Today I’d like to share three petitions sent to Congress during the Civil War. All three firmly desire a restoration of the Union and insist that Congressional discussion of slavery can only retard this outcome. Each prefers immediate reunion with slaveholders to a long, blood-soaked struggle in which temporarily inflammatory measures allow the North to achieve something more profound than the status quo ante.
The first is no ordinary supplication. It’s a “voice from Plymouth Rock, on which the Pilgrim Fathers landed.” The thrust of this atavistic appeal is unmistakable: “The undersigned . . . pray you to drop the Negro question, and attend to the business of the Country”:
Given the request’s almost comical brusqueness, it’s hard to tell which “question” the undersigned would like Congress to drop—that of a stricter confiscation bill, proposals for compensated emancipation in the states, federal territories, or District of Columbia, etc. More likely is that all of these issues are subsumed into that most ghastly catchphrase, the “Negro question.” In any case, attending to “the business of the Country” pretty clearly means bringing the violence to an end as a precursor to sectional reconciliation. Your move, Generals Sumner and Trumbull.
Exhibit B is only slightly more expressive. No date or approximate return address are provided. First, the picture:
“The undersigned, believing that the continual agitation of and legislation upon the Slavery question in the Halls of Congress, has a strong tendency to weaken the efforts of the government in putting down the rebellion, by creating discord and dissension among loyal persons, and giving arguments to leading Secessionists to still farther inflame the minds of Southern people against the government, would ask as a right that Congress cease their legislation upon that question, and bend their energies to the single purpose of putting down the rebellion, and restoring the government to the position it occupied previous to the rebellion.”
Again, the petitioners speak only of “the Slavery question . . . that question.” It would have been proposals for compensated emancipation in the border states that most obviously created “discord and dissension among loyal persons.” In this, the signers had a point—border-state slaveowners wanted their slaves far more than any computed cash equivalent, and the North desperately needed those states’ continued allegiance. Though in the Civil War Congress’s defense, it would be difficult to imagine any proposals or enactments that wouldn’t have “inflame[d] the minds of Southern people against the government.” These petitioners want the antebellum Union restored immediately regardless of the long-term moral cost. They consider immediate governmental efforts at peace to be their “right,” something to which they are entitled but are powerless to effect on their own.
Petition #3, from Vernon, Connecticut, is perhaps the most delicious of all:
The undersigned, “earnestly desiring to see our distracted country restored to its former condition of peace and prosperity; and firmly believing that the compromise on the subject of Slavery embodied in the Constitution adopted by our fathers is the only bond which can re-unite and hold us together as a brotherhood of States, do therefore beseech you as National Legislators to leave it for fanatics and demagogues, outside the Halls of Congress, to discuss questions of Emancipation and matters of that sort, while you, like true patriots, like enlightened Statesmen and philanthropists, seek your country’s welfare by doing what you can by proper means for the re-establishment of the Constitution and Laws as expounded by the Courts. And we would respectfully suggest, if any members of your Honorable Body cannot refrain from the discussion of irrelevant and disturbing questions, that they resign their seats.”
The infantile zealots in Congress thought wartime discussion of compensated emancipation and property confiscation perfectly compatible with an eventual resumption of the antebellum legal order. But the petitioners were correct that true reunion could not occur without Northern compromise. Sadly, it took near-universal indifference to the legal and social subordination of blacks for anything resembling a “brotherhood of States” to emerge from the wreckage.