The Republican Party/Chapter IV

Construction and Reconstruction

Chapter IV

The Civil War

“Liberty and Union” was Webster’s phrase and Webster, had he survived until its organization, would have become a leader of the Republican party. It was fitting that the party should take to itself his war-cry, though the exigencies of the time made it necessary for it to reverse the order. Union and Liberty was the first programme of the organization when it was entrusted with the government of the nation.

The first duty was to save the nation, to preserve and to vindicate the integrity of the Federal Union. Of this there was instant need since the southern Democrats, in fulfilment of their ante—election threats began the work of secession before Lincoln was installed in the presidency. This process was disapproved and deplored by Buchanan but no attempt was made by him to prevent it. His theory, openly proclaimed, was that the Federal government had no constitutional power to “coerce a sovereign state,” that is, to restrain it from seceding from the Union. So during the closing months of his administration the work of dismembering the Republic went on, directed and managed at Washington itself. When, therefore, the Republican administration of Lincoln was installed on March 4, 1861 it was for the first time in American history confronted with the spectacle and problem of a dissevered Union.

The Republican theory and policy directly reversed that of Buchanan. Lincoln harked back to the principle enunciated by Monroe more than forty years before, the principle of self—defence, self—preservation. That principle, Monroe contended, was primal and essential as much for the state as for the individual. So the first Republican government of the nation held in 1861 that the nation had the fundamental and inalienable right of self-preservation. It was the right and the duty of the government to protect itself from dissolution. A government that could not or would not do that had no right or title to existence.

The first step, then, was to check secession and preserve the Union. To that end the first efforts of the administration were directed. For a year and a half that was Lincoln’s consistent policy. As late as August, 1862 he declared: "My paramount object is to save the Union and not either to save or to destroy slavery." In that policy he was severely criticised by some leaders of his own party who would have made the destruction of slavery the first and chief object. But Lincoln was wiser than they as the chief of his critics, Horace Greeley, afterward gratefully confessed. He was right on the ground of morals and on that of logic; for obviously the whole, the Union, was of greater importance than any of its parts or issues, and it would have been folly to attempt the emancipation of the slaves unless first the nation could be maintained to protect them in their freedom.

But Lincoln was right, too, on the ground of practical political expediency, or perhaps we should, in so transcendent a case, say of national strategy. With surpassing prescience he anticipated the reaction of some of the northern states against his administration and realized the necessity, for the continued support of the government, of winning and holding the border states. He knew that these latter would be alienated and perhaps driven into the arms of the enemy by a premature emancipation proclamation. Instead, therefore, of taking precipitate and radical action he wisely and justly sought other means of disposing of the slavery question, in which he was cordially supported by Congress and by the Republican party. Especially did he offer the co-operation of the national government with the states or with any state in a voluntary, gradual and compensated emancipation of the slaves. To this generous offer, however, not a single state responded.

Finally in September, 1862 finding that the slave states would not accept the offer and realizing that slave labor was one of the chief economic supports of the rebellion he deemed the time ripe for emancipation, explicitly as a war measure for the preservation of the Union. He had been willing to retain slavery for the sake of saving the Union but his offer had been rejected. Now he would destroy slavery for the sake of saving the Union. At first his announcement had a politically bad effect. It divided the North and united the South. All through the great free states of the North, where the clamor for emancipation had months before been loudest, men fell away from the support of the administration, declared the war a failure and called for "compromise" with the seceding states. So serious was the defection of northern Democrats and the hostility of the Constitutional Unionists, that there was danger of the election of a House of Representatives that would oppose the administration and its further prosecution of the war.

But the border states saved the day. New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and other northern states went strongly Democratic. But Missouri and the other border states returned strong Republican majorities and assured the party continued control of Congress, though by a diminutive margin. Lincoln’s strategy was vindicated. And in his policy both of prosecuting the war and of emancipating the slaves he and his party resolutely persevered. At the third national convention of the Republican party in June, 1864 a platform plank was adopted declaring unequivocally that "as slavery was the cause and now constitutes the strength of this rebellion, justice and national safety demand its utter and complete extirpation from the soil of he Republic."

With the further details of the prosecution of the war we need not here concern ourselves. They do not directly pertain to the subject now before us. It suffices to remember that the Republican party was in full control of the national government all through the war; that despite an opposition that was often factional and venomous it enacted the legislation and performed the administrative acts necessary for the successful conduct of the war both in field operations and in fiscal and other provisions; and in April, 1865 ended the war in the complete restoration of the Union on terms of unprecedented generosity and benevolence. Thus was the first of the two supreme tasks accomplished. The other was brought to its completion in 1865 by the adoption of the thirteenth amendment to the Constiution, declaring that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The presidential campaign of 1864 involved three parties: The Republican, Democratic and Radical Republican. The last named was composed of a few members of the Republican party who wished a more vigorous prosecution of the war, the confiscation of all lands belonging to secessionists and numerous radical changes in various governmental matters. Its convention nominated General Fremont for President, but long before the election he withdrew his candidacy and the party rejoined and supported the regular Republican party. The Democratic convention nominated General George B. McClellan for President on a platform devoted exclusively to the issues of the war. It declared the war to be a failure, raged against the administration for despotically violating the Constitution and trampling upon the rights of the people, threatened violent resistance to the authority of the national government and demanded an ending of the war through compromise. Although he accepted the nomination, General McClellan openly repudiated the platform, denying especially that the war was a failure.

The Republican convention was held at Baltimore on June 7th. On the first and only ballot for the presidential nomination President Lincoln received every vote, save the votes of Missouri which, under instructions from the state convention, were cast for General U. S. Grant. Of course the renomination of Lincoln was made unanimous. For Vice-President on the first ballot Andrew Johnson, a former Democrat and United States Senator from Tennessee, was nominated. The Republican platform heartily approved the administration of Lincoln, demanded the uncompromising prosecution of the war to a successful termination and the complete extirpation of slavery. It also urged the encouragement of immigration by a liberal and just policy, the completion of the Pacific Railroad, the faithful redemption of the national debt and the unfaltering maintenance of the Monroe Doctrine against the French aggressions in Mexico.

The electoral campaign was spirited but the result was never at any time in doubt. The Democrats carried Kentucky overwhelmingly and New Jersey and Delaware by narrow majorities, securing 21 electoral votes. The Republicans carried all the other states with 212 electoral votes. The popular vote stood: Lincoln, 2,213,665; McClellan, 1,802,237. Arrangements were made for voting by the soldiers in the army and the result of it was: Lincoln, 116,887; McClellan, 33,748.