Senator’s Diary Describes Emancipation Evolution

Orville H. Browning was an old friend of President Lincoln’s from Illinois who became a United States senator in June 1861 following the death of Stephen A. Douglas.  Browning served in the Senate until January 1863.   He then continued to remain in Washington where he served first as a lobbyist and later as Secretary of Interior in the Andrew Johnson Administration.  Throughout his adult life, Browning maintained a diary, which has proven to be an especially valuable resource for understanding Abraham Lincoln’s evolution on emancipation policy.  Lincoln and Browning were on good terms and in regular contact throughout the first two years of the Civil War but it appears that their increasingly different attitudes about emancipation ultimately hurt their friendship. Browning never fully reconciled himself to Lincoln’s policy of imposing freedom by executive decree. Here are selections from Browning’s diary that address the question of Lincoln’s views on emancipation (excerpted from The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume 1: 1850-1864, Edited by Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925):

Monday, July 8, 1861:

“…Mr. [John] Nicolay the President’s private Secretary called & said the President wished to see me.  I went up at 3 p.m. found him alone and remained with him till 5 1/2.  We had a great deal of conversations upon all matters relating to our present troubles.  He is for the most vigorous and active measures to bring the war to a speedy close, and totally opposed to any compromise of any kind or character.  We also discussed the negro question, and agreed upon this as upon other things that the government neither should, nor would send back to bondage such as came to our armies, but that we could not have them in camp, and that they must take care of themselves till the war is over, and then, colonize &c.” (pp. 477-8)

Sunday, December 1, 1861:

“Late in afternoon I went to the Presidents and had a long talk with him.  He is very hopeful of ultimate success.  He suggested to me the policy of paying Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky & Missouri $500 a piece for all the negroes they had according to the census of 1860, provided they would adopt a system of gradual emancipation which would work the extinction of slavery in twenty years, and said it would require only about one third of what was necessary to support the war for one year; and agreed with me that there should be connected with it a scheme of colonizing the blacks some where on the American Continent.” (p. 512)

Monday, April 14, 1862:

“At night went to Presidents to lay before him the bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  Had a talk with him.  He told me he would sign the bill, but would return it with a special message recommending a supplemental bill making savings in behalf of infants &c. and also some other amendments.  He further told me he regretted the bill had been passed in its present form –that it should have been for gradual emancipation –that now families would at once be deprived of cooks, stable boys &c. and they of their protectors without any provision for them.  He further told me that he would not sign the bill before Wednesday –That old Gov [Charles] Wickliffe [Unionist congressman from Kentucky] had two family servants with him who were sickly, and who would not be benefitted [sic] by freedom, and wanted time to remove them, but could not get them out of the City until Wednesday, and that the Gov had come frankly to him and asked for time.  He added to me that this was told me in the strictest confidence.” (p. 541)

Tuesday, July 1, 1862:

“Saw the President alone, and had a talk with him in regard to the Confiscation bills before us.  He read me a paper embodying his views of the objects of the war, and the proper mode of conducting it in its relations to slavery.  This, he told  me, he had sketched hastily with the intention of laying it before the Cabinet.  His views coincided entirely with my own.  No negroes necessarily taken and escaping during the war are ever to be returned to slavery –No inducements are to be held out to them to come into our lines for they come now faster than we can provide for them and are becoming an embarrassment to the government.  At present none are to be armed.  It would produce dangerous & fatal dissatisfaction in our army, and do more injury than good.  Congress has no power over slavery in the states, and so much of it as remains after the war is over will be in precisely the same condition that it was before the war began, and must be left to the exclusive control of the states where it may exist.” (p. 555)

Monday, July 14, 1862:

