John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

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received in Illinois. His own partner, Mr. Herndon, a young and ardent
man, with more heart than learning, more feeling for the flag than for
international justice, could not, or would not, understand Mr.
Lincoln's position, and gave him great pain by his letters. Again and
again Lincoln explained to him the difference between approving the
war and voting supplies to the soldiers, but Herndon was obstinately
obtuse, and there were many of his mind.

Lincoln's convictions were so positive in regard to the matter that
any laxity of opinion among his friends caused him real suffering. In
a letter to the Rev. J. M. Peck, who had written a defense of the
Administration in reference to the origin of the war, he writes: this
"disappoints me, because it is the first effort of the kind I have
known, made by one appearing to me to be intelligent, right-minded,
and impartial." He then reviews some of the statements of Mr. Peck,
proving their incorrectness, and goes on to show that our army had
marched under orders across the desert of the Nueces into a peaceful
Mexican settlement, frightening away the inhabitants; that Fort Brown
was built in a Mexican cotton-field, where a young crop was growing;
that Captain Thornton and his men were captured in another cultivated
field. He then asks, how under any law, human or divine, this can be
considered "no aggression," and closes by asking his clerical
correspondent if the precept, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do
to you, do you even so to them," is obsolete, of no force, of no
application? This is not the anxiety of a politician troubled about
his record. He is not a candidate for reelection, and the discussion
has passed by; but he must stop and vindicate the truth whenever
assailed. He perhaps does not see, certainly does not care, that this
stubborn devotion to mere justice will do him no good at an hour when
the air is full of the fumes of gunpowder; when the returned
volunteers are running for constable in every county; when so good a
Whig as Mr. Winthrop gives, as a sentiment, at a public meeting in
Boston, "Our country, however bounded," and the majority of his party
are preparing - unmindful of Mr. Polk and all his works - to reap the
fruits of the Mexican war by making its popular hero President.

It was fortunate for Mr. Lincoln and for Whigs like him, with
consciences, that General Taylor had occupied so unequivocal an
attitude in regard to the war. He had not been in favor of the march
to the Rio Grande, and had resisted every suggestion to that effect
until his peremptory orders came. In regard to other political
questions, his position was so undefined, and his silence generally so
discreet, that few of the Whigs, however exacting, could find any
difficulty in supporting him. Mr. Lincoln did more than tolerate his
candidacy. He supported it with energy and cordiality. He was at last
convinced that the election of Mr. Clay was impossible, and he thought
he could see that the one opportunity of the Whigs was in the
nomination of Taylor. So early as April he wrote to a friend: "Mr.
Clay's chance for an election is just no chance at all. He might get
New York, and that would have elected in 1844, but it will not now
because he must now, at the least, lose Tennessee, which he had then,
and in addition the fifteen new votes of Florida, Texas, Iowa, and
Wisconsin." Later he wrote to the same friend that the nomination took
the Democrats "on the blind side. It turns the war thunder against
them. The war is now to them the gallows of Haman, which they built
for us, and on which they are doomed to be hanged themselves."

[Sidenote: J.G. Holland, "Life of Lincoln," p. 118.]

At the same time he bated no jot of his opposition to the war, and
urged the same course upon his friends. To Linder, of Illinois, he
wrote: "In law, it is good policy to never plead what you need not,
lest you oblige yourself to prove what you cannot." He then counseled
him to go for Taylor, but to avoid approving Polk and the war, as in
the former case he would gain Democratic votes and in the latter he
would lose with the Whigs. Linder answered him, wanting to know if it
would not be as easy to elect Taylor without opposing the war, which
drew from Lincoln the angry response that silence was impossible; the
Whigs must speak, "and their only option is whether they will, when
they speak, tell the truth or tell a foul and villainous falsehood."

[Sidenote: June 7, 1848.]

