Abraham Lincoln and Delaware

Abraham Lincoln and Delaware

Delaware copy
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a regular visitor to Delaware. He was hardly even an occasional visitor. The state wasn’t a Republican stronghold and Mr. Lincoln was never personally popular there. On Saturday, June 10, 1848, Congressman Lincoln left the Whig National Convention in Philadelphia to return to Washington. He stopped in Wilmington along with three other Whig congressman – Tennessee’s William T. Haskell, Florida’s Edward C. Cabell, and Delaware’s John W. Houston. They all gave speeches to a “ratification meeting” at Wilmington in favor of Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor and in opposition to Democratic handling of the Mexican-American War. The Delaware State Journal reported:

“The first speaker introduced to the assembled multitude was the ‘lone Star of Illinois,’ Hon. Mr. Lincoln. He was received with three hearty cheers, and delivered an eloquent and patriotic speech on some of the principles of the Whig party and the standard-bearers they had selected to carry out their measures. He referred to the history of James K. Polk’s administration – the abuse of power which characterized it – the high-handed and despotic exercise of the veto power, and the utter disregard of the will of the people, in refusing to give assent to measures which their representatives passed for the good and prosperity of the country. The manner in which the present Executive had carried on the Mexican war should condemn it and the Locofoco party before the whole people. He did not believe with many of his fellow citizens that this war was originated for the purpose of extending slave territory, but it was his opinion, frequently expressed, that it was a war of conquest brought into existence to catch votes. Admitting, however, that the disputes between Mexico and this country could not have been settled in an amicable manner – admitting that we went into the battle field as the last resort, with all the principles of right and justice on our side, why is it that this government desires a large sum of money to gain more territory than will secure ‘indemnity for the past and security for the future?’ During the whole war this was the stereotyped motto of the administration; but when the treaty was sent to the Senate, the Executive not only included enough of territory for this purpose, but actually extended the boundaries and made an agreement to pay the Mexican government $15,000,000 for the additional territory. This subject demanded attention, and, although he had means of information, it had never been satisfactorily explained to him. Mr. Lincoln referred to other topics in an eloquent manner, and concluded with a few patriotic remarks on the character and long services of the Whig candidates “1

That was the last time the future 16th President of the United States would speak in Delaware. Delaware wasn’t on President-elect Lincoln’s itinerary in February 1861 so a group of Delaware citizens led by William S. McCaulley came to Philadelphia on February 21, 1861 to greet him. In response to McCaulley’s invitation to stop in Delaware, Mr. Lincoln replied: I feel highly flattered by the encomiums you have seen fit to bestow upon me. Soon after the nomination of Gen. Taylor I attended a political meeting in the city of Wilmington, and have since carried with me a fond remembrance of the hospitalities of the city on that occasion. The programme established provides for my presence in Harrisburg in twenty-four hours from this time.

I expect to be in Washington on Saturday. It is, therefore, an impossibility that I should accept your kind invitation. There are no people whom I would more glad accommodate than those of Delaware, but circumstances forbid, gentlemen. With many regrets for the character of the reply I am compelled to give you, I bid you adieu.2

The slaveholding state was split by the 1860 presidential election – especially Delaware’s Democrats. “The 1860 elections posed special problems for Delaware voters because of schisms in both of the old parties,” wrote historian John A. Munroe.3 “A number of disjointed factions composed the party: slaveowners, friends of the South, opponents of temperance, and the Irish of New Castle County, wrote historian Harold B. Hancock. The backbone of the party was the farmers of Kent and Sussex counties, who had some of the same problems and interests as the southern Democrats.”4

Republican Lincoln attracted less than a quarter of Delaware’s votes – trailing John Breckinridge with 45.5% and John Bell with 24%. Senator Stephen Douglas got on 7% of the state’s votes. “The Democrats won the election by playing upon the fears of Delawareans that the Republicans were enemies of slavery, believes in Negro equality and dissolvers of the Union, wrote historian Hancock. “In spite of Republican orators, the tariff question, which appealed mainly to New Castle County manufacturers, was lost sight of in the last months of the campaign and did not influence many votes outside of that locality. The majority of the rural population emphatically sided with the South, and the status of the Negro had more to do with the result than any other single factor.” 5 Despite Lincoln’s loss, the local version of the Republican Party – the People’s Party – managed to win a squeaker victory for Congress under George P. Fisher, a Dover attorney. Fisher benefited from united opposition to the Breckinridge candidate for Congress, Benjamin Biggs.

