The Key Note of Freedom

In the months after the Senate debate on the amendment, partisan lines on slavery, which already had begun to totter, seemed ready to crumble completely. In the New York legislature, for example, it was not a Republican but a Democrat, Carolan O'Brien Bryant, who sponsored a resolution instructing New York congressmen to back the antislavery amendment. Although many other state legislatures already had adopted similar resolutions, some Democrats in the New York Assembly, especially those belonging to Fernando Wood's "Mozart Hall" organization, refused to budge on slavery. One of Wood's men jabbed at Bryant by asking him what party he belonged to.1 Bryant shouted back, "Not to the rumhole, Copperhead party, at any rate." The assembly broke into tumultuous applause. It was strange enough that a Democrat sponsored the amendment, and stranger still that he called his fellow Democrats by the derisive "Copperhead" label created by Republicans.2

The incident revealed the unsteady state of politics, slavery, and the constitutional amendment. The Democratic party was badly split, and the Republicans were becoming increasingly so. The Republicans in the Senate had all voted for the measure, but some radical members of the party preferred an antislavery measure that explicitly granted equal rights to African Americans. Democrats in the meantime still struggled with the party's traditional stance against emancipation. As the reaction to Bryant's proposal in the New York Assembly had demonstrated, many Democrats still refused to back down on slavery. The president's continued silence on the amendment made it particularly difficult for people to understand the measure's place in the political landscape. Did Lincoln see the amendment as a threat to his reconstruction program? Or had he initiated the measure without showing his hand? With politics saturated by uncertainty, it was impossible to predict the future of the antislavery amendment or any other initiative concerning African Americans.

1 For a report on the state legislatures that had adopted such resolutions, see the New York Herald, May 3, 1864, p. 4.

2 New York Tribune, April 26, 1864, p. 4. See also ibid., March 15, 1864, p. 4, April 25, 1864, p. 4; Journal of the Assembly of the State of New York, 87th sess., 1864, pp. 496, 737, 1418; Phyllis F. Field, The Politics of Race in New York: The Struggle for Black Suffrage in the Civil War Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 156; and Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State during the Period of the Civil War (New York: Columbia University, 1911), 368.

Only one thing was certain: the fate of the amendment, and of all similar legislation, was intricately linked to the struggle over the upcoming presidential election. In the months to come, not only was the House scheduled to debate the amendment, but both parties would hold national conventions to nominate presidential candidates. Debate on the amendment, inside and outside of the Capitol, would shape the terrain of party politics. In turn, everyday political circumstances would shape the way that lawmakers, politicians, and ordinary Americans came to understand the amendment.

A New Party, a New Amendment: The Radical Democrats

Lincoln's silence on the antislavery amendment left the door open for some other presidential candidate to take up the measure. Indeed, some political observers still saw the amendment as part of a movement to form a third party that would run a candidate on a platform of immediate, universal emancipation. Such was the opinion of James Gordon Bennett, the political independent and editor of the New York Herald. Bennett declared that the Senate's passage of the amendment was in effect a censure of Lincoln's reconstruction program: "in contempt of his preposterous projects of emancipation and reconstruction the Senate . . . warns Mr. Lincoln that his petty tinkering devices of emancipation will not answer, and that if he desires the abolition of slavery in the reconstruction of the Union there is but one course to pursue - the course of action ordained in the supreme law of the land."3 In the coming election, Bennett warned, if the Republicans embraced Lincoln "in preference to the constitution touching the abolition of slavery, they will surely go by the board."4 The Washington correspondent of the Republican Chicago Tribune, J. K. C. Forrest, also interpreted the Senate vote as part of a movement to unseat Lincoln. But, unlike Bennett, he did not regard the third-party movement for universal emancipation as legitimate. Instead, Forrest suspected that all the bluster was a Democratic ruse to drive a wedge into the Republicans.5

Forrest's doubts were well founded. The Democratic press consistently played up third-party movements that threatened to split the Republican party. The editors of the Democratic New York World, while issuing no clear opinion on the amendment, indirectly touted it as part of a bipartisan movement against Lincoln by printing Democrat Reverdy Johnson's speech in favor of the amendment next to an excerpt from an Iowa paper

5 Chicago Tribune, April i2, i864, p. 2.

promoting a "People's Party" composed of "undivided Democrats" and Republican "outs."6 Republican strategists like Forrest who saw what the Democrats were up to advised Lincoln "to take such radical grounds as will satisfy all but a few evil spirits."7 But Lincoln remained mute on slavery.