When the Whig Convention came together in Philadelphia, the
differences of opinion on points of principle and policy were almost
as numerous as the delegates. The unconditional Clay men rallied once
more and gave their aged leader 97 votes to 111 which Taylor received
on the first ballot. Scott and Webster had each a few votes; but on
the fourth ballot the soldier of Buena Vista was nominated, and
Millard Fillmore placed in the line of succession to him. It was
impossible for a body so heterogeneous to put forward a distinctive
platform of principles. An attempt was made to force an expression in
regard to the Wilmot proviso, but it was never permitted to come to a
vote. The convention was determined that "Old Rough and Ready," as he
was now universally nicknamed, should run upon his battle-flags and
his name of Whig - although he cautiously called himself "not an ultra
Whig." The nomination was received with great and noisy demonstrations
of adhesion from every quarter. Lincoln, writing a day or two after
his return from the convention, said: "Many had said they would not
abide the nomination of Taylor; but since the deed has been done they
are fast falling in, and in my opinion we shall have a most
overwhelming, glorious triumph. One unmistakable sign is that all the
odds and ends are with us, - Barnburners, native Americans, Tyler men,
disappointed office-seeking Loco-focos, and the Lord knows what. This
is important, if in nothing else, in showing which way the wind

General Taylor's chances for election had been greatly increased by
what had taken place at the Democratic Convention, a fortnight before.
General Cass had been nominated for the Presidency, but his militia
title had no glamour of carnage about it, and the secession of the New
York Anti-slavery "Barnburners" from the convention was a presage of
disaster which was fulfilled in the following August by the assembling
of the recusant delegates at Buffalo, where they were joined by a
large number of discontented Democrats and "Liberty" men, and the
Free-soil party was organized for its short but effective mission.
Martin Van Buren was nominated for President, and Charles Francis
Adams was associated with him on the ticket. The great superiority of
caliber shown in the nominations of the mutineers over the regular
Democrats was also apparent in the roll of those who made and
sustained the revolt. When Salmon P. Chase, Preston King, the Van
Burens, John P. Hale, William Cullen Bryant, David Wilmot, and their
like went out of their party, they left a vacancy which was never to
be filled.

It was perhaps an instinct rather than any clear spirit of prophecy
which drove the antislavery Democrats away from their affiliations and
kept the Whigs, for the moment, substantially together. So far as the
authorized utterances of their conventions were concerned, there was
little to choose between them. They had both evaded any profession of
faith in regard to slavery. The Democrats had rejected the resolution
offered by Yancey committing them to the doctrine of "non-interference
with the rights of property in the territories," and the Whigs had
never allowed the Wilmot proviso to be voted upon. But nevertheless
those Democrats who felt that the time had come to put a stop to the
aggression of slavery, generally threw off their partisan allegiance,
and the most ardent of the antislavery Whigs, - with some exceptions it
is true, especially in Ohio and in Massachusetts, where the strength
of the "Conscience Whigs," led by Sumner, the Adamses, and Henry
Wilson, was important, - thought best to remain with their party.
General Taylor was a Southerner and a slaveholder. In regard to all
questions bearing upon slavery, he observed a discretion in the
canvass which was almost ludicrous. [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy
footnote (3) relocated to chapter end.] Yet there was a well-nigh
universal impression among the antislavery Whigs that his
administration would be under influences favorable to the restriction
of slavery. Clay, Webster, and Seward, all of whom were agreed at that
time against any extension of the area of that institution, supported
him with more or less cordiality. Webster insisted upon it that the
Whigs were themselves the best "Free-soilers," and for them to join
the party called by that distinctive name would be merely putting Mr.
Van Buren at the head of the Whig party. Mr. Seward, speaking for
Taylor at Cleveland, took still stronger ground, declaring that
slavery "must be abolished;" that "freedom and slavery are two
antagonistic elements of society in America;" that "the party of
freedom seeks complete and universal emancipation." No one then seems
to have foreseen that the Whig party - then on the eve of a great
victory - was so near its dissolution, and that the bolting Democrats
and the faithful Whigs were alike engaged in laying the foundations of
a party which was to glorify the latter half of the century with
achievements of such colossal and enduring importance.

