Politics and War

Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2017. Kindle edition.

All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2019. Audible edition. 

Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America by Fergus M. Bordewich, Knopf, 2020.

Image: Lincoln Inauguration 1861 (source Wikipedia)

The first two books listed continue the story started in A Self Made Man, which closed with the end of Lincoln’s one term in Congress. They show the development of his political thinking during the tumultuous years described in The Impending Crisis. Lincoln played little direct part in doings on the national scene, but he never withdrew from politics, remaining an active supporter of the Whig Party until its final demise in the mid 1850s. By then his opposition to the expansion of slavery and his desire that it should eventually end because it was incompatible with the basic principles of democracy, were firm. He had seen the overthrow of moderate Whigs in Kentucky, including Henry Clay and several close relations of his wife, Mary Todd, by a conspiracy of slave dealers and others. He had a growing sense that there was no limit to the greed and ambition of the “slave power,” as it came to be called. He expressed opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, but he bowed out of the 1856 race for Senator from Illinois in order to ensure the election of an anti slavery Democrat. 

Lincoln had always opposed the Democrats in Illinois. The challenge he faced was to deal with the three way struggle between the old Whigs, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothings and the nascent Republican Party. The Know Nothings mattered greatly in Illinois, because Chicago had become a huge city, with a large population of German immigrants. Lincoln saw that a party that could capture their support had the best chance of dominating Illinois politics. He joined in formally establishing the Illinois Republican Party and tried to assure that it did not take anti immigrant positions, while still bringing some former Know Nothings to its side.

In 1856 he was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate but was passed over. He began to attract wide attention with reports of his debates with Stephen Douglas in the Senate race of 1858 and his famous speech at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860. Thanks to strong political organizing in Illinois and his growing reputation as a moderate but firm anti slavery man, he was able to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

Interlaced with this central narrative is the story of the increasing rancor between north and south and the unraveling of attempts to establish a lasting compromise, as I already described in my post on The Impending Crisis. Here though, there is a much more specific focus on the rise and fall of Stephen Douglas, who was Lincoln’s persistent opponent. Douglas, who saw himself as a pragmatist and a great compromiser like Henry Clay, was as ambitious as Lincoln. He thought he could work with the powerful southerners like Senator Jefferson Davis, heir to John C. Calhoun, to forge an alliance that would propel him to the presidency. He thought his concept of popular sovereignty and his success in forcing through the Kansas-Nebraska Act would assure their support. By then however, the southern Democrats had become determined to expand slavery far beyond the limits northerners could live with. The aristocratic ally minded southerners rejected Douglas, whom they regarded as vulgar as the nominee in 1860. Instead, they chose their own candidate and left Douglas with only northern Democrats to face Lincoln and the Republicans. Defeated, in the end he remained loyal to the Union, but his alcoholism was out of control and he died in 1862.

I picked up Bordewich’s book on Congress in the Civil War partly as a complement to the Lincoln story, partly because I served a year as a Congressional Science Fellow in the House of Representatives during Ronald Reagan’s first term and partly because I saw the movie Lincoln and wanted to know about the real lives and characters of the men depicted in it, like Thaddeus Stevens (memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones)

This is a fascinating account. After the election of Lincoln and Republican majorities in both houses, southern members left as their states seceded. Northern members of the Democratic Party remained. Some were staunchly unionist “war Democrats,” but others favored peace with the succeeded states, even at the cost of splitting the country. These “copperheads” bedeviled the Republicans throughout the Civil War. Bordewich describes vividly the battles that took place within the US Congress to save the Union and then to legally abolish slavery. Many members were accomplished orators, so much of the struggle was verbal, trying to rally colleagues and win public support. But sometimes the struggles turned to violence, though not as terrible as the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by a South Carolina Representative in the 1850s.

Given the enormous problem of winning a civil war that few had expected before 1861, with the unending demands for men and supplies, one might expect congressmen and senators had little time for other things. Members of Congress had no offices or staffs in those days (The Representative’s office I was in in 1982-83 had seven permanent staff, offices in the home district and separate staff for the committees and subcommittees. There were six huge Congressional office buildings, besides the Capitol and the two large buildings that housed the Library of Congress). Nevertheless, members were constantly besieged by men seeking government jobs, contracts, etc. Most got little sleep while in session, particularly in the hectic days before adjournment, except at their desks or on couches in the respective chambers. Many drank heavily, like Douglas.