The president's silence opened the way for a radical third-party candidate ready to embrace the amendment. Some still thought Salmon P. Chase was a strong contender, though the treasury secretary had issued a public statement declining to run. Chase himself had long envisioned a new antislavery party on the foundation of the old Democracy, and on such a platform he would attempt to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. But for now, he had suspended such aspirations. The "boom" for his nomination had collapsed during the early months of the year, and he was not yet ready to abandon the Republicans.8

Ulysses S. Grant was another possible third-party challenger, and the favorite of James G. Bennett. Yet the general still denied any interest in the presidency. Grant was certainly the most popular American in the Union. Victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga in i863 had secured his reputation; then, in February i864, Lincoln appointed him commander of all Union armies, with the rank of Lieutenant General. He was the first to wear that rank since George Washington. Although Grant had said nothing about the antislavery amendment, Bennett fused his pet cause of the amendment to Grant's name. The editor hoped that by convincing Americans that the candidate and the cause would carry the day, he could build a groundswell that would force Grant to run as an independent.9 Meanwhile, some Democratic strategists considered making the general the standard bearer of the regular Democratic party. They saw that if the military campaign that Grant was to launch in the spring resulted in the capture of Richmond, then the presidency would be his - if he wanted it.10 But Grant was to be no party's candidate. He had little love of politics and thought he could serve the Union best in the field. Fearing that any public statement denying presidential aspirations would be misconstrued, Grant maintained his silence, but privately he made sure the president knew that

7 Chicago Tribune, April i2, i864, p. 2.

8 John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 131, 426-32; and Frederick J. Blue, Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987), 73, 288-91.

9 New York Herald, February 13, 1864, p. 4, June 2, 1864, p. 4; John Cochrane to Elihu B. Washburne, December 17, 1863, Elihu B. Washburne MSS, LC.

i0 John M. Berry to Samuel L. M. Barlow, January 24, [i864]; Samuel Ward to Barlow, February 13, 1864; John Thomas Doyle to Barlow, June 30, 1864, all in Samuel L. M. Barlow MSS, HEH; Joseph Medill to Elihu B. Washburne, May 30, 1864, Elihu B. Washburne MSS, LC.

he would not run. A powerful advocate of emancipation, Grant tended to the destruction of slavery on the battlefield rather than in the political arena.11

Benjamin F. Butler, on the other hand, stood as ever with ears pricked, waiting for the opportunity either to replace Lincoln on the Republican ticket or to challenge him at the head of a third party. Even more than Grant, Butler had earned a reputation as a friend of black freedom. Early in the war, he had been one of the first generals to refuse to return escaped slaves to their former masters. But he was not nearly as popular as Grant, especially after his failed assault on Richmond in late 1863. John A. Stevens, Jr., of New York, a financier of the Republican party who spent most of 1864 trying to bump Lincoln from the Republican ticket, saw little hope in Butler. "A year ago," the New York banker wrote in January 1864, "Genl Butler could have carried a convention. Now I think not."12 Nor was Butler, who had been a proslavery Democrat before the war, as convincing a radical as Chase or Grant. Rarely was Butler the first to be named as an alternative to Lincoln.13

By the time that the Senate passed the antislavery amendment in April 1864, the role of spoiler to Lincoln was left to John C. Fremont alone. Fremont had earned his fame and his nickname, "the Pathfinder," as a western explorer in the 1840s. In 1856 he became the first presidential candidate of the Republicans. As the commanding general in the West in I86I, he tried to force Lincoln's hand on slavery by issuing an order imposing martial law in Missouri and freeing the slaves of rebels. When Fremont refused to modify his order, the president reassigned him to the Mountain Department of western Virginia. From then on, the general distrusted Lincoln and suspected him of being under the spell of the Blair family, whose members included Francis P. Blair, Jr., a leader of the conservative "Claybank" faction in Missouri that opposed Fremont's policies, and Montgomery Blair, Lincoln's postmaster general and the leading conservative in the cabinet. Fremont's constituency was an odd mix of disaffected Missouri "Charcoals," the radical Missouri faction that opposed the "Claybanks," German Americans opposed to Lincoln, old-line

11 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, I995), 490-92; Brooks D. Simpson, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 50-54; Simpson, " 'The Doom of Slavery': Ulysses S. Grant, War Aims, and Emancipation, 1861-1863," Civil War History, 36 (March 1990), 36-54; and William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 162-64.

