The Great Conspiracy

It was about this time that a remarkable letter written by Mr. Lincoln
to a Kentuckian, on the subject of Emancipation, appeared in print. It
is interesting as being not alone the President’s own statement of his
views, from the beginning, as to Slavery, and how he came to be “driven”
to issue the Proclamation of Emancipation, and as showing how the Union
Cause had gained by its issue, but also in disclosing, indirectly, how
incessantly the subject was revolved in his own mind, and urged by him
upon the minds of others. The publication of the letter, moreover, was
not without its effect on the ultimate action of the Congress and the
States in adopting the Thirteenth Amendment. It ran thus:

“WASHINGTON, April 4, 1864.

“A. G. HODGES, Esq., Frankfort, Ky.

“MY DEAR SIR: You ask me to put in writing the substance of–what I
verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and
Senator Dixon. It was about as follows:

“I am naturally anti-Slavery. If Slavery is not wrong, nothing is
wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I
have never understood that the ‘Presidency conferred upon me an
unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.

“It was in the oath I took, that I would to the best of my ability
preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I
could not take the Office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view
that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the

“I understood, too, that in ordinary and Civil Administration this oath
even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on
the moral question of Slavery. I had publicly declared this many times,
and in many ways.

“And I aver that, to this day, I have done no Official act in mere
deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on Slavery.

“I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to
the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving by every
indispensable means, that Government–that Nation, of which that
Constitution was the Organic Law.

“Was it possible to lose the Nation and yet preserve the Constitution?

“By General Law, life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must
be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a
limb. I felt that measures, otherwise Unconstitutional, might become
lawful, by becoming Indispensable to the Constitution through the
preservation of the Nation.

“Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not
feel that, to the best of my ability, I have even tried to preserve the
Constitution, if, to save Slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit
the wreck of Government, Country, and Constitution, altogether.

“When, early in the War, General Fremont attempted Military
Emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an
Indispensable Necessity.

“When, a little later, General Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested
the Arming of the Blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an
Indispensable Necessity.

“When, still later, General Hunter attempted Military Emancipation, I
again forbade it, because I did not yet think the Indispensable
Necessity had come.

“When in March, and May, and July, 1862, I made earnest and successive
appeals to the Border-States to favor compensated Emancipation, I
believed the Indispensable Necessity for Military Emancipation and
arming the Blacks would come, unless averted by that measure.

“They declined the proposition, and I was, in my best judgment, driven
to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the
Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the Colored element. I
chose the latter. In choosing it, I hoped for greater gain than loss,
but of this I was not entirely confident.

“More than a year of trial now shows no loss by it in our Foreign
Relations, none in our home popular sentiment, none in our white
Military force, no loss by it anyhow, or anywhere. On the contrary, it
shows a gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen,
and laborers.

“These are palpable facts, about which, as facts, there can be no
cavilling. We have the men; and we could not have had them without the

“And now let any Union man who complains of this measure, test himself
by writing down in one line, that he is for subduing the Rebellion by
force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking one hundred and
thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they
would be best for the measure he condemns. If he cannot face his case
so stated, it is only because he cannot face the truth.

“I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this
tale, I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have
controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.
Now at the end of three years’ struggle, the Nation’s condition is not
what either Party, or any man, devised or expected. God alone can claim

“Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a
great wrong, and wills also that we of the North, as well as you of the
South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial
history will find therein new causes to attest and revere the Justice
and goodness of God.
“Yours truly,
The 8th of April (1864) turned out to be the decisive field-day in the
Senate. Sumner endeavored to close the debate on that day in a speech
remarkable no less for its power and eloquence of statement, its
strength of Constitutional exposition, and its abounding evidences of
extensive historical research and varied learning, than for its
patriotic fervor and devotion to human Freedom.

Toward the end of that great speech, however, he somewhat weakened its
force by suggesting a change in the phraseology of the proposed
Thirteenth Amendment, so that, instead of almost precisely following the
language of the Jeffersonian Ordinance of 1787, as recommended by the
Judiciary Committee of the Senate, it should read thus:

“All Persons are Equal before the Law, so that no person can hold
another as a Slave; and the Congress may make all laws necessary and
proper to carry this Article into effect everywhere within the United
States and the jurisdiction thereof.”