Historian J. Thomas Scharf described the peculiar “position which Delaware had…historically assumed the election of the 6th of November had rooted her still more firmly. She had given her electoral votes to the candidates by whom the Constitutional rights of the South were most emphatically and exclusively represented, and at the same time, through her whole press, and with the united voice of all the political parties within her borders, she proclaimed at this period her fixed determination to take her stand within the circle of the Union and protect herself by the Constitution only.”6

The outbreak of the Civil War brought new conflict to the state where opinion over the nation’s future was fractionated. Delaware’s visibility, however, was eclipsed by state with more people and more Republicans. In April 1861, the editor of the Wilmington Journal, wrote President Lincoln: “As Editor of the leading Republican paper, in a Slave state, permit me, in view of that critical position, which you may readily appreciate — to urge upon you the necessity of early appointing our new officers for this state. We are peculiarly situated here. We are surrounded by secret secessionists, who urge for argument, the fact that we are given up to the South, by the general administration, and cite as proof thereof, that no appointments of any kind have been made for or offered to Delaware. I would have you remember that this is a Slave state, but it can be made Republican in a short time by proper management; and one of the important steps to this end, is the securing of our own men in office. That fact alone will go far to prove that we are classed with the north, and will induce many now timid men to look upon our position for Freedom as a foregone conclusion.”7

Delaware Democrats themselves had their own internal civil war in addition to the national one. “Senators James A. Bayard and Willard Saulsbury did not trust one another, and each was fighting for the sole control of the state organization,” wrote historian Harold B. Hancock.8 Bayard had been pro-Breckinbridge and anti-Douglas in 1860 and led the state into the Breckinrdige column. Saulsbury thought that Delaware should help form a new confederation of Mid-Atlantic states – an idea that Bayard rejected.

Senator Bayard was 61 when the Civil War broke out and in the middle of his second term. He was reelected in 1863, but resigned in January 1864 to protest a new loyalty oath prescribed for members of Congress. He was replaced by George R. Riddle Senator Willard Saulsbury, Sr., was in the middle of his first term. Lincoln aide John Hay wrote that the ill-tempered Saulsbury had “traitorous instincts.” 9 Historian Harold Hancock wrote: “In the opinion of Union men, the attacks upon the administration by Willard Saulsbury and James A. Bayard disgraced the state. Saulsbury created a sensation in the Senate in January 1863, when he referred to Lincoln as ‘a weak and imbecile man, the weakest that I ever knew in a high place,’ and claimed that he ‘never did see or converse with so weak and imbecile a man as Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.”10 The imperious Saulsbury also took offense with the Senate chaplain, who had a tendency to deliver sermons in the form of prayers. Saulsbury presented a resolution asking the Chaplain “to pray to and supplicate Almighty God in our behalf, and not to lecture Him.”11

Saulsbury had his own weaknesses. On the final day of the special congressional session in 1861, Senator Orville H. Browning wrote in his diary: “Several of the Senators were quite drunk to day, especially {James A.] McDougall of California and Saulsbury of Delaware, and some scenes were enacted which ought not to occur in a body occupying so exalted & dignified a position as the Senate of the U.S.”12 A reporter for the Cincinnati Appeal described Saulsbury as “The best looking man [in the Senate] when sober.”13

In February 1865, Saulsbury began a letter to President Lincoln asking for the commutation of a death sentence of Confederate spy by saying: “You know I am no political friend of yours. You know I neither ask or expect any personal favor from you or your Administration. Senator Douglas told me in his life time you were a kind hearted man. All I ask of you is to read the defense of this young man, (Saml B. Davis) unassisted by Counsel, compare it with the celebrated defense of [Irish nationalist Robert] Emmet, and act as the judgment and the heart of the President of the United States should act.”14

The Governor at the outbreak of the Civil War was Dr. Wiliam Burton, an elderly farmer who had won election by just 203 votes. His election was a rare moment of unity for the state’s fractured Democrats Historian John A. Munroe wrote that Burton “had some sympathy for the Southern states that began to secede after the outcome of the 1860 election became clear, and he was sympathetic to the idea that a special convention should be chosen in Delaware to determine the course this state should follow. The new legislature, however did not agree with him” despite presentations by a secession advocate from Mississippi.15 The legislature was anti-secession but pro-compromise.