12 John A. Stevens, Jr., to L. E. Chittenden, Washington, January 5, 1864, John A. Stevens MSS, NYH.

13 Hans L. Trefousse, Ben Butler: The South Called Him Beast! (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1957), 158-63; William Frank Zornow, Lincoln and the Party Divided (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), 65-71.

abolitionists, and a small, largely unknown group of New York War Democrats. This last group issued the earliest call for a national third-party convention in Cleveland. Besides hoping to nominate Fremont as an independent candidate, the convention's organizers meant to steal the limelight from the Republican convention scheduled for the very next week.14

Fremont's disciples at first demanded no distinct program of emancipation, only a more resolute war leader. But, by coincidence, at the moment that the call went out for a third-party convention, the Senate passed the antislavery amendment. Lincoln's detractors now saw a way to distinguish themselves from the president: they hitched the amendment to their candidate. They revised their calls to the Cleveland convention to include an appeal for "an amendment of the Federal Constitution for the exclusion of slavery."15 The more radical abolitionists saw an opportunity to advance the new party's platform even further. Just before the convention met, Wendell Phillips, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and a host of other well-known abolitionists claimed the coming meeting as an opportunity to write into Fremont's platform an amendment explicitly granting legal equality and suffrage to African Americans.16 The abolitionists thus tried to transform an unstable antislavery coalition into a radical party. Although some antislavery Democrats kept a blind eye to the abolitionists' radical program, many were put off by it. Meanwhile, those Democrats who had backed the original movement simply to divide the Republicans now doubted the splinter group's destructive power. New York Democrat Max Langenschwartz, for one, feared that the Pathfinder would soon drop out of the race - especially if Lincoln recalled him to the army - "thus preventing the splitting of our opponents (our best hope) and we would have a very, very bad stand!"17

The gathering at Cleveland on May 31 proved indeed to be little more than a paper convention.18 Only about three hundred people attended, a

14 Zornow, Lincoln and the Party Divided, 72-78; Allan Nevins, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West (1939; repr., New York: Longmans, Green, 1955), 570-74. Not all abolitionists joined the movement; William Lloyd Garrison, for example, refused to join for fear of splitting the Republican party and giving the election to the Democrats. James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 260-62.

15 Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America during the Great Rebellion (1865; repr., New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 411.

16 Ibid., 411. Some abolitionists, especially a German American contingent led by Karl Heinzen, had pressed for such an amendment since 1863. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality, 260-62.

17 Max Langenschwartz to Samuel L. M. Barlow, March 10, 1864, Barlow MSS, HEH.

18 See William F. Zornow, "The Cleveland Convention, 1864, and the Radical Democrats," Mid-America, 36 (January 1954), 39-53.

mishmash of Lincoln dissenters of every stripe. They called themselves the "Radical Democracy," an odd name joining the two poles of the political spectrum. Likewise, they linked Fremont, the westerner who had been the first Republican presidential candidate, to vice-presidential nominee John Cochrane, the easterner who had been a leader of the New York Democratic party before the war. Most Republicans, including Lincoln, mocked the poor showing at the convention. The antislavery activists who controlled the meeting were more upbeat: Fremont was their longtime champion and Cochrane, though a Democrat, was the nephew of a prominent abolitionist, Gerrit Smith.19 Most Democrats also played up the convention, mainly in the hope of nurturing divisions among Republicans.20 But privately, party members like T. J. Barnett, one of the New York World's Washington insiders, ridiculed the Fremont-Cochrane combination: "What! an apostate from democracy [Cochrane] - and then a rebel abolitionist - like Fremont, between the upper and lower mill-stone of these pressing and great inconsistencies, each of which has a fierce, large, determined political opposite? . . . There is nothing in the Fremont movement but folly and absurdity."21

