Springfield Report

I am just back from a few days of research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.

My main purpose in going was to look at newspapers from Illinois from October 1854 and October 1858. In both of those months, Chase campaigned for Republicans in Illinois. 1854 was the anti-Nebraska election, when the North rose up in outrage over the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and elected new members of Congress who called themselves anti-Nebraska or Fusion or in some cases Republican. The Republican party grew out of that election. 1858 was the great Lincoln-Douglas election, in which the Republican Abraham Lincoln challenged the Democrat Stephen Douglas and debated Douglas seven times around the state.

Before my trip, I had found some newspaper coverage of Chase’s travels in Illinois, enough so that I could say that Chase spoke in Springfield, Illinois, on Tuesday October 17, 1854, and in Princeton, Illinois, on November 1, 1858. Surely I thought the local papers would cover speeches by Senator Chase (in 1854) and Governor Chase (in 1858).

I did not find much, although I did find clues as to WHY I did not find much. In 1854, the two main papers in Springfield were Whig and Democratic. Chase considered himself a Democrat, but the Democratic paper of Springfield considered him an Abolitionist. So that paper’s report of Chase’s speech was brief, saying that only about 250 people were there and that Chase made his familiar points about Kansas-Nebraska. The other Springfield paper, the Whig paper, was even less kind to Chase, not advertising his speech beforehand, and dismissing it with a single sentence, two days later, saying that they forgot to mention it the day after the speech. I guess that, for the editors of this Whig paper, Chase was an Abolitionist and a Democrat, so not worth mentioning.

The ALPL is a wonderful library, with great staff, and I did find a few other interesting items, such as a letter describing Lincoln and Chase attending the Presbyterian Church in Springfield together in January 1861, and letters describing Chase, including one very quotable one calling him “more ambitious than Douglas.”

Next door to the Library is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, which I toured in rapid fashion yesterday afternoon. The high point here is a room in which Lincoln and his cabinet are seated around a table, debating in July 1862 the Emancipation Proclamation. There was an excellent actor in the room, portraying Francis Carpenter, the artist who painted the famous painting of that scene, and then published a book not long after Lincoln’s death, discussing the time that he spent in the White House. So I had a long chat with Francis Carpenter, which the actor must have found unnerving, for here was someone who knew a lot about this time period.

As I thought about my conversation with Carpenter, last night and today, what I wanted to say to Carpenter, somehow, is that in a sense he could not know what Lincoln and the others were thinking in 1862, because Carpenter did not arrive to paint his painting until 1864, and he did not write his book until 1866. Emancipation looked very different in 1864 and 1866 than it looked in 1862. In 1862, I think, Lincoln was lukewarm about emancipation. In August 1862, after drafting but before releasing the preliminary emancipation proclamation, Lincoln wrote his famous public letter to Greeley. Lincoln wrote:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”

I believe that Lincoln meant what he wrote to Greeley, that if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave he would do just that. That is not a message we like to hear; we revere Lincoln for many reasons but perhaps above all we revere him for his role in freeing the slaves. But at least in 1862, I think Lincoln viewed the emancipation proclamation as a means to an end, saving the Union, not as an end in itself.

One key reason for the proclamation, in my view, was to lay the groundwork for recruiting black troops. It is not coincidence that that process started in late 1862 and became a focus for Lincoln and Stanton in early 1863. Lincoln knew that one could not ask men to fight without promising them freedom at the end of the war.

By the time Francis Carpenter arrived in the White House, in 1864, Lincoln’s views on emancipation had changed. Lincoln now saw the war as having two related purposes: saving the Union and freeing the slaves. That is why he insisted that southern states would have to accept the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation in order to return to the Union. That is why in his second inaugural address, he talked as much about slavery as he did about Union.

And of course by 1866, after Lincoln’s tragic death, in the early stages of Reconstruction, and especially for an almost-abolitionist like Carpenter, the Emancipation Proclamation was even more important. Carpenter’s account of the July 1862 cabinet meeting, as I note in my Seward book, page 343, is somewhat fanciful, and colored by later events. I do not think that Seward said anything like what Carpenter has him saying: that he approved of the proclamation in principle but merely questioned that timing; that issuing the proclamation at this time would be “viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.” That, in my view, is Carpenter writing in 1866, not Seward speaking in 1862.

Overall, a good visit, an interesting visit, but I am glad to be home, and hope to get back to writing the book tomorrow.