Lincoln Meets With McClellan
It’s just over half a century since the first volume of Shelby Foote’s trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative was published. This monumental work – the first of which alone traverses the events from the fall of Fort Sumter through the battle Perryville in 816 pages – continues to serve as a measure of excellence in historical exegesis for the period. While not devoid of blemish, it remains a classic of the genre, a deeply rewarding book for the attentive reader.
Foote closes the first volume of his trilogy with a discussion of Lincoln’s December 1862 message to Congress, illuminating, disconcerting and inspiring us to this very day:
“By now, the assembled politicians were nearly as restless as the red men on the frontier. Presently, however, approaching its mid-point, the message changed its tone.
“‘A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.” It is of the first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever-enduring part. The portion of the earth’s surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family, and is not well adapted for two or more. . . . There is no line, straight or crooked, suitable for a national boundary upon which to divide. Trace through, from east to west, upon the line between the free and slave country, and we shall find a little more than one-third of its length are rivers, easy to be crossed, and populated, or soon to be populated, thickly upon both sides; while nearly all its remaining length are merely surveyors’ lines over which people may walk back and forth without any consciousness of their presence.’
“Such an argument might have been advanced in support of the unification of Europe or the annexation of Canada, but presently the listeners saw what Lincoln was getting at. He was talking to the inhabitants of the region to which he himself was native, ‘the great interior region, bounded east by the Alleghenies, north by the British dominions, west by the Rocky Mountains, and south by the line along which the culture of corn and cotton meets. . . . Ascertain from the statistics the small proportion of the region which has as yet been brought into cultivation, and also the large and rapidly increasing amount of its products, and we shall be overwhelmed with the magnitude of the prospect presented. And yet this region has no seacoast, touches no ocean anywhere. As part of the nation, its people now find, and may forever find, their way to Europe by New York, to south America and Africa by New Orleans, and to Asia by San Francisco. . . . these outlets, east, west, and south, are indispensable to the well-being of the people inhabiting, and to inhabit, this vast interior region. Which of the three may be the best is no proper question. All are better than either, and all of right belong to that people and to their successors forever. True to themselves, they will not ask where a line of separation shall be, but will vow rather that there shall be no such line.’ After a pause, he added: ‘Our national strife springs no from our permanent part, not from the land we inhabit, not from our national homestead. . . . Our strife pertains to ourselves – to the passing generations of men; and it can without convulsion be hushed forever with the passing of one generation.’
“This brought him at last to what he considered the nub of the issue. ‘Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.’ So far, he had not mentioned the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation except to note that it had been issued; nor did he return to it now. What he returned to, instead, was his old plan for compensated emancipation, the one way he saw for bringing the war to an end ‘without convulsion.’ His plan, as expanded here, would leave to each state the choice of when to act on the matter, ‘now, or at the end of the century, or at any intermediary time.’ The federal government was to have no voice in the action, but it would bear the total expense by issuing long-term bonds as payment to loyal masters. To those critics who would complain that the expense was too heavy, Lincoln replied beforehand that it was cheaper to pay in bonds than in blood, as the country was doing now. Besides, even in dollars and cents the cost would be less. ‘Certainly it is not so easy to pay something as it is to pay nothing; but it is easier to pay a large sum than it is to pay a larger one. And it is easier to pay any sum when we are able, than it is to pay it before we are able. The war requires large sums, and requires them at once. The aggregate sum necessary for compensated emancipation of course would be large. But it would require no ready cash, nor the bonds even, any faster than the emancipation progresses. This might not, and probably would not, come before the end of the thirty-seven years.’
“At this point, apparently – at any rate, somewhere along the line – the President had done some ciphering. By 1900, he predicted, ‘we shall have 100,000,000 of people to share the burden, instead of 31,000,000 as now.’ This was no wild guess on Lincoln’s part; or as he put it, ‘I do not state this inconsiderately. At the same ratio of increase which we have maintained, on an average, from our first national census of 1790 until that of 1860, we should in 1900 have a population of 103,208,415. And why may we not continue that ratio far beyond that period? Our abundant room – our broad national homestead – is our ample resource.’ The past seventy years had shown an average decennial increase of 34.6 percent. Applying this to the coming seventy years, he calculated the 1930 population at 251,680,914. ‘And we will reach this, too,’ he added, ‘if we do not ourselves relinquish the chance by the folly and evils of disunion, or by long and exhausting war springing from the only great element of national discord among us.’
“Descending from these rather giddy mathematical heights, Lincoln continued his plea for gradual emancipation, not only for the sake of the people here represented, but also for the sake of the Negroes, whom it would spare ‘the vagrant destitution which must largely attend immediate emancipation in localities where their numbers are very great.’ Whatever objections might be raised, he wanted one thing kept in mind: ‘If there ever could be a proper time for mere catch arguments, that time surely is not now. In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity.’ And having thus admonished the assembly, after forcing it to accompany him on an excursion into the field of applied mathematics, he thought perhaps some note of apology – if not of retraction – was in order. ‘I do not forget the gravity which should characterize a paper addressed to the Congress of the nation by the Chief Magistrate of the nation. Nor do I forget that some of you are my seniors, nor that many of you have more experience than I in the conduct of public affairs. Yet I trust that in view of the great responsibility resting upon me, you will perceive no want of respect to yourselves in any undue earnestness I may seem to display.’ Apparently, however, this was intended not only to make amends for what had gone before, but also to brace them for what was to come. Nor was it long in coming. Hard on the heels of this apology for ‘undue earnestness,’ he threw a cluster of knotty, rhetorical questions full in their faces:
“’Is it doubted, then, that the plan I propose, if adopted, would shorten the war, and thus lessen its expenditure of money and of blood? Is it doubted that it would restore the national authority and national prosperity, and perpetuate both indefinitely? Is it doubted that we here – congress and executive – can secure its adoption? Will not the good people respond to a united and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means so certainly or so speedily assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not “Can any of us imagine better?” but “Can we do better?” Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, “Can we do better?”’
“As the long message approached its end, Lincoln asked that question: ‘Can we do better?’ Oratory was not enough. ‘The North responds . . . sufficiently in breath,’ he had said of the reaction to the September proclamation; ‘but breath alone kills no rebels.’ He knew as well as Sherman the need for the nation to be ‘born again,’ and he would also have agreed with the New England major who this month wrote home that he sometimes felt like changing the old soldier’s prayer into ‘O God, if there be a God, save my country, if my country is worth saving.’ A majority of 100,000 voters in Lincoln’s own state, fearing the backwash of liberated slaves that would result from Grant’s advance, had approved in November the adoption of a new article into the Illinois constitution, prohibiting the immigration of Negroes into the state. He knew, too, the reaction of most of the lawmakers to the proposal he was now advancing – including that of Senator Orville Browning, his fellow Illinoisan and confidant, who would write in his diary of his friend’s plea when he went home tonight: ‘It surprised me by its singular reticence in regard to the war, and some other subjects which I expected discussed, and by the hallucination the President seems to be laboring under that Congress can suppress the rebellion by adopting his plan of compensated emancipation.’ Yet according to Lincoln it was not he, but they, who were hallucinated and enthralled, and he told them so as the long message wore on toward a close: ‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
“Then came the end, the turn of a page that opened a new chapter. And now, through the droning voice of the clerk, the Lincoln music sounded in what would someday be known as its full glory: ‘Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We – even we here – hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.’”