Saturday, July 8, 2017

Diary of John Hay: November 18, 1864

. . . When the President came in, he called Blair and Banks into his office, meeting them in the hall.

They immediately began to talk about Ashley’s Bill in regard to States in insurrection. The President had been reading it carefully, and said that he liked it with the exception of one or two things which he thought rather calculated to conceal a feature which might be objectionable to some. The first was that under the provisions of that bill, negroes would be made jurors and voters under the temporary governments. “Yes,” said Banks; “that is to be stricken out, and the qualification ‘white male citizens of the United States’ is to be restored. What you refer to would be a fatal objection to the bill. It would simply throw the Government into the hands of the blacks, as the white people under that arrangement would refuse to vote.”

“The second,” said the President, “is the declaration that all persons heretofore held in slavery are declared free. This is explained by some to be, not a prohibition of slavery by Congress, but a mere assurance of freedom to persons actually there in accordance with the Proclamation of Emancipation. In that point of view it is not objectionable, though I think it would have been preferable to so express it.”

The President and General Banks spoke very favorably with three qualifications of Ashley’s Bill. Banks is especially anxious that the Bill may pass and receive the approval of the President. He regards it as merely concurring in the President's own action in the important case of Louisiana, and recommending an observance of the same policy in other cases. He does not regard it, nor does the President, as laying down any cast-iron policy in the matter. Louisiana being admitted and this Bill passed, the President is not estopped by it from recognizing and urging Congress to recognize, another state of the South, coming with constitution and conditions entirely dissimilar. Banks thinks that the object of Congress in passing the Bill at all, is merely to assert their conviction that they have a right to pass such a law, in concurrence with the executive action. They want a hand in the reconstruction. It is unquestionably the prerogative of Congress to decide as to qualifications of its own members:— that branch of the subject is exclusively their own. It does not seem wise, therefore, to make a fight upon a question purely immaterial; that is, whether this bill is a necessary one or not, and thereby lose the positive gain of this endorsement of the President's policy in the admission of Louisiana, and the assistance of that State in carrying the Constitutional Amendment prohibiting slavery.

Blair talked more than both Lincoln and Banks, and somewhat vehemently attacked the radicals in the House and Senate, who are at work upon this measure, accusing them of interested motives and hostility to Lincoln. The President said:— “It is much better not to be led from the region of reason into that of hot blood, by imputing to public men motives which they do not avow.”

SOURCES: Clara B. Hay, Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, Volume 1, p. 250-2; Michael Burlingame & John R. Turner Ettlinger, Editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 252-4.

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