Mr. Chase called and took me this evening for a two hours' ride. We went past Kalorama north, crossed Rock Creek near the Stone Mill, thence over the hills to Tenallytown, and returned through Georgetown. The principal topic of conversation, and the obvious purpose of this drive was a consultation on the slavery question, and what in common parlance is called the reconstruction of the Union with the incidents. After sounding me without getting definite and satisfactory answers, he frankly avowed his own policy and determination. It is unconditional and immediate emancipation in all the Rebel States, no retrograde from the Proclamation of Emancipation, no recognition of a Rebel State as a part of the Union, or any terms with it except on the extinction, wholly, at once, and forever, of slavery.
I neither adopted nor rejected his emphatic tests, for such he evidently meant them. The questions are of vast magnitude, and have great attending difficulties. The reestablishment of the Union is a practical and important question, and it may come up in a way and form which we cannot now anticipate, and not improbably set aside any hypothetical case which may at this time be presented. I consider slavery, as it heretofore existed, has terminated in all the States, and am not for intruding speculative political theories in advance to embarrass official action.
North Carolinians are just now beginning to discuss the subject of disconnecting their State from the Confederacy. I asked Chase if he believed Congress would refuse to recognize her and the government attempt to exclude her from the Union if she came forward and proposed to resume her place, with slavery, like Maryland and the other Border States. He said much would depend on the President, — all in fact, for were the President to acquiesce in her return it could not be prevented, but on the other hand, if he planted himself firmly, and with Jacksonian will on the Proclamation, he had no doubt North Carolina would be excluded or refused her original place in the Union, unless she modified her constitution and abolished slavery. He was confident if the Government persisted in emancipation the State would ultimately yield.
“That,” said I, “brings up other questions touching the powers and limitations of the Federal Government. Where is the authority for Congress, or a fraction of Congress, to exclude a State, or to prescribe new conditions to one of the original States, on which one of the original commonwealths which founded and established the government shall hereafter compose a part of the Federal Union? Where is the authority for the President or Congress to deprive her of rights reserved and guaranteed to all, — to dictate her local policy, — these restrictive conditions being new, not a part of the Federal compact or known to the Constitution. The States must have equal political rights or the government cannot stand on the basis of 1789.”
He replied that those States had severed their connection with the Union without cause, had broken faith and made war on the government. They had forfeited their rights. They no longer retained the position they once had. They were to be subjugated, conquered. In order to be restored to the Union they must be required to put away the cause of disturbance, the source of rebellion, disunion, and strife. The welfare of the nation, the security and perpetuity of the Union demanded this. To admit them now to a full and equal participation with ourselves, without extinguishing slavery, would be with the aid of their sympathizing friends to place the government in the hands of the slaveholders.
That there may be something to be apprehended, were all the Rebels and their old party associates in the Free States to reunite and act in concert, I admit may be true, but this is not a supposable case. The Rebels will not all come back at once, were pardon and general amnesty extended to them. There is also, bear in mind, deep and wide hostility to the Confederate proceedings through almost the whole South, and the old party associates of Davis and others in the North are broken up and pretty thoroughly alienated. The reestablishment of the Union and harmony will be a slow process, requiring forbearance and nursing rather than force and coercion. The bitter enmities which have been sown, the hate which has been generated, the blood which has been spilled, the treasure, public and private, which has been wasted, and, last and saddest of all, the lives which have been sacrificed, cannot be forgotten and smoothed over in a day; we can hardly expect it in a generation. By forbearance and forgiveness, by wise and judicious management, the States may be restored to their place and the people to their duty, but let us not begin by harsh assumptions, for even with gentle treatment the work of reconciliation and fraternity will be slow. Let us be magnanimous. Ought we not to act on individuals and through them on the States?
This inquiry seemed to strike him favorably, and I elaborated it somewhat, bringing up old political doctrines and principles which we had cherished in other days. I reminded him that to have a cordial union of the States they must be equal in political rights, and that arbitrary measures did not conduce to good feeling and were not promotive of freedom and good will. As regards individuals who have made war on the government and resisted its laws, they had forfeited their rights and could be punished and even deprived of life, but I knew not how we could punish States as commonwealths except through their people. A State could not be struck out of existence like an individual or corporation.
