The Chicago Ministers

Abraham Lincoln in this print he clutches the Emancipation Proclamation

Abraham Lincoln in this print he clutches the Emancipation Proclamation

In early September, the pressure built. New Yorkers had been trekking to Washington all summer. In desperation, they even recruited New York Evening Post Editor William Cullen Bryant. A delegation headed by the son of Alexander Hamilton came away frustrated according to Salmon Chase: “At dinner, Mr Hamilton told me of the interview between the New-York Committee and the President. The Committee urged a change of policy. The President became vexed, and said, in substance, ‘It is plain enough what you want-you want to get Seward out of the Cabinet. There is not one of you who would not see the country ruined, if you could turn out Seward.'”1

Contemporary biographer Noah Brooks noted that “when others urged it upon him he almost invariably argued against it; and in this way, as had been his wont when he was in the profession of the law, he found the weakest as well as the strong points of the case under consideration.”2 It is in the light of this mental condition that we must judge the well-known reply made by him on the 13th of September to a deputation from the religious denominations of Chicago requesting him to issue at once a proclamation of universal emancipation.” President Lincoln deflected their arguments for immediate emancipation but admitted he had not “decided against a proclamation of liberty to slaves.”3 Washington journalist James C. Welling argued that was with “festive humor that, on the 13th of September, he parried the arguments of the Chicago clergymen who had come to Washington in order to press for a proclamation of freedom. To their representation that the recent military disasters ‘were tokens of divine displeasure, calling for new and advanced action on the part of the President,’ he shrewdly replied that, if it was probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so intimately connected with the President’s duty, it might be supposed that he would reveal it directly to the President himself.”4 Mr. Lincoln told the Chicago delegation:

“The subject presented in the memorial is one upon which I have thought much for weeks past, and I may even say for months. I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect for a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree. For instance, the other day four gentlemen of standing and intelligence (naming one or two of the number) from New York called, as a delegation, on business connected with the war; but, before leaving, two of them earnestly beset me to proclaim general emancipation, upon which the other two at once attacked them! You know, also, that the last session of Congress had a decided majority of anti-slavery men, yet they could not united on this policy. And the same is true of the religious people. Why, the rebel soldiers are praying with a great deal more earnestness, I fear, than our own troops, and expected God to favor their side; for one of our soldiers, who had been taken prisoner, told Senator Wilson, a few days since, that he met with nothing so discouraging as the evident sincerity of those he was among in their prayers. But we will talk over the merits of the case.

“What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet! Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel States? Is there a single court, or magistrate, or individual that would be influenced by it there? And what reason is there to think it would have any greater effect upon the slaves than the late law of Congress, which I approved, and which offers protection and freedom to the slaves of rebel masters who come within our lines? Yet I cannot learn that that law has caused a single slave to come over to us. And suppose they could be induced by a proclamation of freedom from me to throw themselves upon us, what should we do with them? How can we feed and care for such a multitude? Gen. Butler wrote me a few days since that he was issuing more rations to the slaves who have rushed to him than to all the white troops under his command. They eat, and that is all, though it is true Gen. Butler is feeding the whites also by the thousand; for it nearly amounts to a famine there. If, now, the pressure of the war should call off our forces from New Orleans to defend some other point, what is to prevent the masters from reducing the blacks to slavery again; for I am told that whenever the rebels take any black prisoners, free or slave, they immediately auction them off! They did so with those they took from a boat that was aground in the Tennessee river a few days ago. And then I am very ungenerously attacked for it! For instance, when, after the late battles at and near Bull Run, an expedition went out from Washington under a flag of truce to bury the dead and bring in the wounded, and the rebels seized the blacks who went along to help and sent them into slavery, Horace Greeley said in his paper that the Government would probably do nothing about it. What could I do? [Here your delegation suggested that this was a gross outrage on a flag of truce, which covers and protects all over which it waves, and that whatever he could do if white men had been similarly detained he could do in this case.]

“Now, then, tell me, if you please, what possible result of good would follow the issuing of such a proclamation as you desire? Understand, I raise no objections against it on a legal or constitutional grounds; for, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy. Nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. I view the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion.”

Thus invited, your delegation very willingly made reply to the following effect; it being understood that a portion of the remarks were intermingled in the way of conversation with those of the President just given.

We observed (taking up the President’s ideas in order) that good men indeed differed in their opinions on this subject; nevertheless the truth was somewhere, and it was a matter of solemn moment for him to ascertain it; that we had not been so wanting in respect, alike to ourselves and to him, as to come a thousand miles to bring merely our opinion to be set over against the opinion of other parties; that the memorial contained facts, principles, and arguments which appealed to the intelligence of the President and to his faith in Divine Providence; that he could not deny that the Bible denounced oppression as one of the highest crimes, threatened Divine judgments against nations that practice it; that our country had been exceedingly guilty in this respect, both at the North and South; that our just punishment has come by a slaveholder’s rebellion; that the virus of secession is found wherever the virus of slavery extends, and no farther; so that there is the amplest reason for expecting to avert Divine judgments by putting away the sin, and for hoping to remedy the national troubles by striking at their cause.

