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Northern War Aims

Although Lincoln hated slavery and consistently argued against its expansion into federal territory, he was not an abolitionist; he disagreed with those who would promote emancipation at the expense of preserving the Constitution and the rule of law. He acknowledged the legal right to own slaves under state constitutions that already permitted the "peculiar institution," which the Constitution respected through compromises that helped produce "a more perfect union." Lincoln also recognized the fragile condition of the country, and therefore did not seek the repeal of the notorious (but constitutional) Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that escaped slaves be returned to their masters in the South.

Lincoln used his first inaugural address to declare his constitutional intentions as the incoming president, especially given the anxiety in the Southern states over the protection of their slaves, and to explain the nature of the national union. He announced that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed, and pledged to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act-a key issue for seceding states, who complained that Northern states obstructed the enforcement of this act by passing personal liberty laws.

Lincoln then declared that "the Union of these States is perpetual" and added that "no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union." Why? First, all national governments by their nature existed in perpetuity; second, even if one assumed that the United States was "not a government proper," but an "association of States," all the States would need to agree to dissolve the association, not just those who found reason to do so unilaterally; and third, the existence of the American Union preceded the Constitution, demonstrating that the States intended to act as a union at every pivotal stage of their development. Alluding to Article II of the Constitution, Lincoln considered his "simple duty" to make sure "that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States." Specifically, he intended to occupy federal property and collect duties, but for the time being not fill federal offices with "obnoxious strangers" in areas hostile to the government.

The departing president, James Buchanan, added to the new president's difficulties. While his December 1860 State of the Union Address argued that secession was not "an inherent constitutional right," Buchanan saw no constitutional provision that empowered the president "to coerce a state into submission." Lincoln read the federal constitution differently, stating "the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend, and maintain itself." But he also affirmed that "there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority." To this end, he used his inaugural address to try to mend the rift between sections of the nation.

Lincoln's ultimate political loyalty was to the Union. As the Civil War raged, Lincoln wrote Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Tribune: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. [If] I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." To that end, Lincoln allowed the slaveholding border states that sided with the Union to retain their slaves until the war's end. When a Union general took it upon himself to declare slavery abolished in parts of the South, the president swiftly rescinded the order, reserving to himself the authority for such an act.

President Lincoln would have been glad if the preservation of the Union could have been secured and slavery abolished by a diplomatic instead of by a military victory. His policy in respect to slavery was closely connected with this idea. In the first years of the war he hoped that a policy of emancipating the slaves with compensation to the owners might win over a sufficient number of the slave states to make it hopeless for the rest to continue the struggle. If this could be accomplished the great objects of the war would be attained; slavery would be abolished and the Union preserved - preserved in the most effective way, without the aftermath of sectional bitterness which was likely to follow a war waged to the bitter end and a peace founded upon military conquest and enforced at the point of the sword. Unhappily, this outcome was impossible. Neither the North nor the South was prepared to accept such a program; the South would not accept emancipation on any terms; the North would not concede compensation. As soon as the President was convinced of this, he was ready to proclaim emancipation as a military measure.

McClellan willfully disobeyed Lincoln's orders because McClellan disagreed with Lincoln about the desired end state: Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union; McClellan wanted to minimize the killing and end the war through accommodation with the Confederacy. McClellan was a Democrat. The Democratic Party had been split by the slavery question; insofar as they supported the war, Democrats looked only to a restoration of the Union, not the destruction of slavery; the Radical Republicans were anathema to them. McClellan had strong links with the Democratic Marcy machine of New York, and many Democrats looked to him to lead a conservative alignment in the congressional elections in the autumn of 1862. Radical Republicans suspected him of wanting a compromise peace so that he could win the presidential election and Southern votes.

In his Second Inaugural Address on 04 March 1865, Abraham Lincoln stated "These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

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