The Great Conspiracy

[The following letter, from Sumner, shows the impatience of some of
the President’s friends, the confidence he inspired in others
nearer in his counsels, and how entirely, at this time, his mind
was absorbed in his project for gradual and compensated

“SENATE CHAMBER, June 5, 1862.

“MY DEAR SIR.–Your criticism of the President is hasty. I am
confident that, if you knew him as I do, you would not make it. Of
course the President cannot be held responsible for the
misfeasances of subordinates, unless adopted or at least tolerated
by him. And I am sure that nothing unjust or ungenerous will be
tolerated, much less adopted, by him.

“I am happy to let you know that he has no sympathy with Stanly in
his absurd wickedness, closing the schools, nor again in his other
act of turning our camp into a hunting ground for Slaves. He
repudiates both–positively. The latter point has occupied much of
his thought; and the newspapers have not gone too far in recording
his repeated declarations, which I have often heard from his own
lips, that Slaves finding their way into the National lines are
never to be Re-enslaved–This is his conviction, expressed without

“Could you have seen the President–as it was my privilege often–
while he was considering the great questions on which he has
already acted–the invitation to Emancipation in the States,
Emancipation in the District of Columbia, and the acknowledgment of
the Independence of Hayti and Liberia–even your zeal would have
been satisfied, for you would have felt the sincerity of his
purpose to do what he could to carry forward the principles of the
Declaration of Independence.

“His whole soul was occupied, especially by the first proposition,
which was peculiarly his own. In familiar intercourse with him, I
remember nothing more touching than the earnestness and
completeness with which he embraced this idea. To his mind, it was
just and beneficent, while it promised the sure end of Slavery. Of
course, to me, who had already proposed a bridge of gold for the
retreating fiend, it was most welcome. Proceeding from the
President, it must take its place among the great events of

“If you are disposed to be impatient at any seeming
shortcomings, think, I pray you, of what has been done in a brief
period, and from the past discern the sure promise of the future.
Knowing something of my convictions and of the ardor with which I
maintain them, you may, perhaps, derive some assurance from my
confidence; I may say to you, therefore, stand by the
Administration. If need be, help it by word and act, but stand by
it and have faith in it.

“I wish that you really knew the President, and had heard the
artless expression of his convictions on those questions which
concern you so deeply. You might, perhaps, wish that he were less
cautious, but you would be grateful that he is so true to all that
you have at heart. Believe me, therefore, you are wrong, and I
regret it the more because of my desire to see all our friends
stand firmly together.

“If I write strongly it is because I feel strongly; for my constant
and intimate intercourse with the President, beginning with the 4th
of March, not only binds me peculiarly to his Administration, but
gives me a personal as well as a political interest in seeing that
justice is done him.

“Believe me, my dear Sir, with much regard, ever faithfully yours,

But stones are not more deaf to entreaty than were the ears of the loyal
Border-State men and their allies to President Lincoln’s renewed appeal.
“Ephraim” was “wedded to his idols.”

McClellan too–immediately after his retreat from the Chickahominy to
the James River–seized the opportunity afforded by the disasters to our
arms, for which he was responsible, to write to President Lincoln a
letter (dated July 7, 1862) in which he admonished him that owing to the
“critical” condition of the Army of the Potomac, and the danger of its
being “overwhelmed” by the Enemy in front, the President must now
substantially assume and exercise the powers of a Dictator, or all would
be lost; that “neither Confiscation of property * * * nor forcible
Abolition of Slavery, should be contemplated for a moment;” and that “A
declaration of Radical views, especially upon Slavery, will rapidly
disintegrate our present Armies.”

Harried, and worried, on all sides,–threatened even by the Commander of
the Army of the Potomac,–it is not surprising, in view of the
apparently irreconcilable attitude of the loyal Border-State men to
gradual and compensated Emancipation, that the tension of President
Lincoln’s mind began to feel a measure of relief in contemplating
Military Emancipation in the teeth of all such threats.