There was certainly no doubt or misgiving in the mind of Lincoln as to
that future, which, if he could have foreseen it, would have presented
so much of terrible fascination. He went into the campaign with
exultant alacrity. He could not even wait for the adjournment of
Congress to begin his stump-speaking. Following the bad example of the
rest of his colleagues, he obtained the floor on the 27th of July, and
made a long, brilliant, and humorous speech upon the merits of the two
candidates before the people. As it is the only one of Lincoln's
popular speeches of that period which has been preserved entire, it
should be read by those who desire to understand the manner and spirit
of the politics of 1848. Whatever faults of taste or of method may be
found in it, considering it as a speech delivered in the House of
Representatives, with no more propriety or pertinence than hundreds of
others which have been made under like circumstances, it is an
extremely able speech, and it is by itself enough to show how
remarkably effective he must have been as a canvasser in the remoter
districts of his State where means of intellectual excitement were
rare and a political meeting was the best-known form of public

He begins by making a clear, brief, and dignified defense of the
position of Taylor upon the question of the proper use of the veto; he
then avows with characteristic candor that he does not know what
General Taylor will do as to slavery; he is himself "a Northern man,
or rather a Western free-State man, with a constituency I believe to
be, and with personal feelings I know to be, against the extension of
slavery" (a definition in which his caution and his honesty are
equally displayed), and he hopes General Taylor would not, if elected,
do anything against its restriction; but he would vote for him in any
case, as offering better guarantees than Mr. Cass. He then enters upon
an analysis of the position of Cass and his party which is full of
keen observation and political intelligence, and his speech goes on to
its rollicking close with a constant succession of bright, witty, and
striking passages in which the orator's own conviction and enjoyment
of an assured success is not the least remarkable feature. A few weeks
later Congress adjourned, and Lincoln, without returning home, entered
upon the canvass in New England, [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote
(4) relocated to chapter end.] and then going to Illinois, spoke night
and day until the election. When the votes were counted, the extent of
the defection among the Northern Whigs and Democrats who voted for Van
Buren and among the Southern Democrats who had been beguiled by the
epaulets of Taylor, was plainly seen. The bolting "Barnburners" had
given New York to Taylor; the Free-Soil vote in Ohio, on the other
hand, had thrown that State to Cass. Van Buren carried no electors,
but his popular vote was larger in New York and Massachusetts than
that of Cass. The entire popular vote (exclusive of South Carolina,
which chose its electors by the Legislature) was for Taylor 1,360,752;
for Cass 1,219,962; for Van Buren 291,342. Of the electors, Taylor had
163 and Cass 137.

[Relocated Footnote (1): The following extract from a letter of
Lincoln to his partner, Mr. Herndon, who had criticized his anti-war
votes, gives the names of some of the Whig soldiers who persisted in
their faith throughout the war: "As to the Whig men who have
participated in the war, so far as they have spoken to my hearing,
they do is not hesitate to denounce as unjust the President's conduct
the beginning of the war. They do not suppose that such denunciation
is directed by undying hatred to them, as 'the Register' would have it
believed, There are two such Whigs on this floor (Colonel Haskell and
Major James). The former fought as a colonel by the side of Colonel
Baker, at Cerro Gordo, and stands side by side with me in the vote
that you seem dissatisfied with. The latter, the history of whose
capture with Cassius Clay you well know, had not arrived here when
that vote was given; but, as I understand, he stands ready to give
just such a vote whenever an occasion shall present. Baker, too, who
is now here, says the truth is undoubtedly that way; and whenever he
shall speak out, he will say so. Colonel Doniphan, too, the favorite
Whig of Missouri and who overran all northern Mexico, on his return
home, in a public speech at St. Louis, condemned the Administration in
relation to the war, if I remember. G. T. M. Davis, who has been
through almost the whole war, declares in favor of Mr. Clay;" etc.]

