Lincoln Meets with Virginia Congressman

Friday, March 1, 1861

Simon Cameron agrees to become secretary of war. Mary Todd Lincoln tours the White House.

John Hay, about to become of the top two assistants to Prsesident Lincoln wrote an unflattering portrait of Washington in a newspaper article: “You see here, it may be, a reverend senator blind with a bad article of whisky; an eloquent representative, purpureal of nose and moist with the perspiration of yesterday. You shall see crowding the bars, shuffling along the aisles, populating the corridors of the blear caravanserai of hotels, at once represented every stage of official eminence and every grade of inebriety. There are generals, and colonels, and majors, and captains, governors, senators, honorables; all chew tobacco; all spit; a good many swear, and not a few make a merit of being able to keep two cocktails in the air at once. The hotel halls are littered with a mixture of dirt, scraps of paper, cigar stumps and discarded envelopes, and the whole is embroidered with an irregular arabesque of expectoration. Exceedingly small and very dirty boys take a good deal of trouble and make an unnecessary amount of noise in the endeavor to induce you to purchase the Star and States for five cents. Heavy persons, whom you have never seen before, with moist hands, eyes luminous with intoxicating beverages, break through the crowd and wildly shake your hand. They convict you of having met them before somewhere. You say you have been there, whereupon you are instantly saddled with an acquaintance who grasps your hand fifty times a day, and whom you heartily wish at the — antipodes.”