He had long since made up his mind that the existence of Slavery was not
compatible with the preservation of the Union. The only question now
was, how to get rid of it? If the worst should come to the worst–
despite McClellan’s threat–he would have to risk everything on the turn
of the die–would have to “play his last card;” and that “last card” was
Military Emancipation. Yet still he disliked to play it. The time and
necessity for it had not yet arrived–although he thought he saw them

[In the course of an article in the New York Tribune, August, 1885,
Hon. George S. Boutwell tells of an interview in “July or early
in August” of 1862, with President Lincoln, at which the latter
read two letters: one from a Louisiana man “who claimed to be a
Union man,” but sought to impress the President with “the dangers
and evils of Emancipation;” the other, Mr. Lincoln’s reply to him,
in which, says Mr. B., “he used this expression: ‘you must not
expect me to give up this Government without playing my last card.’
Emancipation was his last card.”]

Things were certainly, at this time, sufficiently unpromising to chill
the sturdiest Patriot’s heart. It is true, we had scored some important
victories in the West; but in the East, our arms seemed fated to
disaster after disaster. Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and
Pittsburg Landing, were names whose mention made the blood of Patriots
to surge in their veins; and Corinth, too, had fallen. But in the East,
McClellan’s profitless campaign against Richmond, and especially his
disastrous “change of base” by a “masterly” seven days’ retreat,
involving as many bloody battles, had greatly dispirited all Union men,
and encouraged the Rebels and Rebel-sympathizers to renewed hopes and

And, as reverses came to the Union Arms, so seemed to grow
proportionately the efforts, on all sides, to force forward, or to stave
off, as the case might be, the great question of the liberation and
arming of the Slaves, as a War Measure, under the War powers of the
Constitution. It was about this time (July 12, 1862) that President
Lincoln determined to make a third, and last, attempt to avert the
necessity for thus emancipating and arming the Slaves. He invited all
the Senators and Representatives in Congress from the Border-States, to
an interview at the White House, and made to them the appeal, heretofore
in these pages given at length.

It was an earnest, eloquent, wise, kindly, patriotic, fatherly appeal in
behalf of his old proposition, for a gradual, compensated Emancipation,
by the Slave States, aided by the resources of the National Government.

At the very time of making it, he probably had, in his drawer, the rough
draft of the Proclamation which was soon to give Liberty to all the
Colored millions of the Land.

[McPherson gives a letter, written from Washington, by Owen Lovejoy
(Feb. 22, 1864), to Wm. Lloyd Garrison, in which the following
passage occurs:

“Recurring to the President, there are a great many reports
concerning him which seem to be reliable and authentic, which,
after all, are not so. It was currently reported among the Anti-
Slavery men of Illinois that the Emancipation Proclamation was
extorted from him by the outward pressure, and particularly by the
Delegation from the Christian Convention that met at Chicago.

“Now, the fact is this, as I had it from his own lips: He had
written the Proclamation in the Summer, as early as June, I think–
but will not be certain as to the precise time–and called his
Cabinet together, and informed them he had written it and meant to
make it, but wanted to read it to them for any criticism or remarks
as to its features or details.

“After having done so, Mr. Seward suggested whether it would not be
well for him to withhold its publication until after we had gained
some substantial advantage in the Field, as at that time we had met
with many reverses, and it might be considered a cry of despair.
He told me he thought the suggestion a wise one, and so held on to
the Proclamation until after the Battle of Antietam.]

Be that as it may, however, sufficient evidences exist, to prove that he
must have been fully aware, at the time of making that appeal to the
supposed patriotism of these Border-State men, how much, how very much,
depended on the manner of their reception of it.

To him, that meeting was a very solemn and portentous one. He had
studied the question long and deeply–not from the standpoint of his own
mere individual feelings and judgment, but from that of fair
Constitutional construction, as interpreted by the light of Natural or
General Law and right reason. What he sought to impress upon them was,
that an immediate decision by the Border-States to adopt, and in due
time carry out, with the financial help of the General Government, a
policy of gradual Emancipation, would simultaneously solve the two
intimately-blended problems of Slavery-destruction and Union-
preservation, in the best possible manner for the pockets and feelings
of the Border-State Slave-holder, and for the other interests of both
Border-State Slave-holder and Slave.

His great anxiety was to “perpetuate,” as well as to save, to the People
of the World, the imperiled form of Popular Government, and assure to it
a happy and a grand future.