[Relocated Footnote (2): To show how crude and vague were the ideas of
even the most intelligent men in relation to this great empire, we
give a few lines from the closing page of Edward D, Mansfield's
"History of the Mexican War," published in 1849: "But will the greater
part of this vast space ever be inhabited by any but the restless
hunter and the wandering trapper? Two hundred thousand square miles of
this territory, in New California, has been trod by the foot of no
civilized being. No spy or pioneer or vagrant trapper has ever
returned to report the character and scenery of that waste and lonely
wilderness. Two hundred thousand square miles more are occupied with
broken mountains and dreary wilds. But little remains then for

[Relocated Footnote (3): It is a tradition that a planter once wrote
to him: "I have worked hard and been frugal all my life, and the
results of my industry have mainly taken the form of slaves, of whom I
own about a hundred. Before I vote for President I want to be sure
that the candidate I support will not so act as to divest me of my
property." To which the general, with a dexterity that would have done
credit to a diplomatist, and would have proved exceedingly useful to
Mr. Clay, responded, "Sir: I have the honor to inform you that I too
have been all my life industrious and frugal, and that the fruits
thereof are mainly invested in slaves, of whom I own _three_
hundred. Yours, etc." - Horace Greeley, "American Conflict," Volume I.,
p. 193.]

[Relocated Footnote (4): Thurlow Weed says in his Autobiography, Vol.
I., p. 603: "I had supposed, until we now met, that I had never seen
Mr. Lincoln, having forgotten that in the fall of 1848, when he took
the stump in New England, he called upon me at Albany, and that we
went to see Mr. Fillmore, who was then the Whig candidate for
Vice-President." The New York "Tribune," September 14, 1848, mentions
Mr. Lincoln as addressing a great Whig meeting in Boston, September
12. The Boston "Atlas" refers to speeches made by him at Dorchester,
September 16; at Chelsea September 17; by Lincoln and Seward at
Boston, September 22, on which occasion the report says: "Mr. Lincoln,
of Illinois, next came forward, and was received with great applause.
He spoke about an hour and made a powerful and convincing speech which
was cheered to the echo."

Mr. Robert C. Winthrop, Jr., in his recent memoir of the Hon. David
Sears, says, the most brilliant of Mr. Lincoln's speeches in this
campaign "was delivered at Worcester, September 13, 1848, when, after
taking for his text Mr. Webster's remark that the nomination of Martin
Van Buren for the Presidency by a professed antislavery party could
fitly be regarded only as a trick or a joke, Mr. Lincoln proceeded to
declare that of the three parties then asking the confidence of the
country, the new one had less of principle than any other, adding,
amid shouts of laughter, that the recently constructed elastic
Free-Soil platform reminded him of nothing so much as the pair of
trousers offered for sale by a Yankee peddler which were 'large enough
for any man and small enough for any boy.'"

It is evident that he considered Van Buren, in Massachusetts at least,
a candidate more to be feared than Cass, the regular Democratic



When Congress came together again in December, there was such a change
in the temper of its members that no one would have imagined, on
seeing the House divided, that it was the same body which had
assembled there a year before. The election was over; the Whigs were
to control the Executive Department of the Government for four years
to come; the members themselves were either reflected or defeated; and
there was nothing to prevent the gratification of such private
feelings as they might have been suppressing during the canvass in the
interest of their party. It was not long before some of the Northern
Democrats began to avail themselves of this new liberty. They had
returned burdened with a sense of wrong. They had seen their party put
in deadly peril by reason of its fidelity to the South, and they had
seen how little their Southern brethren cared for their labors and
sacrifices, in the enormous gains which Taylor had made in the South,
carrying eight out of fifteen slave States. They were in the humor to
avenge themselves by a display of independence on their own account,
at the first opportunity. The occasion was not long in presenting
itself. A few days after Congress opened, Mr. Root, of Ohio,
introduced a resolution instructing the Committee on Territories to
bring in a bill "with as little delay as practicable" to provide
territorial governments for California and New Mexico, which should
"exclude slavery there-from." This resolution would have thrown the
same House into a panic twelve months before, but now it passed by a
vote of 108 to 80 - in the former number were all the "Whigs from the
North and all the Democrats but eight," and in the latter the entire
South and the eight referred to.

