Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day, 1861

Lincoln's draft of July 4 message
Almighty and everlasting God, be not angry with us for our sins, which we only confess and deplore; but pardon our offenses and extend us Thy favor. We thank Thee for Thy goodness on this anniversary of our nation--a day tenfold more precious by reason of our present troubles...disasters have befallen us and darkness broods in the land. And now we ask Thy mercy as the Senate is convening at a most momentous crisis in our history... And we beseech Thee to guide us... to cause that nothing shall fail, that the disorders of the land may be speedily healed, that peace and concord may prevail, that truth and righteousness may be established, and that Thy Church and Kingdom may flourish in a larger peace and prosperity...
So prayed Rev. Byron Sunderland, the new chaplain of the Senate at noon on Thursday, July 4. He was also the popular minister at the "Old First", the First Presbyterian Church located across from the Capitol, where the Rayburn House Office Building now stands. In 1857, he had rocked sleepy Washington by preaching abolition, and his close connections with the majority Republicans had led to his appointment (Sunderland would make waves again in 1866, when he allowed Frederick Douglass to preach from the Old First's pulpit -- he would also be instrumental in the early days of Howard and Gallaudet).

Sunderland was leading the Senate of the Thirty-Seventh Congress in prayer earlier than the Constitution asked them to first meet at the request of Abraham Lincoln, who took advantage of his Presidential power to call Congress into session, in this case to pay for the war and the volunteers he had called up. There were thirteen vacant seats in the chamber, vacated by the states that had seceded. The Senators from Texas, Virginia, and Arkansas were also empty, though their delegation had not resigned and were still accredited to the body. Also absent was Senator Edward Baker (R-OR), who was still in Virginia at Fort Monroe commanding the 1st California and hadn't made it back for the special session.

Among those present were Finance chair William Pitt Fessenden (R-ME), famous abolitionist Charles Sumner (R-MA), Lincoln ally and former Free Soil Speaker of the House David Wilmot (R-PA), fiery arch-Lincoln critic James Bayard (D-DE), strong Ohio Republicans Benjamin Wade and John Sherman, and the zealous Zachariah Chandler (R-MI). Also present was the sole member from a seceded state, Andrew Johnson (D-TN). Both staunchly Unionist and staunchly Democratic, Johnson clung desperately to the notion of the Union of Andrew Jackson, where the slave economy of the South and the trade economy of the North coexisted in an (uneasy) balance.

Oddly enough, the chamber also contained a man who would be leading a Confederate army in four months: Senator John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky. Breckenridge had been Lincoln's primary opponent for president in the election, sweeping the Southern states for 72 electoral votes, and had been the outgoing vice president of the United States. Kentucky had sent him back as Senator in a direct repudiation of the results of 1860 (despite the fact that it had voted for Unionist candidate John Bell). In October, he would flee to Virginia and take up command of a tiny army in the mountains. In 1864, he would join Jubal Early in a march on Washington and be on the battlefield the same day Lincoln came out to observe at Fort Stevens in one of those odd moments of history.

The Senate had not yet established a Majority Leader, but the head of the majority party already functioned as such. John Hale of New Hampshire chaired the new Republican Conference and would be responsible for the important work of getting approval for Lincoln's ambitious agenda. But the meeting on July 4 was really about transmission of a letter from the President. Always recognizing the historical importance of the moment, Lincoln chose the date of the celebration of American Independence to ask of the people's representatives greater funds and authority than any president had ever requested before.

Lincoln begins with an account of For Sumter to argue that the attack by G.T. Beauregard's South Carolinians was unnecessary for self-defense since he only wanted to maintain Federal property where it was, a point that was already being fiercely debated and continues to be so today. Having established this, he considers the main point:

And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy--a government of the people, by the same people--can or cannot maintain its own territorial integrity against its own domestic foes... It forces us to ask, "Is there, in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness?" "Must a Government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?"

Lincoln goes on to argue that a government must maintain the laws that it has passed and vows to do so, after briefly challenging the legitimacy of the secession conventions, particularly in Virginia, that he believed to be the work of a small minority. He says a similar enthusiasm for preserving the Union exists in their states.

The evidence reaching us from the country leaves no doubt that the material for the work is abundant, and it needs only the hand of legislation to give it legal sanction, and the hand of the executive to give it practical shape and efficiency. One of the great perplexities of the Government is to avoid receiving troops faster than it can provide for them. In a word, the people will save their Government, if the Government itself will do its part only indifferently well.

It was for this reason Lincoln had called Congress. He needed a law to raise an army of volunteers, a law to finance that army, a law to expand the navy, and a law to grant him emergency powers for keeping order, especially for when the armies of the South were crushed - hopefully when the July 8 campaign kicked off, though he kept that secret from Congress.

Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled--the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains--its successful maintenance against a formidable internal intent to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion---that ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war---teaching all, the folly of being the beginners of a war.

Lincoln concluded by underscoring his intention towards the rebellious states. He doesn't speak of forgiveness, but rather them resuming their rights once they recognize their proper place in the Union. He concludes: "And having thus chosen our course, without guile, and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear, and with manly hearts."

Only just up the Potomac in Harper's Ferry, Charles P. Stone's ninety-day militia, on its way to join Robert Patterson in Virginia (having finally received directions from Patterson's Assistant Adjutant General Fitz John Porter that day), reported to Edward Townsend in Washington that he had encountered a small unit of Confederates and in the ensuing half hour firefight, had one private killed and two wounded. His movement was the result of the War Department scrounging for any possible reinforcements, with the shortage of field-ready units, which meant that ninety-day infantry could be dispatched, entirely without protection of artillery, cavalry, or coordination with larger units in the area.

"The movement to be directed by infantry alone, in a country occupied by hostile cavalry, will be somewhat hazardous."

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