state-controlled, compensated, gradual slave emancipation. Under this bill, states would be paid in six-percent bonds for every slave within their borders according to the 1860 census. Payments would be distributed as the slaves were freed.

Meanwhile, after “stormy debate,” seven border state congressmen expressed support for Lincoln’s proposal, while the other 20 “declined to comply.” Signing a manifesto urging Lincoln to “confine yourself to your constitutional authority,” the dissenting congressmen wrote:

“The right to hold slaves is a right appertaining to all the States of the Union. They have the right to cherish or abolish the institution, as their tastes or their interests may prompt, and no one is authorized to question the right, or limit its enjoyment. And no one has more clearly affirmed that right than you have. Your inaugural address does you great honor in this respect, and inspired the country with confidence in your fairness and respect for law.”

Contending that most southerners were fighting to preserve their individual rights, the congressmen stated, “Remove their apprehensions; satisfy them that no harm is intended to them and their institutions; that this Government is not making war on their rights of property, but is simply defending its legitimate authority, and they will gladly return to their allegiance.”

The congressmen argued that “emancipation in any form” would be a “radical change in our social system” that “would further consolidate the spirit of the rebellion in the seceded states and fan the spirit of secession among loyal slaveholders in the Border States.” Lincoln’s policy would unfairly punish loyal slaveholders by depriving them of slave labor while disloyal slaveholders in the South kept their slaves. And such a policy, the congressmen declared, violated states’ rights.

The men also noted that Congress could not afford such a program, which would cost nearly $500 million at a time when the Federal government was already spending millions a day to pay for the war. Moreover, the government bonds that would be used to compensate the states could lose value if the national credit fell. One congressman stated that Lincoln’s offer “was but the enunciation of a sentiment which could not or was not likely to be reduced to an actual tangible proposition.”

Rather than adopt Lincoln’s gradual abolition proposal, Congress approved a bill on July 16 appropriating $500,000 to colonize black people outside the U.S. While Lincoln had favored black deportation throughout much of his political career, he now began considering slave emancipation instead, despite opposition from loyal slaveholders.


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