The Senate, however, was not so susceptible to popular impressions,
and the bill, prepared in obedience to the mandate of the House, never
got farther than the desk of the Senate Chamber. The pro-slavery
majority in that body held firmly together till near the close of the
session, when they attempted to bring in the new territories without
any restriction as to slavery, by attaching what is called "a rider"
to that effect to the Civil Appropriation Bill. The House resisted,
and returned the bill to the Senate with the rider unhorsed. A
committee of conference failed to agree. Mr. McClernand, a Democrat
from Illinois, then moved that the House recede from its disagreement,
which was carried by a few Whig votes, to the dismay of those who were
not in the secret, when Richard W. Thompson (who was thirty years
afterwards Secretary of the Navy) instantly moved that the House do
concur with the Senate, with this amendment, that the existing laws of
those territories be for the present and until Congress should amend
them, retained. This would secure them to freedom, as slavery had long
ago been abolished by Mexico. This amendment passed, and the Senate
had to face the many-pronged dilemma, either to defeat the
Appropriation Bill, or to consent that the territories should be
organized as free communities, or to swallow their protestations that
the territories were in sore need of government and adjourn, leaving
them in the anarchy they had so feelingly depicted. They chose the
last as the least dangerous course, and passed the Appropriation Bill
in its original form.

Mr. Lincoln took little part in the discussions incident to these
proceedings; he was constantly in his seat, however, and voted
generally with his party, and always with those opposed to the
extension of slavery. He used to say that he had voted for the Wilmot
proviso, in its various phases, forty-two times. He left to others,
however, the active work on the floor. His chief preoccupation during
this second session was a scheme which links itself characteristically
with his first protest against the proscriptive spirit of slavery ten
years before in the Illinois Legislature and his immortal act fifteen
years afterwards in consequence of which American slavery ceased to
exist. He had long felt in common with many others that the traffic in
human beings under the very shadow of the Capitol was a national
scandal and reproach. He thought that Congress had the power under the
Constitution to regulate or prohibit slavery in all regions under its
exclusive jurisdiction, and he thought it proper to exercise that
power with due regard to vested rights and the general welfare. He
therefore resolved to test the question whether it were possible to
remove from the seat of government this stain and offense.

[Sidenote: Gidding's diary, January 8, 9, and 11, 1849: published in
the "Cleveland Post," March 31, 1878.]

He proceeded carefully and cautiously about it, after his habit. When
he had drawn up his plan, he took counsel with some of the leading
citizens of Washington and some of the more prominent members of
Congress before bringing it forward. His bill obtained the cordial
approval of Colonel Seaton, the Mayor of Washington, whom Mr. Lincoln
had consulted as the representative of the intelligent slave-holding
citizens of the District, and of Joshua R. Giddings, whom he regarded
as the leading abolitionist in Congress, a fact which sufficiently
proves the practical wisdom with which he had reconciled the demands
of right and expediency. In the meantime, however, Mr. Gott, a member
from New York, had introduced a resolution with a rhetorical preamble
directing the proper committee to bring in a bill prohibiting the
slave-trade in the District. This occasioned great excitement, much
caucusing and threatening on the part of the Southern members, but
nothing else. In the opinion of the leading antislavery men, Mr.
Lincoln's bill, being at the same time more radical and more
reasonable, was far better calculated to effect its purpose. Giddings
says in his diary: "This evening (January 11), our whole mess remained
in the dining-room after tea, and conversed upon the subject of Mr.
Lincoln's bill to abolish slavery. It was approved by all; I believe
it as good a bill as we could get at this time, and am willing to pay
for slaves in order to save them from the Southern market, as I
suppose every man in the District would sell his slaves if he saw that
slavery was to be abolished." Mr. Lincoln therefore moved, on the 16th
of January, as an amendment to Gott's proposition, that the committee
report a bill for the total abolition of slavery in the District of
Columbia, the terms of which he gave in full. They were in substance
the following:

The first two sections prohibit the bringing of slaves into the
district or selling them out of it, provided, however, that officers
of the Government, being citizens of slave-holding States, may bring
their household servants with them for a reasonable time and take them
away again. The third provides a temporary system of apprenticeship
and eventual emancipation for children born of slavemothers after
January 1, 1850. The fourth provides for the manumission of slaves by
the Government on application of the owners, the latter to receive
their full cash value. The fifth provides for the return of fugitive
slaves from Washington and Georgetown. The sixth submits this bill

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 19 of 31)