We observed, further that we freely admitted the probability, and even the certainty, that God would reveal the path of duty to the President as well as to others; provided he sought to learn it in the appointed way; but, as according to his own remark, Providence wrought by means not miraculously, it might be, God would use the suggestions and arguments of other minds to secure that result. We felt the deepest personal interest in the matter as of national concern, and would fain aid the thoughts of our President by communicating the convictions of the Christian community from which we came, with the ground upon which they were based.

That it was true he could not now enforce the Constitution at the South; but we could see in that fact no reason whatever for not proclaiming emancipation, but rather the contrary. The two appealed to different classes; the latter would aid, and in truth was necessary to re-establish the former; and the two could be made operative together as fast as our armies fought their way southward; while we had yet to hear that he proposed to abandon the Constitution because of present difficulty of enforcing it.

As to the inability of Congress to agree on this policy at the late session, it was quite possible, in view of subsequent events, there might be more unanimity at another meeting. The members have met their constituents and learned of marvellous conversions to the wisdom of emancipation, especially since late reverse have awakened thought as to the extreme peril of the nation, and made bad men as well as good men realize that we have to deal with God in this matter. Men of the most opposite previous views were now uniting in calling for this measure.

That to proclaim emancipation would secure the sympathy of Europe and the whole civilized world, which now saw no other reason for the strife than national pride and ambition, an unwillingness to abridge our domain and power. No other step would be so potent to prevent foreign intervention.

Furthermore, it would send a thrill through the entire North, firing every patriotic heart, giving the people a glorious principle for which to suffer and to fight, and assuring them that the work was to be so thoroughly done as to leave our country free forever from danger and disgrace in this quarter.

We added, that when the proclamation should become widely known (as the law of Congress not been) it would withdraw the slaves from the rebels, leaving them without laborers and soldiers. That the difficulty experienced by Gen. Butler and other Generals arose from the fact thathalf-way measures could never avail. It is the inherent vice of half-way measures that they create as many difficulties as they remove. It is folly merely to receive and feed the slaves. They should be welcomed and fed, and then, according to Paul’s doctrine, that they who eat must work, be made to labor and to fight for their liberty and ours. With such a policy the blacks would be no incumbrance and their rations no waste. In this respect we should follow the ancient maxim, and learn of the enemy. What the rebels most fear is what we should be most prompt to do; and what they most fear is evident from the hot haste with which, on the first day of the present session of the Rebel Congress, bills were introduced threatening terrible vengeance if we used the blacks in the war.

The President rejoined from time to time in about these terms:

“I admit that slavery is the root of the rebellion, or at least its sine qua non. The ambition of politicians may have instigated them to act, but they would have been impotent without slavery as their instrument. I will also concede that emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition. I grant further that it would help somewhat at the North, though not so much, I fear, as you and those you represent imagine. Still, some additional strength would be added in that way to the war. And then unquestionably it would weaken the rebels by drawing off their laborers, which is of great importance. But I am not so sure we could do much with the blacks. If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels; and indeed thus far we have not had arms enough to equip our white troops. I will mention another thing, though it meet only your scorn and contempt: There are fifty thousand bayonets in the Union armies from the Border Slave States. It would be a serious matter if, in consequence of a proclamation such as you desire, they should go over to the rebels. I do not think they all would-not so many indeed as a year ago, or as six months ago-not so many to-day as yesterday. Every day increases their Union feeling. They are also getting their pride enlisted, and want to beat the rebels. Let me say one thing more: I think you should admit that we already have an important principle to rally and unite the people in the fact that constitutional government is at stake. This is a fundamental idea, going down about as deep as any thing.”

We answered that, being fresh from the people, we were naturally more hopeful than himself as to the necessity and probable effect of such a proclamation. The value of constitutional government is indeed a grand idea for which to contend; but the people know that nothing else has put constitutional government in danger but slavery; that the toleration of that aristocratic and despotic element among our free institutions was the inconsistency that had nearly wrought our ruin and caused free government to appear a failure before the world, and therefore the people demand emancipation to preserve and perpetuate constitutional government. Our idea would thus be found to go deeper than this, and to be armed with corresponding power. (“Yes,” interrupted Mr. Lincoln, “that is the true ground of our difficulties.”) That a proclamation of general emancipation, “giving Liberty and Union” as the national watch-word, would rouse the people and rally them to his support beyond any thing yet witnessed — appealing alike to conscience, sentiment and hope. He must remember, too, that present manifestations are no i[n]dex of what would then take place. If the leader will but utter a trumpet call the nation will respond with patriotic ardor. No one can tell the power of the right word from the right man to develop the latent fire and enthusiasm of the masses. (“I know it,” exclaimed Mr. Lincoln.) That good sense must of course be exercised in drilling, arming and using black as well as white troops to make them efficient; and that in a scarcity of arms it was at least worthy of inquiry whether it were not wise to place a portion of them in the hands of those nearest to the seat of the rebellion and able to strike the deadliest blow.

