Lincoln Addresses Congress – Offers Amnesty to the Rebels

December 8, 1863 (Tuesday)

As Confederate President Jefferson Davis addressed his Congress the previous day, United States President Abraham Lincoln prepared an address on this date to be read to the House and Senate. Like Davis’ address, Lincoln’s was long and encompassing. That is, however, where the similarities ceased. While Davis solemnly spoke of “grave reverses,” Lincoln, being on the other side of those reverses, was of much better cheer.

Lincoln was becoming a bit optimistic.
Lincoln was becoming a bit optimistic.

Lincoln began with foreign relations. It was an odd place to start, but there the news was especially good. “The efforts of disloyal citizens of the United States,” he spoke of the Rebels, “to involve us in foreign wars, to aid an inexcusable insurrection, have been unavailing.” Relations with both Great Britain and France were getting better, he explained, citing the joint effort by the former and the United States to ban the African slave trade. “That inhuman and odious traffic has been brought to an end.”

After touching on a few issues with Spain and Japan’s “hereditary aristocracy,” he moved onto affairs closer to home, though to some still a world away – the territories. Mostly in the west, places like Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona were proving to hold great mineral resources. He allowed that “Indian disturbances in New Mexico have not been entirely suppressed,” but seemed more or less optimistic.

While Davis was trying to find different ways of getting men into his armies, Lincoln was encouraging immigration to these territories. He cited government grants to railways and the rendering of wilderness into farmland. Additionally, he proposed measures “for extinguishing the possessory rights of the Indians to large and valuable tracts of land. It is hoped that the effect of these treaties will result in the establishment of permanent friendly relations with such of these tribes as have been brought into frequent and bloody collision with our outlying settlements and emigrants.”

He then turned to the war and the emancipation of the slaves – two things he now fully entwined. “The rebel borders are pressed still further back,” he stated, addressing Davis’ grave reverses, “and by the complete opening of the Mississippi the country dominated by the rebellion is divided into distinct parts, with no practical communication between them. Tennessee and Arkansas have been substantially cleared of insurgent control, and influential citizens in each, owners of slaves and advocates of slavery at the beginning of the rebellion, now declare openly for emancipation in their respective States. Of those States not included in the emancipation proclamation, Maryland, and Missouri, neither of which three years ago would tolerate any restraint upon the extension of slavery into new territories, only dispute now as to the best mode of removing it within their own limits.”

dec8emancipation

Much of this was true, though there was a fine helping of sugar in the President’s message. But of the former slaves, he had reason to boast. “Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full one hundred thousand are now in the United States military service,” continued Lincoln, “about one-half of which number actually bear arms in the ranks; thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men.”

Clearly, there was still much room for growth. Davis, too, held the belief that if hard labor could be handled by the black men, the white men could be freed to fight. In Lincoln’s case, however, there were a growing number of examples that black men could be used for more than digging trenches and garrisoning forts: “So far as tested, it is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.”

Many slave owners waled that their chattel would rise up and kill them if the North tried to free the slaves. Lincoln was happy to report that “no servile insurrection, or tendency to violence or cruelty, has marked the measures of emancipation and arming the blacks.”

He then turned to the future. It was becoming clearer to him that the the Union would win the war. Some sort of plan had to be put forward for that inevitability. To that end, he issued the “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction.”

It declared that since the Constitution provided the President with the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States,” he would do just that.

Lincoln declared that “all persons who have, directly or by implication, participated in the existing rebellion” would receive a “full pardon” and, with the exception of slaves, have their property restored. The only condition was that they swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and promise to abide by the laws, including and especially in reference to slavery.

Mary Johnston was cook in her master's family in New Orleans. On her left arm are scars of three cuts given to her by her mistress with a rawhide. On her back are scars of more than fifty cuts given by her master. The occasion was that one morning she was half an hour behind time in bringing up his five o'clock cup of coffee. As the Union army approached she ran away from her master, and has since been employed by Colonel Hanks as cook.
Mary Johnston was cook in her master’s family in New Orleans. On her left arm are scars of three cuts given to her by her mistress with a rawhide. On her back are scars of more than fifty cuts given by her master. The occasion was that one morning she was half an hour behind time in bringing up his five o’clock cup of coffee. As the Union army approached she ran away from her master, and has since been employed by Colonel Hanks as cook.

There were, of course, some exemptions – people who would not be offered this olive branch. Any civil or diplomatic officer of the Confederacy who had left similar stations in the Federal government would be barred. Similarly, any officer above the rank of colonel, any former US congressman who joined the rebellion, any former military officer who did the same, would not be eligible.

Lincoln also declared that if any of the rebellious states could gather together ten percent of their voting population under the Union flag, they would be reorganized and recognized as a loyal state government. He also encouraged each of these future state congresses to pass laws recognizing the permanent freedom of slaves, and to provide for their education.

Perhaps Lincoln thought the “grave reverses” of the Southern armies, especially in the west, signaled the death knell of the Confederacy. Perhaps he simply hoped to gain support prior to the 1864 elections. But Lincoln’s amnesty might not have been liberal enough. To deny even civic leaders the chance to swear their allegiance might keep the otherwise loyal citizenry from swearing it themselves. But still, the offer was now officially on the table. The discussion could begin and, he hoped, this war could finally come to an end.1



  1. Sources: “Annual Message to Congress” by Abraham Lincoln, as printed in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 7; “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” by Abraham Lincoln, as printed in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 7; The Great Task Remaining by William Marvel. []
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8 thoughts on “Lincoln Addresses Congress – Offers Amnesty to the Rebels

        1. I think it would have caused a prolonged insurgency. As it was the south won the peace for a hundred years after the north got bored with occupation.Much as what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    1. I’m not sure you realize just how many deportations that would amount to. One of the reasons that there were a number of “carpetbaggers” — Northerners moving to the South — after the war, was that nearly a quarter of the South’s white males of military age had been killed or crippled, and there wasn’t enough manpower left. To have deported everyone who served in the Confederate military would have been about four times worse.

  1. I’m amazed to learn how prolific a writer Lincoln was. Wasn’t too long before this that he crafted the Gettysburg Address. Now it’s this huge amnesty proclamation along with an address to Congress – two documents that aren’t just whipped up spur of the moment. Two documents with big implications. Did he worry about getting the wording just right? Did he labor through multiple revisions? A tough task for any writer, let alone one battling a potentially fatal illness at the time.

    1. Not to detract from Lincoln’s genius with the English language, but there is reason to believe by this time he was using William Seward as something like an editor. Although Seward had tried to undermine Lincoln in the early days of the administration, at this point the two were close friends. You will often see Seward’s signature as well as Lincoln’s on proclamations and other major policy documents.

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