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Note from President Lincoln asking Congress to Postpone their Adjournment

From the first time he ran for president, to the day he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln made his stance on slavery clear. Although his desire was to abolish slavery in the United States, that is much easier said than done. When he took office in 1861 slavery was still the law of the land, and as president, Lincoln was bound by the Constitution to protect those laws no matter how much he morally disagreed with them. Rather than deterring Lincoln, he began to work diligently to create a legal way to free the slaves without violating the principles and procedures outlined in the Constitution.

In 1861, shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which allowed the Union to seize property from Confederate rebels. Included in the category of “property”, by the South’s own definition, were slaves. Although this law legally allowed slaves protection in the North, Lincoln was hesitant to sign the bill because it did not definitively abolish slavery and he was worried about whether or not it would be struck down as unconstitutional in the future. Always thinking like a lawyer, Lincoln believed if any laws surrounding the freeing of slaves were found to be unconstitutional that it would set a dangerous precedent for all further talks of abolition. However, passionate lobbying from several senators convinced Lincoln to sign the First Confiscation Act despite his qualms.

Radical Republicans, still desiring emancipation for Southern slaves, introduced another bill in the winter of 1861 that was far stronger than the First Confiscation Act, and called for the liberation of all slaves that had been confiscated by the Union as the “property” of Confederate rebels. This was a highly controversial move that Lincoln did not know if the United States was prepared to handle yet, but it got him to begin seriously thinking about a concrete plan to constitutionally free the slaves. As Congress discussed this newly introduced bill, the number of Confederate contraband-slaves in the Union continued to rapidly grow. Debates in Congress mainly centered on how to deal with the issue of border states which fell into a tricky grey-area in the eyes of legislators, and after a long period of discussion and revision the bill passed on July 12, 1862. Lincoln thought about vetoing the bill, once again fearing it could be struck down as unconstitutional due to possible violations of the forfeiture clause in the Constitution. Article III, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution states, “The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.” Although it’s not blatantly spelled out, a lawyer like Lincoln would know that this clause would allow slaves to be reclaimed as familial property by ancestors once the original slave-holder was deceased. Since punishments for treason were limited to occurring “during the life of the person” brought to justice, once said person died their slaves would no longer be free since they were confiscated as a punishment for treason. It’s all a matter of technicalities, but with human life on the line Lincoln did not want to take any risks that may cause unforeseen issues in the future. He wanted to free the slaves, and he wanted to do it right the first time.

The bill, now being called the Second Confiscation Act, was set to be signed by Lincoln on July 15, 1861 after successfully being passed by both houses of Congress. Rather than veto the bill outright, Lincoln wanted to work out a compromise with Congress. However, Congress was set to adjourn on July 16 and Lincoln knew they would need more time to reach an agreement. This need for more time prompted Lincoln to send the following note to the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate:

“Sir, Please inform the Senate that I shall be obliged if they will postpone the adjournment, at least one day beyond the time which I understand to [be] now fixed upon for it.”

Both the House and the Senate agreed, and the President was granted his one-day extension before Congress adjourned. On the morning of July 16, 1861 Senator Daniel Clark of New Hampshire resolved the need for compromise by suggesting an amendment to the Second Confiscation Act which stated that any confiscated property could not be held beyond the lifetime of the convicted traitor thereby making the law constitutional, even if it would not be a permanent solution. With this amendment added and the knowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation was coming, Lincoln agreed to the bill and on July 17, 1861 Lincoln signed the bill into law just before Congress adjourned that afternoon.

Two copies of Lincoln’s above note exist, one in his secretary’s handwriting and one in his own handwriting. The finalized version of the note in his secretary’s hand is housed in the Senate’s archives, and Lincoln’s personal draft is now housed in the Mercury Collection.

Below is the note from President Lincoln asking Congress to postpone their adjournment.

Note to Congress from President Lincoln

[1] Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States: Being the First Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress; Begun and Held at the City of Washington, July 4, 1861. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1862. p. 251-257.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Journal of the Senate of the United States of America: Being the Second Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress; Begun and Held at the City of Washington, December 2, 1861. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1861. p. 44-48.

[4] Ibid. p. 811-824.

[5] “Corruption of the Blood and Forfeiture”. Justia U.S. Law. Justia Annotations. 2018.

[6] Journal of the Senate of the United States of America: Being the Second Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress; Begun and Held at the City of Washington, December 2, 1861. p. 840-854.

[7] Ibid. p. 854-867.

[8] Ibid. p. 868-881.

[9] Lincoln Urgently Seeks Time to Negotiate a Constitutionally Sound Bill Freeing Slaves Under the 2nd Confiscation Act. Raab Collection.


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