“Governor Burton’s reaction to the fall of Fort Sumter and to President Lincoln’s appeal for troops was to recommend formation of volunteer companies of Home Guards throughout Delaware, which had no statewide militia organization,” wrote Munroe. “Some of the volunteer companies entered the Union army, but others had no intention of doing so and were even suspected of sympathizing with the Confederacy. The governor took an important step toward support of the Union cause in May 1861 by appointing Henry du Pont, a graduate of West Point, to command all of the military companies in Delaware. Du Pont, who had abandoned his military career many years earlier to help run the power mills his father had founded, was a strong Unionist, and his responsibility for military affairs in the state reassured Northern sympathizers.”16

Although the Civil War was not popular in the state, noted historian William E. Gienapp, “Delaware stood along among the border states in not containing a serious movement for secession.” 17 Nevertheless, wrote historian William B. Hesseltine, “Delaware was the last of the ‘border states’ to be brought under [Union] control. Democratic Governor [William] Burton had found no authority in the state’s laws for raising troops and had responded to the government’s frequent calls for men by pointing out this constitutional barrier. Volunteers, however, had been raised in the state. Throughout 1861 peace rallies had annoyed the government, and in June a peace convention in Dover adopted resolutions opposing the war and pointing out that the ‘doctrines and measures of the war party’ would, whatever their apparent purpose, subvert the state governments and erect ‘a consolidated government on the ruins of the federal constitution.’ In December, Secretary [of War Simon] Cameron, while praising the ‘good sense and patriotism’ of the people who had triumphed over traitors, proposed enlarging the state by giving it the Eastern Shore counties of Maryland and Virginia.”18

President Lincoln meanwhile focused on Delaware as a possible model for his compensated emancipation plans because there were less than 1800 slaves held in the state – fewer than 2% of its population. There were more than ten times as many free blacks in Delaware as slaves. Historian J. Thomas Scharf note that “Delaware, as an exposed and frontier slaveholding State, had a larger practical interest in the maintenance of the guarantees of the Constitution in regard to slavery than many of the inflammable seceded States. From her geographical position, she had a heavier stake, proportionately, in the preservation of the Union, so far as her material prosperity was concerned, than many of his sister Commonwealths.”19

President Lincoln presented his ideas for federally-funded compensated emancipation to Union Congressman George P. Fisher in early November 1861. Fisher, himself a slave owner, was summoned to Washington by Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. “I suppose you want to see me about the slaves in Delaware,” said Fisher he arrived at the White House.” Mr. Lincoln responded: “That is it exactly.” The two men discussed the number of slaves in Delaware and the amount of money necessary to compensate slave owners. Fisher indicated that he would be willing to push for a compensated emancipation bill in the state legislature under the right financial terms. Mr. Lincoln proposed $300 per slave but Fisher wanted $500 per slave for a total cost to the federal government of about $900,000. President Lincoln assured Fisher that supporting federal legislation could be spearheaded by Illinois Congressman Owen Lovejoy and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.20 “This is the cheap and most humane way, of ending this war and saving lives,” President Lincoln argued to Fisher. Fisher recalled that President Lincoln thought compensated emancipation the “cheapest and most human way of ending this war and saving slaves.” 21 The President even wrote out draft legislation for Delaware that began:

“Be it enacted by the State of Delaware that on condition the United States of America will at the present session of Congress, engage by law to pay, and thereafter faithfully pay to the said State of Delaware, in the six per cent bonds of said United States, the sum of seven hundred and nineteen thousand and two hundred dollars, in thirty-one equal annual installments, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, at any time after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and ninety-three within the said State of Delaware, except in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; nor, except in the punishment of crime as aforesaid, shall any person who shall be born after the passage of this act, nor any person above the age of thirty-five years, be held in slavery, or to involuntary servitude within said State of Delaware, at any time after the passage of this act.”22

Congressman Fisher duly returned to the state capitol and worked on legislation for compensated emancipation in the state. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “When Fisher…broached the proposal to friends, he met with some encouragement. The opposition came chiefly from Southern sympathizers – though a few antislavery Republicans thought that the State should emancipate without compensation, and some conservatives feared that the freedmen would become a burden.”23

Although Fisher rallied sufficient support in the Senate, opposition in the lower house of the Delaware legislature doomed the bill. “The opposition to Lincoln’s proposal of compensated emancipation was partly a question of party politics, for most Delaware Democrats looked at it as a Republican measure. Some Delawareans viewed the proposal as an instance of federal interference with states rights, including the state’s right to end slavery when it chose. Others said the proposal was financially unrealistic and oppressive, as well as unfair. Many Delawareans who had previously freed slaves had done so without compensation, whereas now every taxpayer would bear the burden of compensating those who had perpetuated slavery. Though Fisher argued that nine hundred thousand dollars was but the cost of one-half day of the war, the sum needed to free slaves in all the states seemed astronomical to his contemporaries,” wrote historian John A. Munroe.24 Nevins wrote that “Party rancor conspired with proslavery sentiment and other motives to defeat the proposal. Our main work is to save the Union and not to meddle with slavery, declared the Democrats, that the State could not guarantee any debt depending on a mere pledge of Federal faith, and that when Delawareans wished to abolish slavery, they would do it in their own way. Early in 1862 the friends of Fisher’s bill abandoned it as hopeless.”25

