Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress

December 6, 1864 (Tuesday)

President Lincoln’s “Annual Message to Congress” was delivered on this date, and it covered a great many subject little-related to the war at hand. For the most part, it serves as a peek into what the 1860s might have been had the Southern States not seceded.

Lincoln, as captured by Anthony Berger in December of 1864.
Lincoln, as captured by Anthony Berger in December of 1864.

There was a war raging in Mexico, but Lincoln “strictly maintained neutrality between the belligerents.” The San Juan River, running between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, had been reopened and inter-oceanic transit was once again a thing. “We could not exaggerate either the commerical or the political importance of that great improvement.”

Both Venezuela and Columbia had been recognized as friendly nations, and diplomatic intercourse with both was now happening. The same was true with Peru, and this diplomacy even averted a war between them and Spain (though that wouldn’t be the end of such problems). In fact, the United States now had great relations with almost all of South America.

Even Liberia was making political progress. “It may be expected to derive new vigor from American influence, improved by the rapid disappearance of slavery in the United States.” Lincoln also wanted to send them a gunboat for “the safety of that state against the native African races.” Additionally, Lincoln asserted that “in Liberian hands it would be more effective in arresting the African slave trade than a squadron in our own hands.”

The world was also ready for telegraphic communication with both Asia and Europe. To reach the former, a cable would be run “by way of Behring’s Straights and Asiatic Russia.” As for Europe, a “noble design” for a trans-Atlantic cable was still being worked out.

Speaking of Asia, the rebellion in China had been put down with the help of the American diplomat. Japan, “and the anomalous form of its government,” made treats a strange beast, but even so, things were going well enough: “There is reason also to believe that these proceedings have increased rather than diminished the friendship of Japan toward the United States.”

Lincoln then moved on to matters closer to home, and thus more about the war. The month previous, several ports had been opened from Virginia to Florida, and he hoped that his would curb the contraband trade.

And speaking of contraband, Lincoln wished to prevent “foreign slave traders from acquiring domicle and facilities for their criminal occupation in our country.”

Because of the recent plots to burn New York City and Chicago, Lincoln reminded Congress that to secure the border, a stronger naval presence would be necessary upon the Great Lakes. He also made it a point to note that Canadian officials were not to blame.

Moving on to emigration, Lincoln encouraged it, and wished to amend the law to “prevent the practice of frauds against the immigrants while on their way and on their arrive in the ports, so as to secure them here a free choice of avocations and places of settlement.”

“I regard our emigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war, and its wastes of national strength and health. All that is necessary is to secure the flow of that stream in its present fullness, and to that end the government must, in every way, make it manifest that it neither needs nor designs to impose involuntary military service upon those who come from other lands to cast their lot in our country.”

He went on to speak of the national debt and taxes, and how the country might use taxes to pay for the war. Also, the national banking system seemed to be working much better than the state-based banks, “and it is hoped that, very soon, there will be in the United States, no banks of issue not authorized by Congress, and no bank-note circulation not secured by the government.”

He referred Congress to the reports of both the Secretaries of War and the Navy for the specifics regarding the war, but made special note that over the past year, 324 enemy vessels had been captured. And thus far in the war, 1,379 had been captured, 267 of them being steamers.

After speaking a bit about the postal service, Lincoln mentioned that the “steady expansion of population, improvement and governmental institutions over the new and unoccupied portions of our country have scarcely been checked, much less impeded or destroyed, by our great civil war, which at first glance would seem to have absorbed almost the entire energies of the nation.”

To that end, Nevada had become a state, “and thus our excellent system is firmly established in the mountains, which once seemed a barren and uninhabitable waste between the Atlantic States and those which have grown up on the coast of the Pacific ocean.”

The West, it seemed, was about to be conquered, and nothing would do that more quickly than the railroad: “The great enterprise of connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific States by railways and telegraph lines has been entered upon with a vigor that gives assurance of success, notwithstanding the embarrassments arising from the prevailing high prices of materials and labor. The route of the main line of the road has been definitely located for one hundred miles westward from the initial point at Omaha City, Nebraska, and a preliminary location of the Pacific railroad of California has been made from Sacramento eastward to the great bend of the Truckee river in Nevada.”

Feeling it only right to take care of the invalid soldiers and the widows left behind by those who had been killed in the war, Lincoln informed Congress that there were now 22,767 invalid soldiers collecting pensions (and 712 Navy men). Also, there were 25,433 windows receiving pensions (and 793 Navy widows).

Near closing, Lincoln moved on to the Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. It had passed the Senate, but failed in the House, and he recommended that they take another look at it.

“Of course the abstract question is not changed; but an intervening election shows, almost certainly, that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not. Hence there is only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States for their action. And as it is to so go, at all events, may we not agree that the sooner the better?”

Finally, the President assured Congress that the nation’s resources, including soldiers, were unexhausted and even inexhaustible. Any attempt to negotiate a peace with Jefferson Davis would be pointless.

“He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union—precisely what we will not and cannot give. His declarations to this effect are explicit and oft-repeated. He does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory. If we yield, we are beaten; if the Southern people fail him, he is beaten.”

But this was not to say that simply because Davis could not accept the Union, the Southern people could not. “Some of them, we know, already desire peace and reunion. The number of such may increase. They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution.”

If they would not, however, Lincoln was about to turn dark. The door to a “general pardon and amnesty” had been open for a year, and would remain open for some time. “But the time may come—probably will come—when public duty shall demand that it be closed; and that, in lieu, more rigorous measures than heretofore shall be adopted.”

Then, after reiterating his stance on slavery, and that he would fully stand behind his Emancipation Proclamation, he concluded.

In stating a single condition of peace, I mean simply to say that the war will cease on the part of the government, whenever it shall have ceased on the part of those who began it.”1

  1. “Annual Message to Congress” as reprinted in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 8. []
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Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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