Despite this, by 1862, the Republican Congress, freed of the obstructionist southerners, had already passed a backlog of bills that would revolutionize the country and the role of the federal government: the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad, the Morrill Land grant colleges act and the Department of Agriculture. Together these would lead to the development of the prairies, the spread of science based farming and greatly expand higher education and would tie the west coast more tightly to the rest of the nation. They also, through their efforts to finance the war, put the system of currency and banking on a new national footing. (To get a sense of what happened after, see my post on The Republic for Which it Stands)

The financial aspects were managed by Thaddeus Stevens on the House side and Pitt Fessenden of Maine in the Senate, together with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and opportunistic financiers like Jay Cooke. There was never a question that there was enough gold and silver in the ground in the western states and territories to eventually restore hard money, but in the immediate emergency, the problem was to have enough cash to pay the costs of the war. Gold and silver coin, the only legal tender, were tightly hoarded as war came, and federal tax revenue, largely from tariffs, was never going to be enough. At first, paper notes redeemable in gold and silver on demand were issued to pay soldiers and contractors, but hundreds of millions more in currency were needed. The first legal tender notes that were not backed by gold or silver were issued in 1862, the “greenbacks.” 

Then Congress passed legislation to establish federally chartered banks that could issue “National Currency,” backed by bonds the banks bought from the Treasury and deposited there. These replaced, eventually, the vast amounts of private bank notes, usually not accepted beyond a local area (and sometimes not at all) with notes that were valid all over the country. Still the price of gold, driven by speculators, fluctuated in relation to the paper notes, especially with the varying fortunes of the war. It took tremendous skill and good fortune on the battlefield to keep the country financially afloat. One smart move was to make the greenbacks not legal tender for tariff duties. This insured a flow of gold and silver to the treasury and kept the redeemable notes in circulation. 

To maintain the flow of funds to the government, a host of new taxes had to be enacted covering a wide range of commodities, legal documents and transactions as well as incomes. These were, naturally, unpopular, and contributed to the Republicans losses to Democrats in 1862. The military draft also fueled popular rage. With the growing impetus behind freeing slaves in the occupied succeeded states and enlisting blacks, including escaped slaves from the south, there was a backlash in the north – not only the well known draft riots in New York, but also violent resistance throughout the Midwest, where racist sentiment was strong. I was astonished by the amount of murder (including many federal marshals) and destruction, some of it abetted by opposition politicians as well as out Confederate sympathizers and agents, especially in states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It makes today’s brawls between white supremacists and anti-fa look quite tame, and let’s hope it stays that way. Those were bad old days. 

Lincoln had early on suspended habaeus corpus to enable the military to deal with civil resistance and desertion. Congress eventually passed legislation legalizing this,  but not without strong misgivings. The growth of the surveillance and enforcement powers of the Federal government is one of the equivocal legacies of the crisis.

After Republican losses in the 1862 elections, there was real fear at all levels, up to Lincoln himself, that the “Copperhead” Democrats would win in 1864. The main reasons it didn’t happen seem to have been the improving fortunes of the war and a growing recognition that the free blacks that joined the Union forces, far from being cowardly, lazy, stupid, etc. were as courageous and disciplined as any other men under arms.

For this to have happened took the Herculean efforts of Congress at overseeing the conduct of the war. This fell to Senator Ben Wade, Chair of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, supported by both capable Republicans and some solidly pro war Democrats. Meticulously examining and documenting the successes and glaring failures of the army and its leaders, like George McClellan, was exhausting but invaluable, both to the government and the public. Few recognize how important the oversight functions of Congress are, despite the fact that such investigations invariably have a political tinge, as I saw many times during my year as a House staffer.

The final part of the story covers the struggle to pass the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery through the lame duck Congress in 1864 and the development of a policy on dealing with the defeated south and the freed slaves. In those years the newly elected Congress did not begin meeting until more than a year after the vote. This left many “lame ducks,” defeated members who had nothing to gain from loyalty to their party and often desperately needing help to get on with their lives. Thus, enough Democrats and previously reluctant Republicans could be convinced to support abolition by suitable offers of government jobs, etc. Though the amendment passed, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, the assassination of the president and the inability of the Radical Republicans to overcome northern apathy and southern resistance eventually led to the failure of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. As my father, a lifelong North Carolinian and a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement, repeatedly told me, the slaves were set free only to be put into bondage again. Much of this, I talked about in my post on The Republic for which it Stands, covering Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Another book on that topic, which I might post something about, is Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by Davis Zucchino. This details the only coup d’etat in U.S. history, the 1898 overthrow of the biracially elected government of Wilmington N.C. by white supremacists. 

I’m looking forward now to Blumenthal’s account of Lincoln’s presidency. Even his staunchest Republican supporters in Congress frequently took a dim view of his ability and resolution. I want to know how things looked from the White House.

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