Reassuring the Border States, but the Tide Soon Begins to Turn against Slavery
On July 25, 1861, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution declaring that the purpose of the Northern war effort was not to abolish the institution of slavery but rather to “defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution.”
President Lincoln had attempted to assuage Southerners’ fears on this same point in his Inaugural Address on March 4, but the South remained convinced that the new Republican administration was, in reality, an abolitionist administration. The Senate did not believe its resolution would bring any of the eleven seceded states back into the Union, but it did hope its action would reassure the border states that slavery was safe from federal interference.
It was Kentucky Representative John J. Crittenden who drafted the final version of the declaration. His rationale for the North’s military mobilization was:
“That the present deplorable civil war has been forced upon the country by the disunionists of the southern States, now in arms against the constitutional Government, and in arms around the capital; . . . that this war is not waged on their part in any spirit of oppression, or for any purpose of conquest of subjugation, or purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.”
One day after the North’s disastrous loss at the Battle of Bull Run, the House of Representatives approved Crittenden’s justification for the war by a vote of 117 to 2.
In the Senate, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee introduced the resolution. New Hampshire abolitionist John Parker Hale reiterated the Republican position. His assertion that “We have no right, no constitutional power to touch this subject of slavery” was considered neither surprising nor controversial. And, he continued, “[I]f it will ease the fears and quiet the apprehensions of those who are acting with us . . . we ought to say so.”
Hale, one of the leading anti-slavery voices in New England — and father of Lucy Hale, who later became engaged to John Wilkes Booth — had repeatedly proclaimed that the federal government “had no more right, no more legal or constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the States then they had to interfere with the condition of the serfs in Russia.”
Tensions in the Senate chamber rose when John Breckinridge, presidential candidate for the Southern wing of the Democratic Party eight months earlier, declared that the war was caused by Congressional inability to compromise and that it was Lincoln who was chiefly responsible for the war.
“Who fired upon our flag at Charleston? . . .Who assaulted our fort at Sumter? . . .Who stole the mint with the money of your Government at New Orleans? Who captured your army in Texas? Who betrayed his country there? . . .Who did act after act of war upon this country? Who organized, in plain violation of the Constitution, a new government, denying the authority of the old, and subverting the old by physical force?” “Mr. President,” he concluded, “the disunionists of the southern States are traitors to their country; they must, and I repeat they will, be subdued.”
Ultimately, the Senate voted 30 to 5 to adopt Andrew Johnson’s resolution. The five dissenters presumably objected to blaming the war on “disunionists of the southern States.” Within six months, three of the five — including Breckinridge – would be expelled from the Senate as “traitors.”
At the opening of the next session of Congress in December, an unsuccessful attempt to “reaffirm” the Crittenden/Johnson resolution was made. But by then, with the country firmly in the grip of war, the popular and political tides were turning against the institution of slavery.
In August Congress had passed the first Confiscation Act, which allowed slaves to be taken from owners who were actively supporting the Confederacy.
Minutes after tabling the proposal that the resolution be affirmed, the House began debating the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and on April 3, 1862, Congress voted to do just that. Six months later, President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
— Submitted by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, New Mexico State University
Congressional Globe, 37th Cong., 1st Sess., pp. 222-223 , 257-265; Ibid., 37th Cong., 2nd Sess., pp. 15-16; Orville Vernon Burton, The Age of Lincoln (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), p. 132; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 312.