At the beginning of February 1865, President Abraham Lincoln met with old friend, former fellow Whig, and then Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens of Georgia at a “peace conference” on board the River Queen at Hampton Roads, near Fort Monroe, Virginia. (Other attendees were Secretary of State William H. Seward with Lincoln and former United States Supreme Court Associate Justice John A. Campbell of Alabama and former United States Representative and Senator and Confederate Secretary of State and Senator Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia representing the Confederacy.) In America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation David Goldfield recounts the beginning of the Hampton Roads meeting:
The following morning, February 3, Stephens boarded the president’s steamer and greeted Lincoln warmly. Stephens seemed rather frailer than the last time the two former Whigs met, nearly seven years earlier. The Confederate vice president wore a thick gray overcoat that descended to his ankles and threatened to swallow him. He had always looked cadaverous, but the coat made his appearance even more ghostly. A Union soldier guarding the gathering exclaimed, “My God! He’s dead now, but he don’t know it.” Stephens doffed his overcoat, and Lincoln chuckled, “Never have I seen so small a nubbin come out of so much husk.” The atmosphere immediately relaxed, and the two men chatted amiably about the old days before settling down to business.
But that is amusing prelude. What I really wanted to focus on was Lincoln’s remarkable advice to Stephens concerning the Thirteenth Amendment, which had passed the House of Representatives just three days earlier, on January 31, 1865. Stephens’ home state of Georgia, Lincoln suggested, should ratify the amendment prospectively, “so as to take effect, say, in five years”.
During the conference, Seward told the southern representatives of the recent passage of the amendment, and “Lincoln saw that the announcement rattled the [southern] commissioners perhaps more than any other disclosure that day.” He therefore “offered some advice to Stephens”:
William C. Harris's article on the meeting, The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln's Presidential Leadership, provides additional context:
“If I were in Georgia, I would go home and get the governor of the state to call the legislature together . . . and ratify this constitutional amendment prospectively, so as to take effect, say, in five years. Such a ratification would be valid in my opinion.” That way, Lincoln explained, southerners “will avoid, as far as possible, the evils of immediate emancipation. Lincoln, according to Stephens, pledged “to remunerate the southern people for their slaves,” on the grounds that both North and South were responsible for slavery.
Later, when the issue of emancipation was again raised, the president gave a lengthy explanation of his own antislavery history, beginning with his opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories and repeating his reasons for acting against the institution during the war. The president concluded his account, as Stephens later wrote, by maintaining that he had always favored emancipation but not immediate emancipation, even by the states, because of the "many evils attending" it. The Confederate vice president also wrote that Lincoln then declared that if he were Stephens, he would go home to Georgia, "get the Governor of the State to call the Legislature together, and get them to recall all the State troops from the war; elect Senators and Members to Congress, and ratify the Constitutional Amendment prospectively, so as to take effect—say in five years." "Such a ratification," the president allegedly said, "would be valid in my opinion." Lincoln went on to say, again according to Stephens, "that whatever may have been the views of your people before the war, they must be convinced now, that Slavery is doomed. It cannot last long in any event, and the best course, it seems to me, for your public men to pursue, would be to adopt such a policy as will avoid, as far as possible, the evils of immediate emancipation."
Harris expresses substantial doubt as to whether Lincoln in fact endorsed “prospective” ratification, both because the endorsement would have been inconsistent with other statements the president had made and because another participant, Campbell, did not mention the statement in his account of the meeting.
I am not so sure. Stephens published his account in 1868, only three years after the event. While it is possible that Stephens's memory was faulty, his recollection of the meeting and Lincoln's comments seems to have been quite distinct. The other statements that Stephens attributes to Lincoln (concerning his history of opposition to immediate emancipation and his belief that the north as well as the south was responsible for slavery and that southerners should be compensated for the loss of their slaves) are entirely consistent with Lincoln's known history. And there is no apparent motive for Stephens to have lied about this otherwise trivial detail of the conversation.
Moreover, as Harris himself admits in another context, Lincoln was clearly concerned at the meeting to convey the impression “that he did not seek a social revolution in the postwar South”:
One of the Confederate commissioners then mentioned "the evils of immediate emancipation," specifically, as Stephens later wrote, the hardships that many blacks "who were unable to support themselves" would face in freedom. The president "fully admitted" that the sudden end of slavery might produce severe dislocations, but, instead of elaborating on the point and describing his expectations for the former slaves, he illustrated his view with a rather crude anecdote. Drawing upon his reservoir of rural Midwestern stories, Lincoln told of an Illinois farmer who informed a neighbor that he had discovered a way to save time and labor in feeding his hogs. "What is it"? asked the neighbor. "Why, it is," said the farmer, "to plant plenty of potatoes, and when they are mature, without either digging or housing them, turn the hogs in the field and let them get their own food as they want it." "But," the neighbor inquired, "how will they do when the winter comes and the ground is hard frozen"? "Well," replied the farmer, "let 'em root."
