‘An Instant and Irrepressible Storm of Applause’ – Lincoln’s Report to the Senate

February 10, 1865 (Friday)

Noah Brooks
Noah Brooks

It had been a week since the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, and President Lincoln was ready to submit to Congress his report, which was, in fact, simply Secretary of State William Seward’s report with some other bit pasted in.

Reporter, and friend of Lincoln, Noah Brooks, was in the gallery that day, and wrote later about what he saw:

The reading began in absolute silence. Looking over the hall, one might say that the hundreds seated or standing within the limits of the great room had been suddenly turned to stone. The auditors who strained their attention were not merely interested to know what was the story to be unfolded: they were apparently fascinated by the importance and mysteriousness of the possible out come of this extraordinary incident. It is no exaggeration to say that for a little space at least no man so much as stirred his hand. Even the hurrying pages, who usually bustled about the aisles waiting upon the members, were struck silent and motionless.

The preliminary paragraphs of the message recited the facts relating to F. P. Blair, Sr.’s, two journeys to Richmond, and, without the slightest appearance of argument, cleared the way for the departure of Secretary Seward to meet the commissioners at Fort Monroe. Then came the three indispensable terms given in the instructions to the Secretary, on which alone could any conference looking to peace be held. These were:

1. The restoration of the national authority throughout all the States.

2. No receding, by the Executive of the United States, on the slavery question, from the position
assumed thereon in the late annual message to Congress and in preceding documents.

3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war and the disbanding of all forces hostile to
the government.

When the clerk read the words at the close of the instructions to Seward, ” You will not assume to
definitely consummate anything,” there ran a ripple of mirth throughout the great assembly of congressmen; and the tenseness with which men had listened to the reading was for the first time relaxed, although there had been a subdued rumble of applause when the clerk read in the instructions
to Mr. Blair that the President would be always ready to receive any agent whom Davis, or other
influential person, should send to him with a view of securing peace to the people of “our one common country.” As the reading of the message and documents went on, the change which took place in the moral atmosphere of the hall of the House was obvious.

The appearance of grave intentness passed away, and members smilingly exchanged glances as they began to appreciate Lincoln’s sagacious plan for unmasking the craftiness of the rebel leaders; or they laughed gleefully at the occasional hard hits with which the wise President demolished the pretensions of those whose fine-spun logic he had so ruthlessly swept aside in the now famous interview. Of course the details of that interview were not then spread before the country, but enough was given in the documents submitted by the President to Congress to show the subtle wisdom with which his mission had been conducted and concluded.

When the reading was over, and the name of the writer at the end of the communication was read by the clerk with a certain grandiloquence, there was an instant and irrepressible storm of applause, begun by the members on the floor, and taken up by the people in the gallery. It was instantaneous, involuntary, and irrepressible, and the Speaker only perfunctorily attempted to quell it. It was like a burst of refreshing rain after a long and heartbreaking drought.

Though most, as Brooks stated, greatly favored the President’s side of things, a conservative Democrat from New York then spoke with regret that the President would not allow the separate Northern states to make peace individually with the Southern states. Titles like “conservative” and “radical,” he opined, should be disregarded, and every Unionist be for an armistice.

Thaddeus "Sour Apple Face" Stevens
Thaddeus “Sour Apple Face” Stevens

When the orator was then asked whether he favored such an armistice, he replied: “I am in favor of appealing from guns and bayonets and artillery to reason, to sense, to Christianity, and to civilization.” Adding, “Why, certainly I am in favor of an armistice. Someday or other this war must stop.”

But then, he also believed that driving the French out of Mexico was of “far more importance to us than slavery in the South…. Let not Mexico and Central America be enslaved to free a few Negroes here.”

In response to the Senator from New York, Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican from Pennsylvania, replied with a quote from Jefferson Davis:

“Sooner than we should be united again, I would be willing to yield up everything I have on earth; and if it were possible, I would yield up my life a thousand times rather than succumb.”

Stevens continued, now speaking directly at the New York Senator: “And yet a man calling himself a patriot and an American rises upon this floor and sends forth to the country a denunciation of the President of the United States for not entering into negotiations with men holding these doctrines and entertaining these views. I will apply no epithets to such a man; I do not know that I could use any which would be sufficiently merited.”

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