President Lincoln revived his push for compensated emancipation in March 1862. He wrote California Senator James A. McDougall: “Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars per head.” 26 On July 1, 1862, Mr. Lincoln met with representatives of border states, pressing for their agreement on compensated emancipation. Although the majority of those congressmen opposed the plan, Fisher was among seven Border State congressman who offered their support in a letter on July 15:

“We are not disposed to seek for the cause of present misfortunes in the errors and wrongs of others who now propose to unite with us in a common purpose. But on the other hand we meet your address in the spirit in which it was made, and as loyal Americans declare to you and to the world that there is no sacrifice that we are not ready to make, to save the government and institutions of our fathers.”
“That we, few of us though there may be, will permit no men from the north or from the south to go farther than we, in the accomplishment of the great work before us. That in order to carry out these views, we will so far as may be in our power ask the people of the border states, calmly, deliberately, and fairly, to consider your recommendations. We are the more emboldened to assume this position from the fact, now become history, that the leaders of the Southern rebellion have offered to abolish slavery amongst them as a condition to foreign intervention in favor of their independence as a nation.”
“If they can give up slavery to destroy the Union; We can surely ask our people to consider the question of Emancipation to save the Union.27

Fisher had other political problems. He wrote President Lincoln in August to detail his proposals for military plans regarding Delaware, adding: “I deem it my duty to say that with the present programme we do but waste our strength in Delaware by offering opposition to the Disunionists in Delaware at the approaching election. We have but 16,000 voters in the state all told; and of these we have sent already 2,000 men into the field if not more. The present arrangement will diminish our strength from 500 to 1000 votes. Two years ago I had only a plurality of 247 votes while the majority against me was more than 400 — You may very readily see how slim will be our chances to carry the election in favor of the administration, if, in addition to the loss of voters already sustained by enlistments we now be turned over to our opponents to finish the work against us by fraudulent drafting, which we know must be the case if it be conducted by our Governor. I feel free to add, that although I confidently expect every vote in our nominating state convention to be cast for me on Tuesday next, as at present advised I shall feel it my duty to myself to decline a canvass, in which the administration we have done all in our power to sustain shall turn us over to the fury of our enemies?” 28 President Lincoln responded in detail to Fisher’s letter two days later, concluding: “I do hope you will not indulge a thought which will admit of your saying the Administration turns you over to the fury of your enemies. You certainly know I wish your success as much as you can wish it yourself.”29

Compensated emancipation was thus killed and so were Fisher’s chances of reelection in 1862. Fisher later claimed that he had been portrayed as a “blackhearted abolitionist who desired not only to steal all the negro slaves in Delaware from their masters but to elevate them above the white race, their former masters, and to compel by law the intermarriage of whites and blacks.”30 He was defeated in November by 37 votes – hurt in part by the absence of Delaware soldiers at the war front. Instead, at Fisher’s request, the War Department sent 1200 soldiers to supervise the elections. Their presence and activities were highly controversial – and led to a legislative inquiry, which contended that the soldiers had helped Republican election efforts. Fisher was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, but he complained that he could not live in Washington on the job’s $3000 salary and in February 1865 pushed Mr. Lincoln unsuccessfully to be named to the Court of Claims.31

With this federal aid, businessman William Cannon, a Republican, was narrowly elected governor by just 111 votes. He died in March of typhoid in March 1865 Senator Saulsbury’s brother, Dr. Gov Saulsbury was speaker of the Senate and automatically replaced him, winning election in his own right later in the year.

