Lincoln on Slave-Owning Christians
On December 6 or shortly before, President Lincoln read the following account to Noah Brooks, a reporter for the Sacramento Daily Union, saying, “Here is one speech of mine which has never been printed, and I think it is worth printing.”
The following appeared in the Washington Chronicle on December 7, 1864:
Reply to a Southern Woman
The President’s Last, Shortest, and Best Speech
“On thursday of last week two ladies from Tennessee came before the President asking the release of their husbands held as prisoners of war at Johnson’s Island. They were put off till friday, when they came again; and were again put off to saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On saturday the President ordered the release of the prisoners, and then said to this lady ‘You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven!'”
Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, Library of America, pp. 663, 755.
Lincoln’s Annual Message Summarizes the State of the Union
December 6, 1864. President Lincoln began his fourth annual report on the state of the nation with a review of foreign affairs, including reference to relations with Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, the Argentine Republic, Bolivia, Paraguay, San Salvador, Hayti, Liberia, Egypt, China, Japan, and the beginning of the construction, “under very favorable circumstances,” of the overland telegraph between America and Europe “by the way of Behrings Straits and Asiatic Russia.”
“The Agricultural Department [established only in May 1862], is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance It is peculiarly the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned than in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.
Lincoln then turned his attention to the war: “The war continues. Since the last annual message all the important lines and positions then occupied by our forces have been maintained and our arms have steadily advanced, thus liberating the regions left in rear, so that Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of other States have again produced reasonably fair crops.
“The most remarkable feature in the military operations of the year is General Sherman’s attempted march of 300 miles directly through the insurgent region. It tends to show a great increase of our relative strength that our General in Chief [Ulysses S. Grant] should feel able to confront and hold in check every active force of the enemy [with his Army of Northern Virginia], and yet to detach a well-appointed large army to move on such an expedition. The result not yet being known, conjecture in regard to it is not here indulged.”
Lincoln reported on progress in Arkansas and Louisiana in organizing “loyal State governments, with free constitutions,” and similar progress in Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But he noted, “Maryland presents the example of complete success. Maryland is secure to liberty and union for all the future. The genius of rebellion will no more claim Maryland. Like another foul spirit being driven out, it may seek to tear her, but it will woo her no-more.”
He then urged the Congress to reconsider the proposed amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery throughout the United States, which during the same Congress, had failed to get the requisite two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives. He argued that while the issue remained the same, the outcome of the recent election made it almost certain that it will be passed in the next Congress, and that it would be better to pass it sooner rather than later. Moreover, he argued that the outcome of the election, which was the first time that “the voice of the people” had been heard on the question, might be a new factor that they might consider in deciding how to vote. He then argued that “In a great national crisis like ours unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable — almost indispensable. And yet no approach to such unanimity is attainable unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority simply because it is the will of the majority. In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union, and,” he argued, the constitutional amendment would help secure that end.
Lincoln then argued how symbolically important the election was: “The most reliable indication of public purpose in this country is derived through our popular elections. Judging by the recent canvass and its result, the purpose of the people within the loyal States to maintain the integrity of the Union was never more firm nor more nearly unanimous than now. The extraordinary calmness and good order with which the millions of voters met and mingled at the polls give strong assurance of this. Not only all those who supported the Union ticket, so called, but a great majority of the opposing party also may be fairly claimed to entertain and to be actuated by the same purpose. It is an unanswerable argument to this effect that no candidate for any office whatever, high or low, has ventured to seek votes on the avowal that he was for giving up the Union. There have been much impugning of motives and much heated controversy as to the proper means and best mode of advancing the Union cause, but on the distinct issue of Union or no Union the politicians have shown their instinctive knowledge that there is no diversity among the people. In affording the people the fair opportunity of showing one to another and to the world this firmness and unanimity of purpose, the election has been of vast value to the national cause.”
He then asserted, pointedly, that while the loss of so many men is a source of sorrow, the election showed that the Union does “not approach exhaustion in the most important branch of national resources, that of living men. [Moreover,] [m]aterial resources are now more complete and abundant than ever.”
Lincoln concluded by making two points: first, that while a general pardon and amnesty had been available for a year to “all except certain designated classes, . . . the time may come, probably will come, when public duty shall demand that it be closed and that in lieu more rigorous measures than heretofore shall be adopted.” And second, he stated in the most emphatic terms that he would never, as he had said a year earlier, “‘retract or modify . . . the emancipation proclamation, nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation or by any of the acts of Congress.’ If the people should, by whatever mode or means, make it an Executive duty to reenslave such persons, another, and not I, must be their instrument to perform it. . . .”
– All entries were submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council executive director