Mr. Sumner’s idea in antagonizing the Judiciary Committee’s proposition
with this, was to introduce into our Organic Act, distinctive words
asserting the “Equality before the Law” of all persons, as expressed in
the Constitutional Charters of Belgium, Italy and Greece, as well as in
the various Constitutions of France–beginning with that of September,
1791, which declared (Art. 1) that “Men are born and continue Free and
Equal in Rights;” continuing in that of June, 1793, which declares that
“All Men are Equal by Nature and before the Law:” in that of June, 1814,
which declares that “Frenchmen are Equal before the Law, whatever may be
otherwise their title and ranks;” and in the Constitutional Charter of
August, 1830 in similar terms to the last.

“But,” said he, “while desirous of seeing the great rule of Freedom
which we are about to ordain, embodied in a text which shall be like the
precious casket to the more precious treasure, yet * * * I am consoled
by the thought that the most homely text containing such a rule will be
more beautiful far than any words of poetry or eloquence, and that it
will endure to be read with gratitude when the rising dome of this
Capitol, with the Statue of Liberty which surmounts it, has crumbled to

Mr. Sumner’s great speech, however, by no means ended the debate. It
brought Mr. Powell to his feet with a long and elaborate contention
against the general proposition, in the course of which he took occasion
to sneer at Sumner’s “most remarkable effort,” as one of his “long
illogical rhapsodies on Slavery, like:

‘–a Tale
Told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.'”

He professed that he wanted “the Union to be restored with the
Constitution as it is;” that he verily believed the passage of this
Amendment would be “the most effective Disunion measure that could be
passed by Congress”–and, said he, “As a lover of the Union I oppose

[This phrase slightly altered, in words, but not in meaning, to
“The Union as it was, and the Constitution as it is,” afterward
became the Shibboleth under which the Democratic Party in the
Presidential Campaign of 1864, marched to defeat.]

He endeavored to impute the blame for the War, to the northern
Abolitionists, for, said he: “Had there been no Abolitionists, North,
there never would have been a Fire-eater, South,”–apparently ignoring
the palpable fact that had there been no Slavery in the South, there
could have been no “Abolitionists, North.”

He heatedly denounced the “fanatical gentlemen” who desired the passage
of this measure; declared they intended by its passage “to destroy the
Institution of Slavery or to destroy the Union,” and exclaimed: “Pass
this Amendment and you make an impassable chasm, as if you were to put a
lake of burning fire, between the adhering States and those who are out.
You will then have to make it a War of conquest and extermination before
you can ever bring them back under the flag of the Government. There is
no doubt about that proposition.”

Mr. Sumner, at this point, withdrew his proposed amendment, at the
suggestion of Mr. Howard, who expressed a preference “to dismiss all
reference to French Constitutions and French Codes, and go back to the
good old Anglo-Saxon language employed by our Fathers, in the Ordinance
of 1787, (in) an expression adjudicated upon repeatedly, which is
perfectly well understood both by the public and by Judicial Tribunals–
a phrase, which is peculiarly near and dear to the people of the
Northwestern Territory, from whose soil Slavery was excluded by it.”

[The following is the language of “the Ordinance of 1787” thus
referred to:

“ART. 6.–There shall be neither Slavery nor Involuntary Servitude
in the said Territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes,
whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: * * *.”]

Mr. Davis thereupon made another opposition speech and, at its
conclusion, Mr. Saulsbury offered, as a substitute, an Article,
comprising no less than twenty sections–that, he said, “embodied in
them some things” which “did not meet his personal approbation,” but he
had consented to offer them to the Senate as “a Compromise”–as “a Peace

The Saulsbury substitute being voted down, the debate closed with a
speech by Mr. McDougall–an eloquent protest from his standpoint, in
which, after endorsing the wild statement of Mr. Hendricks that 250,000
of the people of African descent had been prematurely destroyed on the
Mississippi, he continued.