Despite its lack of cohesion and prominence, the Cleveland meeting did play a crucial role in bringing constitutional amendments into the wide-open arena of the presidential campaign. The platform contained no fewer than three proposed amendments, one limiting the presidency to one term, one providing for the popular election of president and vice-president, and, finally, one resolving "That the Rebellion has destroyed slavery, and the Federal Constitution should be amended to prohibit its reestablishment, and to secure to all men absolute equality before the law."22 Now thrust into open view was an explicit amendment for equality like the one Charles Sumner had proposed to the Senate. Also radical was the platform's doctrine of confiscation and redistribution of rebel lands to ex-slaves. The success of the abolitionists at Cleveland in writing their program into the platform - an effort that one abolitionist described as the "hardest agony" - helped politicize many among their ranks for the coming election.23 The Democrats in attendance complied with the radi

19 Ralph Volney Harlow, Gerrit Smith: Philanthropist and Reformer (New York: Henry Holt, 1939), 440.

20 See New York Daily World, June 2, 1864, p. 4; Francis Lieber to Henry W. Halleck, June 4, 1864, Francis Lieber MSS, HEH.

21 T. J. Barnett to Samuel L. M. Barlow, June 11, 1864, Samuel L. M. Barlow MSS, HEH. Some Democrats retained their faith in the staying power of the new movement; see, for example, James Asheton Bayard to Samuel L. M. Barlow, June 2, i864, Barlow MSS, HEH.

22 McPherson, Political History, 413.

23 Parker Pillsbury to Wendell Phillips, June 1, 1864, Wendell Phillips MSS, HL.

cal platform only because they feared that too much dissent would dissolve the third party and thwart the larger strategy of splitting the Republicans.

Because of the Democrats' strategic silence, the abolitionists were able to frame a platform that was too radical even for the nominees. In their letters accepting the nomination, both Fremont and Cochrane denied any wish to distribute confiscated land to free African Americans, and both said nothing about legal equality for African Americans.24 The only measure that they explicitly embraced was the antislavery amendment. The candidates knew that the only prospect of success for the "Radical Democracy" lay in keeping the focus limited to emancipation in order not to alienate conservative Republicans and War Democrats. In the proposed amendment, Lincoln's adversaries had found a potentially effective campaign issue. However, the new movement would stall if Democrats turned against the antislavery amendment, and it would crumble altogether if Lincoln adopted the amendment into his own platform.

The "National Union Party" and the Amendment

The president so far had kept his thoughts on the amendment private. He neither addressed Fremont's radical program nor sent word to the House of Representatives urging passage of the amendment adopted by the Senate. When the House of Representatives began debate on the amendment on May 31, the same day as the Cleveland convention, congressmen still did not know whether the amendment met with Lincoln's approval or whether the Republican party would endorse it in the national convention scheduled to meet on June 7. Perhaps in anticipation that the Baltimore meeting would make some statement on the amendment, or perhaps because many Republicans had to prepare for the trip to Baltimore, the representatives, after only one day of debate on the amendment, agreed to suspend consideration of the measure until after the convention.25

By the standards of nineteenth-century national conventions, the Baltimore meeting was singularly undramatic. Lincoln's nomination was certain. During the weeks leading up to the convention, state party conventions in Ohio, Illinois, and New York all had passed resolutions in support of the president and sent delegates favorable to him. John G. Nicolay, Lincoln's personal secretary, reported the good news to his fiancee: "a similar unanimity has not occurred during the whole history of our coun

24 McPherson, Political History, 413-14.

25 CG, 38th Cong., 1st sess. (June 3, 1864), 2722-23. See also John V. S. L. Pruyn to Manton Marble, June 3, 1864, Manton M. Marble MSS, LC.

try."26 David Davis, who managed Lincoln's candidacy in i860, was so certain of Lincoln's nomination that he stayed at home in Illinois. "If there had been a speck of opposition," Davis explained to the president, "I would have gone to Baltimore."27