This anecdote, which appears in both Stephens' and Campbell's accounts and which Lincoln later repeated to his portraitist, reveals a harsh side to Lincoln, perhaps caused by his desire to reassure the Confederates that he did not seek a social revolution in the postwar South. The story also belies Lincoln's earlier expressions of sympathy for black refugees from slavery and his approval, one month after the Hampton Roads Conference, of the Freedman's Bureau bill providing temporary aid for the former slaves (and white refugees) in their adjustment to freedom.
Indeed, earlier in the meeting, when Seward first mentioned the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln raised no objection to Seward's incredible suggestion that the confederate states should rejoin the Union in order to defeat the amendment:
At this point, Seward produced a copy of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which had not been seen by the commissioners. He declared that if the South abandoned the struggle, the amendment probably would fail to receive the necessary approval of three-fourths of the states for ratification. Seward inferred [sic, should be “implied”], according to Stephens's account of the conference, that if the Southern states quickly rejoined the Union, they could assist in voting down the amendment.
I find Lincoln's statement on prospective ratification, if true, fascinating for at least two, maybe three reasons. First, there is the abstract legal question. I suppose it is possible for a proposed constitutional amendment to provide by its terms that, upon ratification, it will not go into effect until some time thereafter. But can a state ratify “prospectively”, in the sense described by Lincoln, an amendment that contains no such limitation? And what if an amendment were ratified by three-quarters of the states, but one-third of those votes in favor included “prospective” provisos specifying various different periods (e.g., one year, three years, five years, ten years) before the amendment would become effective? Whose period, if any, would control? Or could opponents maintain that a state’s ratification subject to such a proviso was no ratification at all, much as Federalists argued in 1788 that conditional state ratification of the Constitution would be equivalent to rejection?
Second, the incident is remarkable because it suggests that Lincoln was prepared to send the slaves and freedmen back into captivity, at least for a period. Lincoln no doubt understood that the Emancipation Proclamation, as an exercise of war powers, would lapse following the cessation of hostilities. And what if southern states then began demanding the return of slaves who had fled to Union lines and thence to northern states under the Fugitive Slave Clause? The mind reels.
Finally, one wonders what light this incident sheds on the hypothetical actions of a Reconstruction Abe. Lincoln defenders generally sheepishly admit that his actions and words before his death indicated that he was planning a relatively quick and gentle (and Andrew Johnson-like) Reconstruction, but tend to emphasize the president’s flexibility and capacity for growth, leading them to claim that southern intransigence would have quickly moved him toward a firmer and more “radical” policy. Ironically, Harris in his article provides a perfect illustration of this mode of thought. After recounting Lincoln's “harsh” Illinois farmer story (described above), Harris immediately proceeds to suggest that he would have changed his mind. I provide the complete paragraph for context (emphasis added):
This anecdote, which appears in both Stephens' and Campbell's accounts and which Lincoln later repeated to his portraitist, reveals a harsh side to Lincoln, perhaps caused by his desire to reassure the Confederates that he did not seek a social revolution in the postwar South. The story also belies Lincoln's earlier expressions of sympathy for black refugees from slavery and his approval, one month after the Hampton Roads Conference, of the Freedman's Bureau bill providing temporary aid for the former slaves (and white refugees) in their adjustment to freedom. Still, Lincoln, like most Americans at the time, optimistically expected emancipation itself to be "the king's cure" for blacks in the South. Lincoln believed that a free person, now including blacks, should be able to make his way in America through his own ability and effort without the assistance of the state. Though he had admitted the difficulties of the white and black races living together in freedom (his earlier support for black colonization reflected this concern), the president envisioned a limited role for the federal government in protecting and aiding blacks after the war. Had he lived to witness the postwar threat to black freedom, Lincoln might have changed his mind regarding federal responsibility for black liberty.
Abe might have arrived at a more radical position on Reconstruction. But the fact remains that if, two months before his death, Abe was prepared to send the slaves back into slavery, he sure had a long way to go before he got there.