Politics in the Wartime North

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Politics in the Wartime North


Persistence of Partisanship. The outbreak of war prompted a strong bipartisan expression of Unionism. After a highly publicized visit to the White House, Stephen A. Douglas declared from his home in Chicago that There can be no neutrals in this war, only patriotsor traitors. But Lincoln entered office determined to govern as a Republican president, not as the head of a coalition. He did not invite any active Democrats to join his cabinet, although he carefully balanced the group between former Whigs and former Democrats. Patronage remained the glue of partisanship, and Lincoln proved to be a master at accommodating different factions. On the other hand, military appointmentsalso an important form of patronagecalled for special bipartisan handling, and Lincoln was careful to recognize the applications of qualified Democratic commanders. Although party lines thus remained important, the Republicans enjoyed an overwhelming political advantage at the outset


President Abraham Lincoln did not often deliver speeches rallying support for the Union war effort. The leading spokesman for the North was Whig statesman Edward Everett of Massachusetts, whose efforts to summarize the federal cause for the benefit of American audiences and foreign readers led to his invitation to deliver the main address on 19 November 1863, at the dedication of a cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield. After Everetts oration, Lincoln offered some dedicatory remarks:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicatewe can not consecratewe can not hallowthis ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before usthat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last fulLmeasure of devotionthat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vainthat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomand that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

of the war because the Democratic Party had become concentrated in the South in the years since the Kansas-Nebraska crisis. The Republican advantage increased when Douglas, the most powerful Northern Democrat, died suddenly in June 1861. In the Thirty-seventh Congress that symbolically mustered on 4 July 1861, the Republicans were able to pass many of the legislative proposals with which they had rounded out the party platform in recent years. Chief among these were the Homestead Act, which provided free land to settlers on the public domain, and the Morrill Act, which provided land grants to states to endow colleges. Both of these measures had been passed by the last Republican Congress but vetoed by President Buchanan. The absence of Southern Democrats also made it possible for the first

time to charter a transcontinental railroad, as there was now no protest to the adoption of a northern route.

Border States. In addition to his military responsibilities as commander in chief, Lincolns primary political concern at the outset of the war was to prevent the remaining slaveholding states from leaving the Union. Delaware quickly aligned itself on the federal side, but secession movements were strong in Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, which stood to add another 45 percent to the white population of the Confederacy, almost 40 percent to its livestock supply, and 80 percent to its manufacturing capacity. The administration acted forcefully to forestall disunion in nearby Maryland, arresting legislators who favored the calling of a secession convention and holding them in prison until the state was stabilized. In contrast, Lincoln adopted a more restrained approach to his native state of Kentucky, whose declaration of neutrality he showed a willingness to respect. Meanwhile, the situation in Missouri was utterly chaotic, and early fighting in the fiercely divided state provided the context for a crucial decision by Lincoln. Shortly after assuming command of Union forces in the Western theater, John C. Fremont issued a proclamation freeing the slaves and confiscating the property of Confederate supporters in Missouri. This order went well beyond a recent congressional enactment providing for forfeiture of property, including slaves, that were used directly to support the rebel army, and it went well beyond the military policy developed by Gen. Benjamin Butler to regard runaway slaves as contrabands of war and disclaim any duty to return them to Southern masters. Lincoln, who had repeatedly insisted that the federal purpose was solely to preserve the Union, and not to end slavery, countermanded Fremonts order. He wrote to a friend that emancipation must be settled according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations, and he warned that Fremonts policy risked the secession of Kentucky. To lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game, he reasoned. Unionists did establish control of the Kentucky government, partly in reaction to a Confederate invasion of the supposedly neutral state in September. But Lincolns decision cut sharply into his support among antislavery Northerners.

Transformation of the War. The failure of George B. McClellans much-anticipated Peninsula invasion in the Seven Days battles of 25 June-2 July 1862 prompted a fundamental rethinking of the Union war effort. The retreat from Richmond left no end to the war in sight and clearly called for a revamped Union strategy. The response took several different forms. A second Confiscation Act, passed in July 1862, declared forfeit the property of rebels and provided that slaves shall be deemed captives of war and shall be forever free. In the same month Congress passed legislation authorizing the president to order state militia into federal service for up to nine months; this legislation mostly served to stimulate states to recruit volunteers to meet federal requisitions of troops, but in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Pennsylvania a draft was put into effect to satisfy the quotas. Resistance to the draft in turn led the administration to extend across the country its suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and to provide military judicial proceedings for all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice affording aid and comfort to the rebels. The beginnings of conscription, which would be expanded one year later, were

one of several important ways in which the rejuvenated Union war effort undermined the powers of states. Another significant federal incursion was the National Banking Act passed by Congress in February 1863. The creation of a system of federally chartered banks, aided by taxes that drove out of existence the banknotes of state-chartered banks, helped to fund the Federal army and established the financial framework of the nation until the introduction of the Federal Reserve system in the twentieth century.

