LINCOLN, Abraham, President. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") TO SECRETARY OF STATE WILLIAM H. SEWARD ("Hon. Sec. of State"), Executive Mansion, [Washington. D.C.], 5 March 1862. 1 page, 8vo (7 5/8 x 4 7/16 in.), portion only of integral blank present, signed at bottom of page 1 "William H. Seward," beneath is a note in in an unidentified contemporary hand: "March 6th 1862. The President's Message to Congress, Recommending Compensated Abolition, To Preserve the Union."*****UNDERLINE TO PRESERVE THE UNION******
PRELUDE TO EMANCIPATION: LINCOLN CONVENES THE CABINET TO DISCUSS HIS PLAN FOR COMPENSATED EMANCIPATION: THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL PROPOSAL FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY
A polite, formal letter whose matter-of-fact brevity belies its far-reaching implications. The President requests that the Secretary of State convene an unprecedented evening cabinet meeting, at which Lincoln intended to present his proposal for the compensated emancipation of slavery, in advance of his planned special presidential message to Congress, scheduled for the following day, strongly urging such an enactment. Lincoln writes: "My dear Sir, Please summon the Cabinet to meet me at 7 o'clock this evening. Yours truly, A. Lincoln."
We have little specific information as to the discussions at the evening cabinet meeting convened by this note. The habitual diarists, Gideon Welles and Edward Bates have left no record of the discussions which took place, but it is probable that Lincoln presented his draft Message for comment; the surviving draft contains revisions probably made during this meeting (see Basler 5:146). The following day Lincoln read to both houses of Congress his special message, calling for the adoption of a resolution endorsing compensated emancipation and pledging Federal support to states which adopted such legislation. Lincoln persuasively termed his measure "one of the most efficient means of self-preservation," stating that "in my judgement, gradual, and not sudden emancipation, is better for all," and noted that "the initiation of emancipation" would ensure that none of the slave states of the North would have anything to gain by joining the Confederacy.
After some delay, on April 10, Congress passed a Joint Resolution in accordance with Lincoln's March 6 recommendations, declaring that the Federal government should subsidize "any State which may adopt the gradual Abolishment of Slavery" in accordance with a plan of compensated emancipation. (Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, 12: 617). Five days later, on April 16, President Lincoln signed a historic bill prohibiting slavery within the entire confines of the District of Columbia, ending many decades of agitation for such a ban in the nation's capital. It incorporated compensated emancipation: all slaves would be immediately freed. Loyal owners were entitled to compensation of up to $300 per slave thus forfeited, while any former slaves who chose to join the overseas colonization plan were allocated $100 each. In the 9 months leading up to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the federal government spent nearly $1,000,000 to gain the freedom of approximately 3,100 former slaves. The District of Columbia Emancipation Act remains the only example of compensated emancipation ever put into practice in the United States. It was Lincoln's fond hope that the state governments, particularly those in the border states, would adopt a similar three-pronged approach (emancipation, compensation to former owners, compensation to former slaves seeking colonization) as a model for their own legislation.
On May 9, General Hunter, Union military commander, summarily proclaimed the emancipation of slaves held in the states of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Lincoln viewed this as an unwarranted usurpation of power, and in a Presidential proclamation of 19 May countermanded Hunter's order, specifically asserting that he reserved to himself, as Commander-in-Chief, the option "to declare the slaves of any State or States, free, and whether at any time," when and if "it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government, to exercise such supposed power." Lincoln then reiterated his March 6 recommendations and noted that Congress's Joint Resolution, adopted in both Houses by sizeable majorities, constituted "an authentic, definite, and solemn proposal" to resolve the problem of slavery. Finally, he appealed directly to the residents of the slave-holding border states: "To the people...I now earnestly appeal--I do not argue, I beseech you to make the arguments for yourselves. You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times" (Basler 5:222-223).
What Lincoln termed "the signs of the times" were, indeed, unmistakable. On June 19, Congress dealt yet another powerful blow at slavery, enacting a statute, which Lincoln duly signed, proclaiming that henceforth "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing." But to Lincoln's increasing frustration, even compensated emancipation with government financial aid, as specified in Lincoln's March 6 plan, proved too controversial for politicians in states like Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky, and no state moved to enact such provisions. On July 12, with Congress about to adjourn, Lincoln saw what he considered a crucial opportunity slipping away, and addressed a special message to the leaders of the border states, voicing his disappointment that they had still taken no action and charging that "in my opinion, if you all had voted for the resolution in the gradual emancipation message of last March, the war would now be substantially ended." He then sounded a blunt warning that "our common country is in great peril," and pointedly warned that pressure on him to act decisively in regard to slavery was daily increasing. "I have again begged your attention to the message of March last," he pleaded. "Before leaving the Capital, consider and discuss it among yourselves. " Then, in a famous passage, Lincoln hinted that the opportunity for gradual, compensated emancipation by the states would not last, for "the incidents of the war can not be avoided," and "if the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion...It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it" (Basler, 5:317-19).
While the border states temporized, the inexorable "friction and abrasion" Lincoln had predicted continued. On July 19, the Second Confiscation Act was enacted, emancipating all slaves belonging to persons actively assisting the rebellion, forbidding the return of fugitive slaves by the military to any claimants whatsoever and authorizing the president to employ "persons of African descent" in any capacity he sees fit in his effort to suppress the rebellion. The Militia Act, passed the same day by Congress, specifically permitted "persons of African descent" to serve in "any military or naval service for which they may be found competent," and granting former slaves serving in that capacity their freedom. Recruitment of free blacks and former slaves began immediately in Union-held districts of Louisiana, under General Benjamin F. Butler. Lincoln's own thinking on the issue of slavery had undergone a profound evolution in these critical five months, and finally, on July 22, Lincoln convened another cabinet meeting to announce that he was prepared to take an even more decisive, more radical step towards the elimination of slavery: the preliminary emancipation proclamation.
Published in Basler 5:144; for Lincoln's Message to Congress, presented the next day, see 5:144-146 (with note of revisions probably made during the March 5 meeting).
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 20 June 1979, lot 759).