President Lincoln Signs Bills at Capitol

July 4, 1864

President Lincoln reaches an agreement with his reluctant new Secretary of the Treasury, William P. Fessenden: “I have to-day said to Hon. W. P. Fessenden, on his assuming the office of Secretary of the Treasury, that I will keep no person in office in his department, against his express will, so long as I choose to continue him; and he has said to me, that in filling vacancies he will strive to give his willing consent to my wishes in cases when I may let him know that I have such wishes. It is, and will be, giving him complete control of the department, but also to make his position agreeable to him.

In Cabinet my view is that in questions affecting the whole country there should be full and frequent consultations, and that nothing should be done particularly affecting any department without consultation with the head of that department.

Presidential aide John Hay writes in his diary: “Today Congress adjourned at noon. I was in the House for a few minutes before the close. They read the declaration of Independence there in spite of the protest of Sunset Cox that it was an insurrectionary document & would give aid & comfort to the rebellion.

In the Presidents room we were pretty busy signing & reporting bills. Sumner was in a state of intense anxiety about the Reconstruction Bill of Winter Davis. Boutwell also expressed his fear that it would be pocketed. Chandler came in and asked if it was signed ‘No.’ He said would make a terrible record for us to fight if it were vetoed: the President talked to him a moment. He said, ‘Mr Chandler, this bill was placed before me a few minutes before Congress adjourns. It is a matter of too much importance to be swallowed in that way.’ ‘If it is vetoed it will damage us fearfully in the North West. It may not in Illinois; it will in Michigan and Ohio. The important point is that one prohibiting slavery in the reconstructed States.’

Prest. ‘That is the point on which I doubt the authority of Congress to act.”

Chandler. ‘It is no more than you have done yourself.’

President. ‘I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.’

Chandler. ‘Mr President I cannot controvert yr position by argument, I can only say I deeply regret it.’

Exit Chandler.

The President continued, ‘I do not see how any of us now can deny and contradict all we have always said, that congress has no constitutional power over slavery in the states.’ Mr Fessenden, who had just come into the room, said, ‘I agree with you there, Sir. I even had my doubts as to the constitutional efficacy of your own decree of emancipation, in such cases where it has not been carried into effect by the actual advance of the Army.’

Prest. ‘This bill and this position of these gentlemen seems to me to make the fatal admission (in asserting that the insurrectionary States are no longer in the Union) that States whenever they please may of their own motion dissolve their connection with the Union. Now we cannot survive that admission, I am convinced. If that be true, I am not President, these gentlemen are not Congress. I have laboriously endeavored to avoid that question ever since it first began to be mooted & thus to avoid confusion and disturbance in our own counsels. It was to obviate this question that I earnestly favored the movement for an amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, which passed the Senate and failed in the House. I thought it much better, if it were possible, to restore the Union without the necessity of a violent quarrel among its friends, as to whether certain States have been in or out of the Union during the war: a merely metaphysical question and one unnecessary to be forced into discussion.’

Seward, Usher and Fessenden seemed entirely in accord with this.

After we left the Capitol I said I did not think Chandler, man of the people and personally popular as he was, had any definite comprehension of popular currents and influence–that he was out of the way now especially — that I did not think people would bolt their ticket on a question of metaphysics.

The Prest answered, ‘If they choose to make a point upon this I do not doubt that they can do harm. They have never been friendly to me & I don’t know that this will make any special difference as to that. At all events, I must keep some consciousness of being somewhere near right: I must keep some standard of principle fixed within myself.’

Historian Bruce Tap wrote in Over Lincoln’s Shoulder: “There was intense congressional pressure on the president to accept the [Wade-Davis] bill. Illinois Republican congressman Jesse O. Norton warned Lincoln that failure to sign might be politically damaging. On July 4 Zachariah Chandler visited the White House to discuss the matter. When Lincoln chided Congress for placing such an important matter before him with only a few days for consideration, Chandler asserted that the main issue was abolishing slavery ‘in the reconstructed states.’ ‘I doubt that Congress can legally do that,’ the president countered. ‘It is no more than you have done yourself,’ Chandler rejoined. When Lincoln claimed that the executive could act for military reasons in ways that Congress constitutionally could not, Chandler said, ‘Mr. President I cannot controvert y[ou]r position by argument, I can only say I deeply regret it.’ An angry Chandler left the White House that afternoon. Later, when Lincoln discussed the possible repercussions of a veto with William Fessenden and John Hay, including the possibility of a revolt of radical Republicans, he said, ‘If they choose to make a point upon this I do not doubt that they can do harm. They have never been friendly to me.’”

