On page 340 of my Seward book, I assert that the famous “carriage ride conversation,” in which Lincoln first raised with Seward and Welles an emancipation proclamation, did not occur. Yes, there was a carriage ride, to a funeral of Stanton’s infant child, but no, there was no discussion of emancipation. Among other reasons I do not believe there was a conversation on emancipation is that there were FOUR people in the carriage on Sunday July 13: Lincoln, Seward, Welles, and Anna Seward. Lincoln would not, I think, have brought up such a sensitive political subject in the presence of Anna Seward.
I was reading, a few weeks back, James Oakes’s fine new book on the end of slavery. Like most authors, he believes there was a carriage ride conversation on emancipation. He cites, for this, not only the “diary” of Gideon Welles, the standard source, but also a letter from Welles to his wife, in which Welles said “I scarcely knew what to make of it.” This certainly SOUNDS like a reference to something important; something Lincoln raised that puzzled and troubled Welles. Oakes cites Eric Foner for this letter; Foner cites the letter among the Welles papers at the Library of Congress.
I was quite troubled myself; how could I have missed this letter? Was I wrong on this point?
Today a friend looked at the Library of Congress for that letter, and sent me a scan. When I read it, I realized that I had read it months back myself, and thought that it was not that important.
Welles writes to his wife: “I have not been to church to day. Tom and I were just starting out this morning to go to the Department, when the President, Mr. Seward and Mrs. F. Seward drove up and invited me to go with them to the funeral of Stanton’s child. It was a duty in any event, and I could not refuse, so I stopped at once with the carriage, and we drove off. I scarcely knew what to make of it. We drove through Georgetown, over and past the heights, away several miles to a fine old place on the high hills between Tenallytown [and the river]. I was not aware that Stanton had removed his family there. It belongs I find to some officer–they, Seward & daughter, said of the Navy but I think it must be of the Army. All the members of the cabinet were there, except Blair and Smith” etc.
Welles was not puzzled by Lincoln’s remarks about slavery; he was puzzled at Seward’s invitation, especially because the two men were almost enemies. Far from proving that there was a carriage ride conversation about slavery, I think the larger passage from the letter tends to DISPROVE it; there is nothing here about slavery. Of course it is possible that Welles did not want to mention such a subject in a letter to his wife. But if he would not mention to his wife, why would Lincoln mention to his secretary’s daughter-in-law, ie, Anna Seward?
I am going to revise the book, slightly, in the paperback edition on this point. But I cannot go on at such length in the book, without throwing the pages off. Hence this blog post.