Because Lincoln's renomination was so secure, the convention spent most of its energy reshaping the party's image. One of the major efforts in that direction was the Republicans' christening of themselves as the "National Union Party." Union parties had formed at the county and state level since the beginning of the war. Generally conceived of as provisional organizations, they combined people of any political background willing to support the war. Lincoln had endorsed and nurtured these organizations, knowing that they would widen his administration's constituency in the years to come. Few people expected these loose coalitions to last beyond the war, however, so when the Republicans at Baltimore presented themselves as the "National Union Party," most observers likewise doubted the staying power of the alliance between regular Republicans and pro-Lincoln War Democrats.28 Yet for many Republicans, the new name reflected a genuine desire to restyle the party that had been created in the 1850s. So many of the goals that Republicans had articulated in the party platform of i860 had been realized - the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad, the prohibition of slavery in the territories - that the time had come to design a new program. Whatever new positions it might take, the party would do well to shed the Republican name, which still carried connotations of radical abolitionism. "It is very clear to me that no one can be elected if he be styled the Republican candidate and if the distinctive Republican name and organization be kept up," a low-level political operative in New Jersey had written a year before. A successful political organization, the writer explained, needed the support of at least some of the Democrats, and since Democrats had been "taught to stigmatize and hate . . . 'Abolitionism' and 'Black Republicanism,'" Lincoln's party should adopt the "Union" label for its national organization.29 The correspondent's arguments made good sense and no doubt matched the reasoning of the Baltimore convention's organizers. The selection of Maryland as

26 John G. Nicolay to Therena Bates, May 29, 1864, John G. Nicolay MSS, LC.

27 David Davis to Abraham Lincoln, June 2, 1864, David Davis MSS, CHS.

28 James G. Randall with Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 2:214-16. Historians remain puzzled about when and how the party took on its new name. Although many historians credit Lincoln for the change, no one has discovered the origins. See Michael Holt, "Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Union," in John L. Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), 124 -25.

29 Martin Ryerson to William H. Seward, Washington, October 20, 1863, William Henry Seward MSS, UR.

the meeting place put an extra shine on the party's "Union" label. A hotbed of secessionism three years before, Maryland was now the showcase of border state unionism. In the 1863 elections, the people had elected a proemancipation ticket, and in April 1864 they had voted for a state constitutional convention that was expected to enact statewide abolition.30

Aside from affirming the party's new image, the convention also hoped to effect some personnel changes within the party leadership. For many delegates, the ejection of the conservative Montgomery Blair from the cabinet was the first priority. The removal of Blair, a longtime advocate of gradual emancipation and colonization, would signal vindication for the cause of immediate emancipation throughout the Union but particularly in Maryland, Blair's home state. "President Lincoln must shake off the Blair coil or he is politically dead and d[amne]d," one Ohio man ad-vised.31 The president listened to such suggestions but did nothing to affect Blair's position. Nor did he involve himself in the deliberations that led to Andrew Johnson's nomination as vice-president in place of Hannibal Hamlin. It was natural that an organization billing itself as the National Union Party would replace Hamlin, a steadfast Republican from Maine, with Johnson, a southern War Democrat. Lincoln may have approved of the decision, but he took no part in it.32

When it came to the party platform, however, the president did get involved. A number of party members on their way to Baltimore stopped at the White House to ask the president whether he expected the platform to retract or modify his Emancipation Proclamation. Repeating the pledge that he had made in his annual message to Congress of 1863, Lincoln refused to revoke a word of the proclamation.33 Yet Lincoln went even further. To at least one Republican confidante, he expressed his hope that the convention would endorse the antislavery amendment "as one of the articles of the party faith."34 And to Edwin D. Morgan, the chairman of the party and a senator from New York, the president proposed that the amendment serve as the "key note" of the opening address.35

30 Charles L. Wagandt, The Mighty Revolution: Negro Emancipation in Maryland, 1862-1864 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964), 155-220.

31 C. H. Spahr to John Sherman, Washington, May 6, 1864, John Sherman MSS, LC.

32 CW, 7:376-77; Donald, Lincoln, 505-6; Don E. Fehrenbacher, "The Making of a Myth: Lincoln and the Vice-Presidential Nomination in 1864," Civil War History, 41 (December 1995), 273-90.

33 Thompson Campbell to Elihu B. Washburne, December 9, 1864, Elihu B. Washburne MSS, LC.

34 Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln's Time, ed. Herbert Mitgang (1895; rev. ed. 1971; repr., Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989), 141-42.

35 Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg, 1885),

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