Sunday, November 08, 2009

'The Greatest Question Ever Presented'


40th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
Lincoln returned from Gettyburg [on November 19, 1863] with a fever, and his doctor put him to bed, diagnosing varioloid, a mild form of smallpox. For the next three weeks he remained under quarantine in the White House, seeing few visitors and transacting little public business. But he remained in good spirits, and newspapers reported that he was able to joke that his illness gave him an answer to the incessant demands of office-seekers. "Now," he is supposed to have said, "I have something I can give everybody."

His convalescence gave him an opportunity to reflect on the tasks that still lay ahead of him. The most immediate of these was the drafting of his annual message to Congress, which assumed great importance because it would deal with the thorny question of the terms on which the rebellious Southern states could be restored to the Union. This, the President believed, was "the greatest question ever presented to practical statesmanship." . . .

Lincoln was aware of three possible plans. The first was advocated by Democrats ranging from the pro-Confederate Fernando Wood of New York (above) to the staunchly Unionist Reverdy Johnson of Maryland; it called for the President to withdraw the Emancipation Proclamation and to offer a general amnesty to the rebels. The Southern states, which had never legally been out of the Union, would simply send new congressmen to Washington, and the war would be over.

Conservative Republicans made Liberty as well as Union their war aim. Apart from insisting on the Emancipation Proclamation, they favored generous terms for the conquered South. [Secretary of State] Seward let it be known that he hoped that no conditions, beyond the emancipation of the slaves, would be imposed on the returning rebels, and his powerful friend Thurlow Weed (right) believed that Southern planters, mostly former Whigs like himself, would recognize the impending defeat of the Confederacy and lead their states back into the Union. . . .

Radical Republicans sought to add Equality as a third war aim. Most called for a drastic reorganization of Southern social and economic life before the rebellious states could be readmitted. Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee, favored treating the South as a conquered province, wholly subject to the legislative will of the Congress. In a more elaborate argument, Charles Sumner maintained that the rebellion had vacated all government in the South and the region now fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress, like any other national territory. It followed that slavery, which could not exist without the protection of positive law, was abolished in the entire region -- not merely in the more limited areas designated in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. . . .

In his sickroom, the President began working on an annual message to Congress that would avoid both extreme Republican positions. . . . Only at the end of the message did Lincoln's distinctive voice emerge. Announcing a proclamation of amnesty and reconstruction, the President offered "full pardon . . . with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves," to all rebels, excepting high-ranking Confederate officials, who would have to take an oath of future loyalty to the Constitution and pledge to obey acts of Congress and presidential proclamations relating to slavery.

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