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14: Lincoln's Final Intentions

<< 13: The Plebiscite of 1864 || Bibliographical Note

The victory of the Union Party in November enabled Lincoln to enjoy for a brief period of his career as President what may be thought of as a lull in the storm. He knew now that he had at last built up a firm and powerful support. With this assured, his policy, both domestic and foreign—the key to which was still the blockade—might be considered victorious at all points. There remains to be noticed, however, one event of the year 1864 which was of vital importance in maintaining the blockade.

It is a principle of international law that a belligerent must itself attend to the great task of suppressing contraband trade with its enemy. Lincoln was careful to observe this principle. Though British merchants were frankly speculating in contraband trade, he made no demand upon the British Government to relieve him of the difficulty of stopping it. England also took the legitimate position under international law and warned her merchants that, while it was none of the Government's business to prevent such trade, they practised it at their own risk, subject to well-understood penalties agreed upon among nations. The merchants nevertheless continued to take the risk, while both they and the authorities of the Confederacy thought they saw a way of minimizing the danger. Instead of shipping supplies direct to the Confederate ports they shipped them to Matamoros, in Mexico, or to the West Indies. As these ports were in neutral territory, the merchants thought their goods would be safe against capture until they left the Mexican or West Indian port on their brief concluding passage to the territory of the Confederacy. Nassau, then a petty West India town, was the chief depot of such trade and soon became a great commercial center. To it came vast quantities of European goods which were then transferred to swift, small vessels, or "blockade-runners," which took a gambler's chance and often succeeded in eluding the Federal patrol ships and in rushing their cargoes safe into a Confederate port.

Obviously, it was a great disadvantage to the United States to allow contraband supplies to be accumulated, without interference, close to the blockaded coast, and the Lincoln Government determined to remove this disadvantage. With this end in view it evoked the principle of the continuous voyage, which indeed was not new, but which was destined to become fixed in international law by the Supreme Court of the United States. American cruisers were instructed to stop British ships sailing between the British ports of Liverpool and Nassau; they were to use the recognized international rights of visit and search; and if there was evidence that the cargo was not destined for actual consumption at Nassau, they were to bring the ship into an American port to be dealt with by an American prize court. When such arrests began, the owners clamored to the British Government, and both dealers in contraband and professional blockade-runners worked themselves into a fury because American cruisers watched British ports and searched British ships on the high seas. With regard to this matter, the British Government and the Government at Washington had their last important correspondence during the war. The United States stood firm for the idea that when goods were ultimately intended for the Confederacy, no matter how roundabout the journey, they could be considered as making a single continuous voyage and were liable to capture from the day they left Liverpool. Early in 1865, the Supreme Court of the United States fully developed the principle of continuous voyage in four celebrated cases that are now among the landmarks of international law.1

This was the last step in making the blockade effective. Thereafter, it slowly strangled the South. The Federal armies enormously overmatched the Southern, and from November, 1864, their continuance in the field was made sure. Grim work still lay before Lincoln, but the day of anxiety was past. In this moment of comparative ease, the aged Chief Justice Taney died, and Lincoln appointed to that high position his ungenerous rival, Chase.

Even now Lincoln had not established himself as a leader superior to party, but he had the satisfaction, early in 1865, of seeing the ranks of the opposition begin to break. Naturally, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States, appeared to Lincoln as in a way the consummation of his labors. When the House voted on the resolution to send this amendment to the States, several Democrats joined the government forces. Two nights afterward, speaking to a serenading party at the White House, Lincoln made a brief speech, part of which is thus reported by his secretaries: "He thought this measure was a very fitting if not an indispensable adjunct to the winding up of the great difficulty. He wished the reunion of all the States perfected, and so effected as to remove all causes of disturbance in the future; and to attain this end, it was necessary that the original disturbing cause should, if possible, be rooted out."

An event which in its full detail belongs to Confederate rather than to Union history took place soon after this. At Hampton Roads, Lincoln and Seward met Confederate commissioners who had asked for a parley—with regard to peace. Nothing came of the meeting, but the conference gave rise to a legend, false in fact and yet true in spirit, according to which Lincoln wrote on a sheet of paper the word "Union," pushed it across to Alexander H. Stephens and said, "Write under that anything you please."

This fiction expresses Lincoln's attitude toward the sinking Confederacy. On his return from Hampton Roads he submitted to his Cabinet a draft of a message which he proposed to send to Congress. He recommended the appropriation of $400,000,000 to be distributed among the slave states on condition that war cease before April 1, 1865. Not a member of the Cabinet approved. His secretary, Mr. Nicolay, writes: "The President, in evident surprise and sorrow at the want of statesmanlike liberality shown by his executive council, folded and laid away the draft of his message...." With a deep sigh he added, "But you are all opposed to me, and I will not send the message."

His second inauguration passed without striking incidents. Chase, as Chief Justice, administered the oath. The second inaugural address contained words which are now famous: "With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

That gigantic system of fleets and armies, the creation of which was due to Lincoln, was closing tight around the dying Confederacy. Five weeks after the inauguration Lee surrendered, and the war was virtually at an end. What was to come after was inevitably the overshadowing topic of the hour. Many anecdotes represent Lincoln, in these last few days of his life, as possessed by a high though melancholy mood of extreme mercy. Therefore, much has been inferred from the following words, in his last public address, made on the night of the 11th of April: "In the present situation, as the phrase goes, it may be my duty to make some new announcement to the people of the South. I am considering and shall not fail to act when action shall be proper."

What was to be done for the South, what treatment should be accorded the Southern leaders, engrossed the President and his Cabinet at the meeting on the 14th of April, which was destined to be their last. Secretary Welles has preserved the spirit of the meeting in a striking anecdote. Lincoln said that no one need expect he would "take any part in hanging or killing those men, even the worst of them. Frighten them out of the country, open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off;" said he, throwing up his hands as if scaring sheep. "Enough lives have been sacrificed; we must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union."

While Lincoln was thus arming himself with a valiant mercy, a band of conspirators at an obscure boardinghouse in Washington were planning his assassination. Their leader was John Wilkes Booth, an actor, brother of the much abler Edwin Booth. There seems little doubt that he was insane. Around him gathered a small group of visionary extremists in whom much brooding upon Southern wrongs had produced an unbalanced condition. Only a morbid interest can attach today to the strange cunning with which Booth laid his plans, thinking of himself all the while as a reincarnation of the Roman Brutus.

On the night of the 14th of April, the President attended a performance of "Our American Cousin". While the play was in progress, Booth stole into the President's box, came close behind him, and shot him through the head. Lincoln never spoke again and, shortly after seven next morning, ceased breathing.

At the same time, a futile attempt was made upon the life of Seward. Booth temporarily escaped. Later he was overtaken and shot. His accomplices were hanged.

The passage of sixty years has proved fully necessary to the placing of Lincoln in historic perspective. No President, in his own time, with the possible exception of Washington, was so bitterly hated and so fiercely reviled. On the other hand, none has been the object of such intemperate hero-worship. However, the greatest of the land were, in the main, quick to see him in perspective and to recognize his historic significance. It is recorded of Davis that in after days he paid a beautiful tribute to Lincoln and said, "Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has known."

1 The Great war has once again led to controversy over this subject, so vital to neutral states.

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