As I have mentioned before on the blog, one of my goals in retirement is to read a book on each of our presidents. Yesterday I finished a book on Abraham Lincoln and one of the things I learned about “Honest Abe” is that he wasn’t always honest and that politics in his day were not all that different then they are today. One particular incident happened towards the end of the Civil War where Lincoln dearly wanted to permanently abolish slavery through a constitutional amendment.
Lincoln was concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation would be revoked once the Civil War was over and that the Supreme Court may or may not uphold the Proclamation as legally valid. The Proclamation was also limited in scope and it freed only those slaves in rebel states. Lincoln was worried that a judical decision might be limited and that only current slaves would be considered free, but it would have no effect upon the children of those slaves.
So Lincoln set out to amend the Constitution which had not been done in sixty years. He knew that he had to get Congress to do so before the end of the war because the eleven southern states that were not part of the Union at the time and could not vote on the measure. He urged Rep. Ashley from Ohio to introduce the following legislation “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction and that Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”.
In order to get the votes needed to pass the legislation Lincoln invited congressman to the White House and offered highly sought after federal jobs to either them or their family members. Congressmen whose seats were seen as tenuous they were promised campaign appearances by Lincoln and financial support in order to be re-elected.
When the legislation came up for a final debate on January 31, 1865 rumors circulated that Confederate peace commisioners had arrived in Washington and if true most all of Congress believing that peace was at hand would probably not support the amendment. So Lincoln sent a message to Rep. Ashley stating “So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city nor will their likely be any in the city anytime soon”.
In turn Ashley floated Lincoln’s message to fellow congressmen to assure them that no peace negotiations were in the offering. Lincolns message was purposely misleading because he knew of three peace representatives that were just a few miles away at Fort Monroe prepared to discuss the means for a peaceful ending to the Civil War which had lasted so long and had taken so many lives.
The legislation passed congress, but the amendment had to be ratified and to make sure the states did ratify the amendment Lincoln wanted to offer payments to the states in the amount of $400 million, but his cabinet rejected the idea so he discarded it.
One has to wonder if this type of thing had happened today would the media be all over the story that the president had been dishonest and lied about the peace commissioners ? Would the political favors offered by Lincoln have been seen in a positive light ? Had Lincoln not sent his message to Ashley would the slavery amendment have ever passed Congress and would salvery have ever been abolished ? All very interesting questions and good food for thought !