Virginia Congressman A. R. Boetler visited President-elect Lincoln at his lodgings in Willard’s Hotel. He later recalled: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when I left the Capitol, and driving rapidly to Willard’s, where the President-elect had a suite of rooms fronting the avenue, the first person I met on reaching the hotel was an old acquaintance from the county of Berkeley, Virginia, Colonel Ward H. Lamon, Mr. Lincoln’s law partner and compagnon de voyage from Springfield to Washington, who, on learning my wishes, kindly undertook to ascertain if Mr. Lincoln, whom he had just left alone, would see me. He soon came down with an invitation to walk up stairs, and as I did so, accompanied by the Colonel, I noticed that the corridors were strictly guarded by policemen – an unnecessary but natural precaution under the circumstances of apprehension and excitement that then prevailed in Washington.
“On being introduced, Mr. Lincoln greeted me with great kindness and cordiality. ‘I’m glad to see you,’ said he; ‘always glad to see an Old Line Whig. Sit down.
Apologizing for disturbing him, I said: ‘I’ve no doubt that the unusual demands now made on your time and energies require you to have more rest than is likely to be allowed you here by the public; but my visit is not one of conventional formality or idle curiosity, as I come upon an important matter now pending in the House, and, therefore, trust that I am not trespassing too far on your courtesy in calling this evening.’
“‘Not a bit of it,’ he replied; ‘not a bit. I’m really glad you have come, and wish that more of you Southern gentlemen would call and see me, as these are times when there should be a full, fair and frank interchange of sentiment and suggestions among all who have the good of the country at heart. So draw up your chair, and tell me what’s going on in the House to-day.’
“Thus encouraged, showing him a copy of Stanton’s Force bill, I called his attention to some of its extraordinary features, and to the fact that it was ‘bristling all over with war.’ I spoke of the angry feeling it had excited in Congress, and of the painful anxieties it had caused throughout Virginia; how it had demoralized the members of her State convention, and was frustrating the patriotic efforts of her conservative citizens to keep her from seceding. I told him , also, how determined the friends of the measure were to force it through the House that evening, and how much reason there was to fear tht is passage would do irrreparable injury to the cause of the Union. ‘Consequently, Mr. Lincoln,’ said I, ‘I have ventured to come to you to tell you frankly what I think of the policy of this bill – to ask your opinion of it, and to invoke your influence in having it defeated.’
“While I was making these remarks, Mr. Lincoln listened to me with patient politeness, and when I pause for a reply, he said: ‘You must allow me the Yankee privilege of answering your questions by first asking a few myself. During the late Presidential canvass, were you not chairman of the National executive Committee of the party that supported Bell and Everett?’
“Yes,’ said I, ‘of the Constitutional party.’
“The campaign motto or platform of which,’ he continued, ‘was ‘The Union, the Constitution, and enforcement of the laws?”
“It was,” I replied; “and I think that it was not only the briefest, but about the best and most comprehensive platform that could have been adopted for that canvass.”
“And you still stand by it, of course?” said he.
“I certainly do,’ was my reply.
“Then,’ he remarked, ‘there is no reason why we should not be of the same mind in this emergency, if I understand the meaning of your platform. How do you, yourself, interpret?’
‘It’s meaning,’ I answered, ‘is obvious. It has nothing hidden in it – nothing more than meets the eye. We go for ‘the Union’ as our fathers made it – to be a shield of protection over our heads, and not a sword of sujugation at our hears; for ‘the Constitution’ as they designed it, to be equally binding on both sections, North as well as South, in all its compromises, and in all its requirements; and for ‘the enforcement of the laws’ by peaceable and constitutional means, not by bayonets – Federal bayonets, especially, Mr. Lincoln.’
“‘Then your idea is,’ said he, ‘that Federal bayonets should not be used for the enforcement of laws within the limits of a State?’
‘As a general rule, unquestionably not,’ I answered; ‘but, of course, there are exceptional cases, such as have already occurred – case of invasion, insurrection, etc. – when the civil authorities of a state, finding themselves inadequate to the duty of protecting their people, or unable to enforce the laws within the limits of their jurisdiction, may rightfully require the Federal forces to assist them; in which event, it becomes the duty of the General Government, on application of the Legislature of the State, or of its Executive, when the Legislature cannot be convened, to furnish the required aid.’
“‘And, now,’ said he, ‘to apply your platform to the present condition of affairs in those Southern States of the Union which are assuming to be no longer part of it. How about enforcing the laws in them, just now – the laws of the United States?’
“‘Inasmuch,’ I replied, ‘as the difficulties of doing so peaceably, under existing circumstances, are exceeded only by the dangers of attempting it forcibly, the practical question to be determined beforehand is whether the experiment is worth a civil war. Which consideration,’ I added, ‘brings us back to the object of my visit, and I therefore again take the liberty of asking if you approve of Congress passing such a Force bill now as this of Stanton’s, and whether you will not aid as in defeating it?’
“‘Of course,’ said he, ‘I am extremely anxious to see these sectional troubles settled peaceably and satisfactorily to all concerned. To accomplish that, I am willing to make almost any sacrifice, and to do anything in reason consistent with my sense of duty. There is one point, however, I can never surrender – that which was the main issue of the the Presidential canvass and decided at the late election, concerning the extension of slvery in the Territories.’
“‘As to that matter,’ I replied, ‘however important it may have hertofore seemed to some persons, we can well afford to remit it to the remote future, when there may be a practical necesity for its consideration, inasmuch as it has dwindled into utter insignificance before that portentous issue now so unexpectedly before us.’
“‘Unexpectedly, indeed, and portentous enough in all conscience!’ said he; ‘but I trust that matters are not as bas as they appear.’
“‘Bad as they certainly are,’ I replied, ‘they will be infinitely worse before long if the utmost care be not taken to allay the present excitement, and to preserve the existing status between the sections until some such plan as that of Mr. Crittenden’s,, for a general convention, can be carried into effect, which, as the Peace Conference here has failed to secure a compromise, is the ultimate reliance left us for that object.’ I then went on to say: ‘Mr. Lincoln, it may seem presumptuous in me to express my opinion to you on these subjects so decidedly. But I speak frankly, because I feel deeply their vital importance tot he whole country, and especially to the people of the district which I represent, which is a border district, stretching along the Potomac from the Alleghenies to tidewater, and which, in the event of a sectional civil war, will not only be the first to suffer from its effects, but will feel them first, last, and all the time, and in all their intensity. I speak to you as a Union man, from a Union county, of a Union district, of a Union State – a State which has done more to make and to maintain the Union than any of her sister States have had it in their power to do, and which now, from her known conservatism, her acknowledged prestige in national politics, and her geographical position, midway between the angry sections, can do more than any other States to preserve the peace and to bring about, by her mediatorial influence, a satisfactory adjustment of these fearful complications in spite of the opposition of those twin forces of the Union – the fanatical faction of Abolitionists in the North, and that of the no less fanatical secessionists per se in the South – provided only that a little more time to be allowed her to continue her patriotic efforts to these. You will, therefore, I trust, not impute my earnestness to prescription when I say to you, in all sincerity, that the passage of this Force bill will paralyze the Unions of Virginia, and be the means of precipitating her into secession – a calamity which, at this juncture, will unquestionably involve the whole country in a civil war.’
“After a silence of some seconds, during which Mr. Lincoln seemed to be absorbed in thought, he presently looked up with a smile, and said: ‘Well, I’ll see what can be done about the bill you speak of. I think it can be stopped, and that I may promise you it will be.’
“Thanking him most cordially and sincerely for his kindness in acceding to y request, I then inquired if I might announce from my place in the House that he did not approve of the measure.
“‘By no means,’ said he, ‘for that would make trouble. The question would at once be asked, what right I had to interfere with the legislation of this congress. Whatever is to be done in the matter, must be done quietly.’
“But, as I have promised two of my colleagues,’ said I, ‘to let them know the result of this interview, I hope you will at least allow me to acquaint them, confidentially, with the substance of your conversation?’ To this he assented, and warmly thanking him again, I got up to take leave; but, on his insisting that I should resume my seat, I remained in conversation with him some fifteen minutes longer. As what subsequently passed between us had no special bearing on the object of my visit, it is needless now to make any further referene to it, except to say, that it served to deepen the impression already made up me by the interview, that Mr. Lincoln was a kind-hearted man; that he was, at that time, willing to allow the moderate men of the South a fair opportunity to make further efforts for a settlement of our intestine and internecine difficulties, and that he was by no means disposed to interfere, directly or indirectly, with the institutions of slavery in any of the States, or to yield to the clamorous demand of those bloody-minded extremists, who were then so very keen to cry ‘havoc!’ and ‘let slip the dogs of war;’ and afterward so exceedingly careful, with the characteristic caution of their kind, to keep out of harm’s way during the continuance of hostilities. Having concluded my visit, I was about to return to the Capitol, when, perceiving that the House flag was down (a recess having been ordered from give until seven o’clock the same evening ), I went at once to my room (at Willard’s, where I boarded that winter, and employed myself until dinner in making full notes of the foregoing conversation, while it was fresh in my memory.”

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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