The second session of the lame duck Thirty-seventh U.S. Congress assembled at Washington and received President Abraham Lincoln’s annual message. By this month, many northerners had condemned Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Democratic victories in the midterm elections, opposition to the war effort, and temperamental military commanders added to the president’s problems.
Although the Democrats who had just won the elections would not take office until the following December, the Democrats currently in Congress were emboldened, and they wasted no time in excoriating the Lincoln administration for violating civil liberties, especially the suspension of habeas corpus in September. Congressman S.S. Cox of Ohio introduced a resolution on the first day of the new session calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners and declaring that their imprisonment had been “unwarranted by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and… a usurpation of power never given up by the people to their rulers.”
Conversely, the impending arrival of more Democrats in Congress sparked a sense of desperation by the Radical Republicans to push their legislative agenda while they still had a solid majority. It also caused the Radicals to become more suspicious of the conservative Republicans, which included Lincoln and several members of his cabinet. So the president was under increasing pressure from Democrats, Radicals, and a public starting to believe that his administration could not win the war. Lincoln did his best not to reflect this in his message, which was read to a joint session of Congress by Senate secretary John W. Forney.
Lincoln reported that foreign relations were satisfactory, adding a statement provided by Secretary of State William H. Seward: “If the condition of our relations with other nations is less gratifying than it has usually been at former periods, it is certainly more satisfactory than a nation so unhappily distracted as we are, might reasonably have anticipated.”
Commerce was adequate, and Federal receipts exceeded expenditures. Lincoln urged Congress to give “most diligent consideration” to the nation’s finances. According to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, there should be “a return to specie payments… at the earliest period compatible with due regard for all interests concerned,” and Congress should authorize the creation of a national banking system.
Lincoln also noted the Post Office’s “much improved” efficiency, the Interior Department’s successful suppression of the Sioux uprising, and the perceived benefits of having a new Department of Agriculture, which Congress recently created as a bureau within the executive branch. Lincoln also reported that the Navy Department now consisted of an unprecedented 427 warships, with 1,577 guns and a total capacity of 240,028 tons.
He avoided mentioning the politically volatile Emancipation Proclamation and instead reiterated support for his original plan of compensating slaveholders for gradually, voluntarily freeing their slaves. To that end, Lincoln proposed three constitutional amendments that would supersede his constitutionally dubious emancipation decree:
- States abolishing slavery prior to 1900 would receive Federal subsidies
- Slaves gaining freedom during the war would remain free, and if they had belonged to Unionist slaveholders, then those slaveholders would be compensated for their loss
- Congress would provide for the colonization of free blacks outside the U.S. with their consent
These amendments were intended to prevent “vagrant destitution” that would result in the immediate liberation of all slaves. This would be the last time that Lincoln offered the border states a chance to voluntarily free their slaves in exchange for payment. Nobody seemed satisfied with this proposal, as Congressman William P. Cutler of Ohio noted that Lincoln “urged in his message a most impracticable scheme of compensated emancipation nobody likes. Nobody will give it a cordial support & yet he has loaded his friends down with its odium while probably nothing will be done with it.”
“As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- 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.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.