The Wade-Davis Bill contained three Reconstruction demands, according to Allan Nevins: “One, a requirement that the new constitutions cancel all debts incurred in aid of the rebellion, was perfectly equitable. It would impoverish some Southerners, but they deserved their losses. Quite different was a Draconian stipulation that the constitutions should forbid all men who held high civil office under the Confederacy, or military rank above a colonelcy, to vote for a legislator or governor, or occupy these positions. Nor former office-holder or person who had voluntarily borne arms against the United States could take the oath, and no one who did not take the oath could vote for the constitutional convention. This would proscribe the ablest and most experienced leaders in the South. Worse still, in theory and practise, was a demand that the constitutions abolish slavery. This was plainly unconstitutional, for Congress had no power to deal with slavery inside the States. It was also unwise, for if slavery were thus abolished by national action, the nation might be expected to take steps to aid and protect the freedmen for which it had made no preparatory study, and possessed no adequate machinery. The Wade-Davis bill provided that, whenever a State constitution embodying these iron provisions had been adopted by a majority of the registered voters, the President, with prior Congressional assent, should recognize the government so established as competent to send men to Congress and choose Presidential electors.”

Historian Hans Trefousse wrote in Benjamin Franklin Wade: “Wade had scored a triumph. By cleverly tempering his radicalism with practicality, he had skillfully maneuvered his bill through the Senate. Thus he himself had suggested that the amendment for Negro suffrage be discarded.   Rather than defeat the measure altogether, he had even voted for it as amended by Senator Brown, altogether, he had even voted for it as amended by Senator Brown, much as he had opposed the change in the Committee of the Whole. Moreover, the bill itself was relatively mild, especially when compared with the measures which were to follow later. Although it contained a number of harsh exclusion clauses to keep down Democratic majorities in the South, it nevertheless offered a speedy and relatively painless way for Southern states to re-enter the Union.   The bill was clearly framed by men who expected not merely to pass it in Congress but also to obtain the President’s signature for it.”.

Attorney General Edward Bates writes in his diary: “In the forenoon, comes Cuthbert Bullitt, to have a talk about La. Affairs. I propose to make him Marshal, in place of Graham, and some other good man Dist Atty vice Waples.

“How the President will take it, I know not; but if he’ll just let me ‘take the responsibility,’ I’ll make short work of Mr. Chase’s knot of ignorant and rapacious swindlers, from the balise to C[a]iro.

After receiving complaints from Chicago Congressman Isaac N. Arnold, President Lincoln writes Chicago Postmaster John L. Scripps: “Complaint is made to me that you are using your official power to defeat Mr. _____’s nomination to Congress. I am well satisfied with Mr. _______ as a member of Congress, and I do not know that the man who might supplant him would be as satisfactory. But the correct principle I think is, that all our friends should have absolute freedom of choice among our friends. My wish therefore is, that you will do just as you think fit with your own suffrage in the case, and not constrain any of your subordinates to other than he thinks fit with his. This is precisely the rule I inculcated and adhered to on my part, when a certain other nomination now recently made, was being canvassed for

Former Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase writes in his diary: “After dinner many others called. Mr. Fessenden came in about next. He had already been with me in the Morning and had told me that he had received a letter from a certain individual (the same who proclaimed the most indecent joy on my leaving the cabinet) recommending Gov Morgans special choice for the successor of Mr. Cisco and he expressed his intention not to have either of them for when it was sought to make me choose appoints [?] and had told me that he should call on the President and before acceptance have it distinctly understood that the appointments of subordinates in his office, for whom he was to be responsible, must be made only with his full consent and approval, if not made directly on his own nominations. He now came in to say that the President had at once acceded to this, only requiring that should he himself desire any particular appointment made that his wishes in that regard should be fully considered. He said too that he hoped Mr. F_____ would not withouta real necessity remove any friends of Gov. Chase. Had the President in reply to my note tendering his [my] resignation expressed himself as he did now to Mr. F–n, I should have cheerfully withdrawn it. Why did he not? I can see but one reason, that I am too earnest, too antislavery, and, say, too radical to make him willing to have me connected with the Admn., just as my opinion that he is not earnest enough; not antislavery enough; not radical enough,–but goes naturally with those hostile to me rather than me,–makes me willing and glad to be disconnected from it.”

Hay notes that there was “a pic-nic… in the Presidents grounds, of the negroes of Washington.”

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