He begged these Congressmen from the Border-States, to help him carry
out this, his beneficent plan, in the way that was best for all, and
thus at the same time utterly deprive the Rebel Confederacy of that
hope, which still possessed them, of ultimately gathering these States
into their rebellious fold. And he very plainly, at the same time,
confessed that he desired this relief from the Abolition pressure upon
him, which had been growing more intense ever since he had repudiated
the Hunter proclamation.

But the President’s earnest appeal to these loyal Representatives in
Congress from the Border-States, was, as we have seen, in vain. It
might as well have been made to actual Rebels, for all the good it did.
For, a few days afterward, they sent to him a reply signed by more than
two-thirds of those present, hitherto given at length in these pages, in
which-after loftily sneering at the proposition as “an interference by
this Government with a question which peculiarly and exclusively
belonged to” their “respective States, on which they had not sought
advice or solicited aid,” throwing doubts upon the Constitutional power
of the General Government to give the financial aid, and undertaking by
statistics to prove that it would absolutely bankrupt the Government to
give such aid,–they insultingly declared, in substance, that they could
not “trust anything to the contingencies of future legislation,” and
that Congress must “provide sufficient funds” and place those funds in
the President’s hands for the purpose, before the Border-States and
their people would condescend even to “take this proposition into
careful consideration, for such decision as in their judgment is
demanded by their interest, their honor, and their duty to the whole

Very different in tone, to be sure, was the minority reply, which, after
stating that “the leaders of the Southern Rebellion have offered to
abolish Slavery among them as a condition to Foreign Intervention in
favor of their Independence as a Nation,” concluded with the terse and
loyal deduction: “If they can give up Slavery to destroy the Union, we
can surely ask our people to consider the question of Emancipation to
save the Union.”

But those who signed this latter reply were few, among the many.
Practically, the Border-State men were a unit against Mr. Lincoln’s
proposition, and against its fair consideration by their people. He
asked for meat, and they gave him a stone.

Only a few days before this interview, President Lincoln–alarmed by the
report of McClellan, that the magnificent Army of the Potomac under his
command, which, only three months before, had boasted 161,000 men, had
dwindled down to not more than “50,000 men left with their colors”–had
been to the front, at Harrison’s Landing, on the James river, and,
although he had not found things quite so disheartening as he had been
led to believe, yet they were bad enough, for only 86,000 men were found
by him on duty, while 75,000 were unaccounted for–of which number
34,4172 were afterward reported as “absent by authority.”

This condition of affairs, in connection with the fact that McClellan
was always calling for more troops, undoubtedly had its influence in
bringing Mr. Lincoln’s mind to the conviction, hitherto mentioned, of
the fast-approaching Military necessity for Freeing and Arming the

It was to ward this off, if possible, that he had met and appealed to
the Border-State Representatives. They had answered him with sneers and
insults; and nothing was left him but the extreme course of almost
immediate Emancipation.

Long and anxiously he had thought over the matter, but the time for
action was at hand.

And now, it cannot be better told, than in President Lincoln’s own
words, as given to the portrait-painter Carpenter, and recorded in the
latter’s, “Six months in the White House,” what followed:

“It had got to be,” said he, “midsummer, 1862. Things had gone on from
bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on
the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played
our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game!

“I now determined upon the adoption of the Emancipation Policy; and,
without consultation with, or the knowledge of, the Cabinet, I prepared
the original draft of the Proclamation, and, after much anxious thought,
called a Cabinet meeting upon the subject. This was the last of July,
or the first part of the month of August, 1862.” (The exact date he did
not remember.)

“This Cabinet meeting took place, I think, upon a Saturday. All were
present, excepting Mr. Blair, the Postmaster-General, who was absent at
the opening of the discussion, but came in subsequently. I said to the
Cabinet, that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them
together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a
Proclamation before them; suggestions as to which would be in order,
after they had heard it read.

“Mr. Lovejoy was in error” when he stated “that it excited no comment,
excepting on the part of Secretary Seward. Various suggestions were
offered. Secretary Chase wished the language stronger, in reference to
the arming of the Blacks. Mr. Blair, after he came in, deprecated the
policy, on the ground that it would cost the Administration the fall

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