President Prepares for Message to Congress regarding Compensated Emancipation

March 5, 1862

President Lincoln holds a special evening Cabinet meeting at the White House.  Cabinet meetings were normally held twice weekly in the late mornings.  Apparently, the president discussed the message he would send to Congress the next day regarding compensated emancipation.  The Cabinet generally supported his proposal.

The rest of President Lincoln’s schedule that day is uncertain but one day in March, according to writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, he waited in the Reception Room while President Lincoln finished breakfast.  “Our immediate party consisted only of four or five (including Major Ben Perley Poore, with his notebook and pencil), but we were joined by several other persons, who seemed to have been lounging within the hall, and who swarmed in with us to take the chances of a presentation.  Nine o’clock had been appointed as the time for receiving the deputation, and we were punctual to the moment; but not so the President, who sent us word that he was eating his breakfast, and would come as soon as he could.  His appetite, we were glad to think, must have been a pretty fair one; for we waited about half an hour in one of the antechambers, and then were ushered into a reception-room, in one corner of which sat the secretaries of War and of the Treasury, expecting, like ourselves, the termination of the Presidential breakfast.  During this interval there were several new additions to our group, one or two of whom were in working garb, so that we formed a very miscellaneous collection of people, mostly unknown to each other, and without any common sponsor, but all with an equal right to look our head-servant in the face.  By and by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passageway, and in lounged a tall, loose-jointed figure, of an exaggerated Yankee port and demeanor, whom (as being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe.  Unquestionably, Western man though he be, and Kentuckian by birth, President Lincoln is the essential representative of all yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities.  It is the strangest and yet the fittest thing in the jumble of human vicissitudes, that he, out of so many millions, unlooked for, unselected by any intelligible process that could be based upon his genuine qualities, unknown to those who choose him, and unsuspected of what endowments may adapt him for his tremendous responsibility, should have found the way open for him to fling his lank personality into the chair of state – where, I presume, it was his first impulse to throw his legs on the council-table, and tell the cabinet Ministers a story.  There is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement; and yet it seemed as if I had been in the habit of seeing him daily, and had shaken hands with him a thousand times in some village street; so true was he to the aspect of the pattern American, though with a certain extravagance which, possibly, I exaggerated still further by the delighted eagerness with which I took it in.  If put to guess his calling and livelihood, I should have taken him for a country schoolmaster as soon as anything else.  He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed, and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be an outer skin of the man.  He had shabby slippers on his feet.  His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning after the disarrangement of the pillow; and as to a nightcap Uncle Abe probably knows nothing of such effeminacies.  His complexion is dark and sallow, betokening, I fear, an insalubrious atmosphere around the White House; he has thick black eyebrows and an impending brow; his nose is large, and the lines about his mouth are very strongly defined.”  Hawthorne wrote:

Immediately on his entrance the President accosted our member of Congress, who had us in charge, and with a comical twist of his face, made some jocular remark about the length of his breakfast.  He then greeted us all round, not waiting for an introduction, but shaking and squeezing everybody’s hand with the utmost cordiality, whether the individual’s name was announced to him or not.  His manner towards us was wholy without pretence, but yet had a kind of natural dignity, quite sufficient to keep the forwardest of us from clapping him on the shoulder and asking for a story.  A mutual acquaintance being established, our leader took the whip out of its case, and began to read the address of presentation.  The whip was an exceedingly long one, it handle wrought in ivory (by some artisan Massachusetts State Prison, I believe), and ornamented with a medallion of the President, and other equally beautiful devices; and along its whole length there was a succession of golden bands and ferrules.  The address was shorter than the ship, but equally well made, consisting chiefly of an explanatory description of these artistic designs, and closing with a hint that the gift was a suggestive and emblematic one, and that the President would recognize the use to which such an instrument be put.
This suggestion gave Uncle Abe rather a delicate task in his reply, because, slight as the matter seemed, it apparently called for some declaration, or intimation, or faint foreshadowing of policy in reference to the conduct of the war, and the final treatment of the Rebels. But the President’s Yankee aptness and not-to-be-caughtness stood him in good stead, and he jerked or wiggled himself out of the dilemma with an uncouth dexterity that was entirely in character.
Flourishing the whip, President Lincoln accepted the whip as an emblem of peace, not punishment; and, this great affair over, we retired out of his presence in high good humor, only regretting that we could not have seen the President sit down and fold up his legs (which is said to be a most extraordinary spectacle), or have heard him tell one of those delectable stories for which he is so celebrated.   A good many of them are afloat upon the common talk of Washington, and are certainly the aptest, pithiest, and funniest little things imaginable; though, to be sure, they smack of the frontier freedom, and would not always bear repetition in a drawing-room, or on the immaculate page of the Atlantic.

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