“This policy will ingulf them. It is as simple a truth as has ever been
taught by any history. The Slaves of ancient time were not the Slaves
of a different Race. The Romans compelled the Gaul and the Celt,
brought them to their own Country, and some of them became great poets,
and some eloquent orators, and some accomplished wits, and they became
citizens of the Republic of Greece, and of the Republic of Rome, and of
the Empire.

“This is not the condition of these persons with whom we are now
associated, and about whose affairs we undertake to establish
administration. They can never commingle with us. It may not be within
the reading of some learned Senators, and yet it belongs to demonstrated
Science, that the African race and the European are different; and I
here now say it as a fact established by science, that the eighth
generation of the Mixed race formed by the union of the African and
European, cannot continue their species. Quadroons have few children;
with Octoroons reproduction is impossible.

“It establishes as a law of nature that the African has no proper
relation to the European, Caucasian, blood. I would have them kindly
treated. * * * Against all such policy and all such conduct I shall
protest as a man, in the name of humanity, and of law, and of truth, and
of religion.”

The amendment made, as in Committee of the Whole, having been concurred
in, etc., the Joint Resolution, as originally reported by the Judiciary
Committee, was at last passed, (April 8th)–by a vote of 38 yeas to 6
nays–Messrs. Hendricks and McDougall having the uneviable distinction
of being the only two Senators, (mis-)representing Free States, who
voted against this definitive Charter of American Liberty.

[The full Senate vote, on passing the Thirteenth Amendment, was:

YEAS-Messrs. Anthony, Brown, Chandler, Clark, Collamer, Conness,
Cowan, Dixon, Doolittle, Fessenden, Foot, Foster, Grimes, Hale,
Harding, Harlan, Harris, Henderson, Howard, Howe, Johnson, Lane of
Indiana, Lane of Kansas, Morgan, Morrill, Nesmith, Pomeroy, Ramsey,
Sherman, Sprague, Sumner, Ten Eyck, Trumbull, Van Winkle, Wade,
Wilkinson, Willey, and Wilson–38.

NAYs–Messrs. Davis, Hendricks, McDougall, Powell, Riddle, and
Saulsbury.] CHAPTER XXIV.


The immortal Charter of Freedom had, as we have seen, with comparative
ease, after a ten days’ debate, by the power of numbers, run the
gauntlet of the Senate; but now it was to be subjected to the much more
trying and doubtful ordeal of the House. What would be its fate there?
This was a question which gave to Mr. Lincoln, and the other friends of
Liberty and Union, great concern.

It is true that various votes had recently been taken in that body, upon
propositions which had an indirect bearing upon the subject of
Emancipation, as, for instance, that of the 1st of February, 1864, when,
by a vote of 80 yeas to 46 nays, it had adopted a Resolution declaring
“That a more vigorous policy to enlist, at an early day, and in larger
numbers, in our Army, persons of African descent, would meet the
approbation of the House;” and that vote, although indirect, being so
very nearly a two-thirds vote, was most encouraging. But, on the other
hand, a subsequent Resolution, squarely testing the sense of the House
upon the subject, had been carried by much less than a two-thirds vote.

This latter Resolution, offered by Mr. Arnold, after conference with Mr.
Lincoln, with the very purpose of making a test, was in these direct

“Resolved, That the Constitution shall be so amended as to Abolish
Slavery in the United States wherever it now exists, and to prohibit its
existence in every part thereof forever.”

The vote, adopting it, was but 78 yeas to 62 nays. * This vote,
therefore, upon the Arnold Resolution, being nowhere near the two-thirds
affirmative vote necessary to secure the passage through the House of
the Senate Joint Resolution on this subject amendatory of the
Constitution, was most discouraging.

It was definite enough, however, to show the necessity of a change from
the negative to the affirmative side of at least fifteen votes. While
therefore the outlook was discouraging it was far from hopeless. The
debate in the Senate had already had its effect upon the public mind.
That, and the utterances of Mr. Lincoln–and further discussion in the
House, it was thought, might produce such a pressure from the loyal
constituencies both in the Free and Border Slave-States as to compel

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