Emancipation. The most important rethinking of the war after the Seven Days battles was Lincolns decision to issue a proclamation emancipating the slaves. In early May 1862 he had rescinded an emancipation decree issued by Union commander David Hunter for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. By July, however, the president felt that emancipation was a military necessity. Seward persuaded him to withhold the announcement until it could follow a Union victory, which turned out to mean waiting until McClellans army turned back Lees invasion of the North at the battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862. Five days later, Lincoln warned that slaves in the Confederacy would be forever free if the rebellion did not end by 1 January 1863. Because military necessity provided justification for the decree, it did not affect slaves in the loyal border states or in areas of the South under federal control. Accordingly, the Times of London taunted that where he has no power Mr. Lincoln will set the negroes free; where he retains power he will consider them as slaves. But Lincoln remained scrupulous about the constitutional basis for emancipation. Ultimately he would make sponsorship of a constitutional amendment resolving the issue the main political priority of his administration.

Radical Criticism. The Emancipation Proclamation did not erase the distrust of Lincoln that radicals had developed. Part of the friction resulted from conflicting ambitions. Unlike Seward, Chase never surrendered his ambition to be president, and he sought to undermine the administration even while serving it as secretary of the treasury. But important policy matters were also at stake. For example, Lincoln retained what radicals considered a hopelessly outdated and appalling interest in the idea of colonizing the former slave population. As the war turned in favor of the North, plans for reconstruction of conquered states like Louisiana became an increasingly important area of contention between the administration and its radical critics. In December 1863 Lincoln proposed to grant pardon and amnesty to rebels who swore allegiance to the United States and accepted emancipation; he would consider recognition of a state government formed by declared loyalists equal to at least 10 percent of the voting population in 1860. Radicals responded with a bill sponsored by Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Rep. Henry Winter Davis of Maryland requiring promises of loyalty from 50 percent rather than 10 percent of the prewar voters and disfranchising former Confederates. When Lincoln vetoed the law in July 1864, Wade and Davis published a manifesto condemning him for violating the rights of humanity, and the principles of Republican government. Although Lincoln had outmaneuvered Chase to win nomination for reelection, the 1856 Republican presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, led a third-party bid to unseat Lincoln.

Conservative Criticism. Even more worrisome to Lincoln were his critics from the other side of the political spectrum. Emancipation, conscription, and the suspension of habeas corpus became powerful issues for Democrats, who made modest gains in the congressional elections of 1862. As the war slowed to a grinding, deadly stalemate in the spring of 1864, critics argued that Lincoln stood in the way of a negotiated settlement. They called on him to agree to an armistice and to enter into negotiations with Southern representatives, but he realized that if the North stopped fighting temporarily it might be unable to resume the war. Critics also argued that emancipation clouded the prospects for peaceful reunion, but Lincoln adamantly refused to retreat from the position that emancipation was both a strategic necessity and a sacred moral commitment. I should be damned in time &in eternity for so doing, he declared. At the same time, he concluded as the Democrats prepared to hold their national convention in late August 1864 that it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.

Reelection. Lincolns pessimism notwithstanding, he moved adroitly to strengthen his chances for reelection. A reshuffling of patronage at the New York customhouse improved his position in that key state, and after a lengthy negotiation he forced the resignation of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, one of the most conservative members of the Cabinet, in exchange for Fremonts withdrawal from the race. The commander in chief also paid special attention to balloting by soldiers, who overwhelmingly voted Republican. In addition to these measures, Lincoln benefited from Democratic divisions that the national convention made evident. The Peace wing of the party, led by Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, pushed through a platform more critical of the war than nominee Gen. George B. McClellan could present to the men he had once commanded in the Union army or sustain before the country. Most important, Lincoln benefited from the smashing Union military victories in September 1864 at Atlanta, Mobile Bay, and Cedar Creek. With Union triumph now in sight, he easily won reelection in November 1864. His return to office ensured ultimate federal success, for the reins of power remained in the hands of a president who would persist until the rebellion had been suppressed.


David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995);

Philip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994).

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Politics in the Wartime North