That in case of a proclamation of emancipation we had no fear of serious injury from the desertion of Border State troops. The danger was greatly diminished, as the President had admitted. But let the desertions be what they might, the increased spirit of the North would replace them two to one. One State alone, if necessary, would compensate the loss, were the whole 50,000 to join the enemy. The struggle has gone too far, and cost too much treasure and blood, to allow of a partial settlement. Let the line be drawn at the same time between freedom and slavery, and between loyalty and treason. The sooner we know who are our enemies the better.

In bringing our interview to a close, after an hour of earnest and frank discussion, of which the foregoing is a specimen, Mr. Lincoln remarked: “Do not misunderstood me, because I have mentioned these objections. They indicate the difficulties that have thus far prevented my action in some such way as you desire. I have not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves, but hold the matter under advisement. And I can assure you that the subject is on my mind, by day and night, more than any other. Whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do. I trust that, in the freedom with which I have canvassed your views, I have not in any respect injured your feelings.”5

The timing for the Proclamation was critical. President Lincoln was under extraordinary pressure, as the visit by the Chicago delegation showed. His irritability grew. Historian Allen C. Guelzo noted: “When a delegation appeared on September 13th to present the resolutions of a mass emancipation meeting the week before, Lincoln impatiently asked if they knew ‘What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated?'”6 Journalist James Welling maintained that the President was responding not to conviction that emancipation was practical but that practical politics demanded it. The Proclamation “was issued primarily and chiefly as a political necessity, and took on the character of a military necessity only because the President had been brought to believe that if he did not keep the Radical portion of his party at his back he could not be sure of keeping an army at the front.”7 Nicolay and Hay wrote of the Chicago meeting:

…the Chicago delegation had appeared with a repetition of a request which seemed to him inopportune. Habitually open and patient to every appeal, he was nevertheless becoming restive under the unremitting and unreasoning pressure regarding this single point. Could no one exercise patience but himself? Could antislavery people not realize and rest content with the undreamed-of progress their cause had already made — slavery abolished in the District of Columbia, the Territories restored to freedom, almost wholesale emancipation provided through the Confiscation Act? Had he not aided these measures, signed these laws, ordered their enforcement; and was he not, day and night, laboring to secure compensated emancipation in the border States? Had he not the very proclamation they sought lying written in his desk, waiting only the favorable moment when he might announce it? Why must they push him to the wall, and compel him to an avowal which might blight the ripening public sentiment and imperil the desired consummation? We may infer that with some such feelings he listened to the dogmatic memorial of the delegation, for his whole answer is in the nature of a friendly protest and polite rebuke against their impolitic urgency; and the impressive rhetorical figure he employs was not intended to foreshadow his decision, but to illustrate the absurdity of attempting to pluck the fruit before it was ripe. The great pith and point of the interview is his strong and unqualified declaration that he held the subject under advisement, and that he regarded his military authority as clear and ample. He said: ‘Understand, I raise no objections against it on legal or constitutional grounds, for, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, in time of war I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.”

Three days after this interview the battle of Antietam was begun, which resulted in a victory for the Union forces. The events of war had abruptly changed political conditions, and the President seized the earliest possible opportunity to announce the policy which he had decided upon exactly two months before. His manner and language on this momentous occasion have been minutely recorded in the diaries of two members of the cabinet, and liberal quotations from both will form the most valuable historical presentation of the event that can be made.8

Nicolay and Hay wrote: “This interview of the Chicago delegation with the President lasted more than an hour, during which a long memorial was read, interspersed with much discursive conversation and interchange of questions and replies. The report of his remarks, which was written out and published by the delegation after their return home, is not a verbatim reproduction, but merely a condensed abstract of what was said on the occasion. Much adverse criticism has been indulged in because of his assumed declaration that an emancipation proclamation would be as inoperative as ‘the Pope’s bull against the comet,’ and that he nevertheless issued so preposterous a document within two weeks after the interview. The error lies in the assumption that his words were literally reported. To measure rightly his utterance as a whole, the conditions under which the interview occurred must continually be kept in mind. The Administration and the country were still in the shadow of the great disasters of the Peninsula and of the second Bull Run. With corresponding elation the rebels had taken the aggressive and crossed the Potomac to invade Maryland. A new campaign was opening, and a new battle-cloud was gathering. Whether victory or fresh defeat was enfolded in its gloom was a question of uncertainty and of fearful anxiety to the President, straining his thought and imagination to an abnormal and almost unendurable tension.”9


  1. David H. Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, p. 130 (September 10, 1862).
  2. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle through which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 307.
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, .
  4. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 528 (James C. Welling).
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 419-425 (September 15, 1862).
  6. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 341.
  7. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 530-531 (James C. Welling).
  8. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, p. 156-158.
  9. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, p. 156-157.