The 1862 congressional election was won by former Governor William Temple, a Democrat who died in May 1863 before attending his first session of Congress. In a special election in November 1863 Republican Nathaniel Smithers was elected to Congress without a Democratic opponent – because Democrats boycotted the election to protest Union Soldiers sent to the state to watch the elections. Provost marshals federal troops were used to supervise the election after an order was issued by the Army commander in Baltimore specifying that “many evil disposed persons now at large in the State of Delaware who had been engaged in rebellion against the lawful government, or have given aid or comfort or encouragement to others so engaged, or who do not recognize their allegiance to the Untied States and who may avail themselves of the indulgence of the authority which tolerates their presence to take part in or embarrass the special election in the State.”32 Voters were required to take a prescribed loyalty oath.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Saulsbury protested the use of federal troops: “I state to the Senate and to the country what I know to be true and what I can prove, that peaceable citizens were arrested on the day of election and incarcerated in the common jail of the county at one place; that at another village peaceable citizens, who were making no disturbance, doing nothing illegal or improper, were arrested and placed in confinement in a room; that at another place peaceable citizens, before they arrived on the ground, before they had done or said anything on the election ground, were taken from their wagons and fastened up in a house and some of them deprived of their right to vote. I state another fact which can be proved; at another voting place persons were intimidated from voting and others assaulted. At some voting places inspectors of the election were compelled to take what they believed to be illegal votes. At other voting places persons having a clear legal right to vote were prevented from voting by the military.”33

In 1864, Delaware was one of three states carried by Democrat George B. McClellan, but the general’s 52-48% margin was much smaller than Kentucky or New Jersey – the other two states which the former general carried. Indeed, Mr. LIncoln doubled his numerical support in Delaware – from 3,815 votes in 1860 to 8,155 in 1864. But Democrats learned their lesson from their 1863 defeat and fiercely contested the election – defeating Congressman Smithers with Democrat John Nicholson.

“Despite their opposition to many of the policies of the LIncoln government, Delawareans regarded themselves as loyal to the Union,” wrote historian John Munroe. “They disagreed among themselves regarding the powers and policies of the Union government. Majority opinion was decidedly for peace rather than for war, and yet Delawareans supported the Union war effort in terms of both men and supplies.”34 Delawareans were, however, not given the opportunity pay their respect to the murdered president. The funeral train which carried his body went north from Baltimore, Maryland to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and then on to Philadelphia, bypassing Delaware completely.

  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, pp. 475-476 (Speech at Wilmington, Delaware, June 10, 1848).
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 239 (Reply to a Delegation from Wilmington, Delaware, February 21, 1861).
  3. John A. Munroe, History of Delaware, p. 130.
  4. Harold B. Hancock, Delaware During the Civil War: A Political History, p. 12.
  5. Harold B. Hancock, Delaware During the Civil War: A Political History, p. 37.
  6. J. Thomas Scharf, History of Delaware, 1609-1888, Volume II, p. 331.
  7. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress (Letter from Henry Eckel to Abraham Lincoln, April 9, 1861).
  8. Harold B. Hancock, Delaware During the Civil War: A Political History, p. 13.
  9. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, pp. 276, 278.
  10. Harold Bell Hancock, Delaware During the Civil War: A Political History, p. 129.
  11. Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish, pp. 107-108.
  12. Theodore Calvin Pease, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, p. 493(August 5, 1861).
  13. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, The War Years, Volume II, p. 557.
  14. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress (Letter from William Saulsbury to Abraham Lincoln, February 7, 1865).
  15. John A. Munroe, History of Delaware, p. 132.
  16. John A. Munroe, History of Delaware, p. 134.
  17. William E. Gienapp, “Abraham Lincoln and the Border States,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1992, p. 13.
  18. William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors, p. 270.
  19. J. Thomas Scharf, History of Delaware, 1609-1888, Volume II, p. 331.
  20. Wilson Lloyd Bevan, editor, History of Delaware: Past and Present, Volume II, p. 641-642.
  21. H. Clay Reed, Lincoln’s Compensated Emancipation Plan, Delaware Notes, 1931, p. 65.
  22. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Draft of Bill for Compensated Emancipation in Delaware, November 1861).
  23. Allan Nevins, The War for Union: War Becomes Revolutions, 1862-1863, pp. 6-7.
  24. John A. Munroe, History of Delaware, p. 140.
  25. Allan Nevins, The War for Union: War Becomes Revolutions, 1862-1863, p. 8.
  26. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James A. McDougall, March 14, 1862).
  27. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Letter from Border State Congressmen to Abraham Lincoln, July 15, 1862).
  28. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress (Letter from George P. Fisher to xbraham Lincoln, August 14, 1862).
  29. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to George Fisher, August 16,1862).
  30. Harold Bell Hancock, Delaware During the Civil War: A Political History, p. 120.
  31. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, 9Letter from George P. Fisher to Abraham Lincoln, February 11, 1865).
  32. Wilson Lloyd Bevan, editor, History of Delaware: Past and Present,, Volume II, p.650.
  33. Wilson Lloyd Bevan, editor, History of Delaware: Past and Present, Volume II,pp. 651-652.
  34. John A. Munroe, History of Delaware, p. 142.