July 31, 1862
President Lincoln confronts dissent regarding Union policy in Louisiana. He writes New York banker August Belmont, a prominent Democrat a memorable letter outlining his policy and philosophy that will guide reconstruction: “You send to Mr. [Thurlow] W[eed] an extract from a letter written at New Orleans the 9th instant, which is shown to me. You do not give the writer’s name; but plainly he is a man of ability and probably of some note. He says: ‘The time has arrived when Mr. Lincoln must take a decisive course. Trying to please everybody, he will satisfy nobody. A vacillating policy in matters of importance is the very worst. Now is the time, if ever, for honest men, who love their country to rally to its support. Why will not the North say officially that it wishes for the restoration of the Union as it was?’
And so, it seems, this is the point on which the writer thinks I have no policy. Why will he not read and understand what I have said?
The substance of the very declaration he desires is in the inaugural, in each of the two regular messages to Congress, and in many, if not all, the minor documents issued by the Executive since the inauguration.
Broken eggs cannot be mended; but Louisiana has nothing to do now but to take her place in the Union as it was, barring the already broken eggs. The sooner she does so, the smaller will be the amount of that which will be past mending. This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt. If they expect in any contingency to ever have the Union as it was, I join with the writer in saying, ‘Now is the time.’
How much better if would have been for the writer to have gone at this, the protection of the army at New Orleans, than to have sat down in a closet writing complaining letters northward!
Belmont, who had been a strong supporter of Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, would respond on August 10: “I have the honor to acknwledge the receipt of your esteemed favor. Its contents bear the stamp of that statesmanship and patriotism which I now to have guided all your actions in the trials which this wicked rebellion has brought upon our once so happy country.
I share entirely your views with regard not only to the duty, but also the policy of the revolted States to return to their allegiance without allowing their unequal struggle against the power of the United States to increase in violence and exasperation, as it reasonably must. Still I think that we might, perhaps, find means to remove the difficulties which the miseries of civil war and the terrorism conjured up by the leaders of the rebellion, have placed in the way of conservative men, who otherwise would most gladly return to the Union.
The words conquestand subjugation have been used to good efect by our opponents. They are words repugnant to the American ear, and while the rebel leaders can keep up to their misguided folowers the idea that the North means conquest and subjugation, I fear there is very little hope for any Union demonstration in the revolted States, however great the dissatisfaction against the Richmond government might be.
My own conviction has always been, that sooner or later we would have to come to a national convention for the reconstruction of one government over all the States. I cannot see by what other means, even after a complete defeat of the rebel armies, a restoration of the Union can be effected.
My impression is, that such a solution would at the proper time, be acceptable to the majority of the Southern people, and I sent to Mr. Weed the letter which procured me the honor of receiving your note, for the very reason that I saw in it an indication of the writer’s desire for reconstruction of the Union. He is a very wealthy and influential planter, and I have every reason to believe that a large number of his class share his views.
A few weeks ago, and previous to the receipt of that letter, I had written to Mr. Weed, giving him my candid views on our present situation and the means which I thought the government ought to adopt. I do not know whether he communicated to you my letter, but as you have been kind enough to evince a flattering confidence to the earnestment of my intentions, which must plead for the shortcoming of my judgment, I take the liberty of inclosing you herewith a copy of my letter to Mr. Weed, hoping that you may deem it worthy of your perusal.
The present moment may, perhaps, not be a propitious one for carrying on a negotiation in the manner in which I suggest. As soon, however, as we shall again have a large army in the field, such as we are sure to have under your energetic measures for recruiting, then I hope that you may find in your wisdom the means of opening negotiations with our misguided fellow citizens of the South.
They must become convinced that we are fighting only for the Union, and that we cannot, in our own self-defence, as a nation, admit any other solution but the Union. I am certain that ere long reason must prevail over sectional passion, provided that your strong hand will equally crush the secessionists of the South and the fanatical disorganizers of the North, who are dangerous to the country and its institutions.