Besides, it must be remembered, we should be classing the innocent with the guilty, punishing our true friends who had already suffered greatly in the Union cause as severely as the worst Rebels. We could have no ex post facto enactments, could not go beyond existing laws to punish Rebels; we should not do this with our friends, and punish them for wrongs committed by others. We could now exact of Rebels the oath of allegiance before pardon, and could perhaps grant conditional or limited pardons, denying those who had been active in taking up arms the right to vote or hold office for a period. Such as came in on the terms granted would build up loyal communities.
In these general outlines we pretty much agreed, but there is, I apprehend, a radical difference between us as regards the status of the States, and their position in and relation to the general government. I know not that I clearly comprehend the views of Chase, and am not sure that he has fully considered and matured the subject himself. He says he makes it a point to see the President daily and converse on this subject; that he thinks the President is becoming firm and more decided in his opinions, and he wants me to second him. Stanton he says is all right, but is not a man of firm and reliable opinions. Seward and Blair he considers opponents. Bates he says is of no account and has no influence. Usher he classes with himself, though he considers him of no more scope than Bates. Seward he says is unreliable and untruthful. The President he compliments for honesty of intentions, good common sense, more sagacity than he has credit for, but [he thinks he] is greatly wanting in will and decision, in comprehensiveness, in self-reliance, and clear, well-defined purpose.
The reëstablishment of the Union is beset with difficulties. One great embarrassment, the principal one, is the intrusion of partyism. Chase, I see, is warped by this. It is not strange that he should be, for he has aspirations which are likely to be affected by these issues. Others are in like manner influenced. I believe I have no personal ambition to gratify, no expectations. There is no office that I want or would accept in prospect, but my heart is in again beholding us once more United States and a united people.
It appears to me Mr. Chase starts out on an error. The Federal Government has no warrant to impose conditions on any of the States to which all are not subjected, or to prescribe new terms which conflict with those on which our fundamental law is based. In these tempestuous days, when to maintain its existence the Federal Government is compelled to exercise extraordinary powers, statesmen and patriots should take care that it does not transcend its authority and subvert the system. We are testing the strength and inviolability of a written constitution. To impose conditions on the States which are in rebellion is allowable on no other premise than that they actually seceded and left the Union. Now, while it is admitted and we all know that a majority of the people in certain States have rebelled and made war on the central government, none of us recognize or admit the right or principle of secession. People — individuals — have rebelled but the States are sovereignties, not corporations, and they still belong to and are a part of the Union. We can imprison, punish, hang the Rebels by law and constitutional warrant, but where is the authority or power to chastise a State, or to change its political status, deprive it of political rights and sovereignty which other States possess?
To acknowledge that the States have seceded — that the Union is dissolved — would be to concede more than I am prepared for. It is the error into which Mr. Seward plunged at the beginning, when he insisted that a blockade authorized by international law should be established instead of a closure of the ports by national law, and that the Rebels should be recognized as belligerents. The States have not seceded; they cannot secede, nor can they be expelled. Secession is synonymous with disunion. Whenever it takes place, we shall belong to different countries.
Slavery has received its death-blow. The seeds which have been sown by this war will germinate. Were peace restored to-morrow and the States reunited with the rotten institution in each of them, chattel slavery would expire. What is to be the ultimate effect of the Proclamation, and what will be the exact status of the slaves and the slave-owners, were the States now to resume their position, I am not prepared to say. The courts would adjudicate the questions; there would be legislative action in Congress and in the States also; there would be sense and practical wisdom on the part of intelligent and candid men who are not carried away by prejudice, fanaticism, and wild theories. No slave who has left a Rebel master and come within our lines, or has served under the flag, can ever be forced into involuntary servitude.
The constitutional relations of the States have not been changed by the Rebellion, but the personal condition of every Rebel is affected. The two are not identical. The rights of the States are unimpaired; the rights of those who have participated in the Rebellion may have been forfeited.
This subject should not become mixed with partyism, but yet it can scarcely be avoided. Chase gathers it into the coming Presidential election; feels that the measure of emancipation which was decided without first consulting him has placed the President in advance of him on a path which was his specialty.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 410-5