“At the Presidents this morning.  I gave him a copy of the Confiscation bill as it passed, and expressed to him very freely my opinion that it was a violation of the Constitution and ought to be vetoed.  I said to him that he had reached the culminating point of his administration, and his course upon this bill was to determine whether he was to control the abolitionists and radicals, or whether they were to control him.  That the tide in his affairs had come and he ought to take it at its flood.  That if he vetoed it he would raise a storm of enthusiasm in support of the Administration in the border states which would be worth to us 100,000 muskets, whereas if he approved it I feared our friends could no longer sustain themselves there.  That we could not succeed without unity of sentiment and purpose which would be secured by a veto as that would at once bring to his support every loyal Democrat in the free states, and consolidate all truly loyal men into one party –whereas if approved it would form the basis upon which the democratic party would again rally, and reorganize an opposition to the administration &c.  He said he would give it his profound consideration.” (p. 558)

Tuesday, July 15, 1862:

“At the Presidents this morning –He was in his Library writing, with directions to deny him to every body.  I went in a moment.  He looked weary, care-worn and troubled.  I shook hands with him, and asked how he was.  He said ‘tolerably well.’  I remarked that I felt concerned about him –regretted that troubles crowded so heavily upon him, and feared his health was suffering.  He held me by the hand, pressed it, and said in a very tender and touching tone –‘Browning I must die sometime,’ I replied ‘your fortunes Mr. President are bound up with those of the Country, and disaster to one would be disaster to the other, and I hope you will do all you can to preserve your health and life.’  He looked very sad, and there was a cadence of deep sadness in his voice.  We parted I believe both of us with tears in our eyes.” (pp. 559-60)

Monday, July 21, 1862:

“Met [Isaac] Arnold [Republican congressman from Illinois] between the War Department and the Presidents.  He is eager for the President to issue a proclamation declaring all slaves of rebels free.  He thinks it would ‘fire the public heart,’ encourage enlistments and go far towards ending the war.  I have always been in favor of seizing and appropriating all the slaves of rebels that we could lay our hands on, and make any valuable use of, but I have no faith in proclamations or laws unless we follow them by force and actually do the thing –and when done we don’t need either the proclamation or law.” (p. 561)

[Lincoln read the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet on Tuesday, July 22, 1862 but did not reveal this information to Browning]

Tuesday, October 14, 1862:

“Had conversation with Judge [Thomas] Drummond [US District Court judge for Northern Illinois] upon public affairs.  He agrees fully with me in my views.  Thinks nothing should have been said upon the subject of slavery, but that the army should have proceeded vigorously in the prosecution of the war, receiving all the negroes that came, and seizing all those of the revels that they could reach.  Thought the President’s proclamation unfortunate.  He was not satisfied of its constitutionality but to say nothing of that, it was ill advised as it could do no possible good, and certainly would do harm in uniting the rebels more firmly than ever, and making them fight with the energy of despair…I asked him about the negroes.  He answered that they had been a great disadvantage to the army.  That the negro who collected around had diseased and demoralized it to an incredible extent. That a majority of the soldiers cared nothing about the question of slavery, but wished to fight the battles of the Country and let slavery take care of itself –that so far from the army being abolitionized their views had been modified in the other direction, and that there were not now as many abolitionists as when they went into the field.” (pp. 578-9)

Wednesday, December 31, 1862:

“Some days ago I said to Judge [Benjamin Franklin] Thomas [Massachusetts Supreme Court] that I thought he ought to go to the President and have a full, frank conversation with him in regard to the threatened proclamation of emancipation –that in my opinion it is fraught with evil, and evil only and would do much injury; and that I thought his opinion would have influence with the President –that he might possibly induce him to withhold, or at least to modify it, so as to make it applicable to the slaves of those in armed rebellion against the Government alone, and that even this would ease the administration down, and get it in the way of regaining the lost confidence of the people.  He informed me to night that he had taken my advice, and had the talk but that it would avail nothing.  The President was fatally bent upon his course, saying that if he should refuse to issue his proclamation there would be a rebellion in the north, and that a dictator would be placed over his head within the week.  There is no hope.  The proclamation will come –God grant it may not be productive of the mischief I fear.” (pp. 606-7)

Saturday, February 6, 1864:

At night went to see the President on behalf of Mrs. Fitz, a loyal widow of Mississippi owning a cotton plantation there, and from who the US Army had taken all her slaves amounting to 47, and 10,000 bushels of corn.  She is now a refugee in St Louis, reduced to indigence.  She asks no compensation for her slaves, but wishes the government to give her a sufficient number of negroes out of those accumulated upon its hands to work her farm the ensuing season, and enable her to raise a crop of cotton, she to pay them out of the proceeds the same wages which the government pays those it employs.  I made the proposition to the President thinking it reasonable and just, and worthy at least of being considered.  He became very much excited, and did not discuss the proposition at all, but said with great vehemence he had rather take a rope and hang himself than to do it.  That there were a great many poor women who had never had any property at all who were suffering as much as Mrs Fitz –that her condition was a necessary consequence of the rebellion, and that the government could not make good the losses occasioned by the rebels.  I reminded him that she was loyal, and that her property had been taken from her by her own government, and was now being used by it, and I thought it a case eminently proper for some sort of remuneration, and her demand reasonable, and certainly entitled to respectful consideration.  He replied that she had lost no property –that her slaves were free when they were taken, and that she was entitled to no compensation.  I called his attention to the fact that a portion of her slaves at least, had been taken in 1862, before his proclamation, and put upon our gun boats, when he replied in a very excited manner that he had rather throw up, than to do what was asked, and would not do anything about it.  I left him in no very good humor.” (p. 659)

Sunday, April 3, 1864:

“The President told me that a few days before Govr [Thomas] Bramlett[e] of Ky; Hon Archibald Dixon & Mr. [Albert] Hodges of the same state had called upon him in regard to the enlistment of slaves as soldiers in Ky, in reference to which there has been much dissatisfaction in that State, and that everything has been amicably adjusted between them, and that they had gone home satisfied.  He said when they were discussing the matter he asked them to let him make a little speech to them, which he did and with which they were much pleased.  That afterwards Mr Hodges came back to him, and asked him to give him a copy of his remarks to take with him to Ky –He told Mr Hodges that what he had said was not written, and that he had not then time to commit it to paper –but to go home and he would write him a letter in which he would give, as nearly as he could all that he had said to them orally –that he had written the letter today, Sunday, and wished to show it to me, as he felt the need of sympathy & advice.  He then read it to me.  It contained his views of the necessity and propriety of the enlistment of negroes to aid the Union cause.  A well written and excellent paper.  He also stated to me, at length, the reasons which impelled him to issue the proclamation of emancipation, but which I have not now time to commit to paper.  I have no doubts he was honest & sincere in what he did, and actuated by conscientious views of public duty –This is the first talk I have had with him on public affairs since he issued that proclamation.” (p. 665)

Thursday, November 24, 1864:

“Genl [James] Singleton called this morning.  Told me he had just come from Canada where he had had an interview with [Clement] Clay & [Nathaniel Beverly] Tucker, the Rebel Commissioners, and was here to see the President in regard to negotiations for peace –that the aforesaid rebels were anxious for peace upon the basis of the Union, and thought the people of the seceded states would return if an amnesty was offered, and slavery let alone.  I said I thought the President would make the abolition of slavery a condition precedent to any settlement.  He replied that he knew he would not –that he had a long interview with him before the election –that the President showed him all the correspondence between himself and Greely [sic] preceding ‘To whom it may concern,’ [Letter of July 18, 1864] and said that ‘To whom it may concern’ put him in a false position –that he did not mean to make the abolition of slavery a condition, and that after the election he would be willing to grant peace with an amnesty, and restoration of the union, leaving slavery to abide the decisions of judicial tribunals –and that now the election was over he was going again to see him upon the subject, and would let me know the result of the interview.”

[Nothing ever came of Singleton’s missions.  He was an old “friend” of Lincoln’s from Illinois.  Yet historian David Herbert Donald claims that Lincoln’s “faith in Singleton, always slight, dwindled when it became clear that he was less interested in peace than in buying up huge quantities of Southern cotton and tobacco” (Lincoln, p. 556).]


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