The State of the Union, the State of Chaos

By Jamie Cooper

President Lincoln was arguably one of the hardest working and most diligent commander-in-chiefs ever to take office.  Rising from humble beginnings in Kentucky, the “rail-splitter” eventually took on the weight of the world.  His burdens as president are evident in his State of the Union address, December 3rd, 1861.

"Map of the Original District of Columbia," 1862, E. G. Arnold

During his annual message to Congress, the President discussed the many difficult issues facing the divided nation.  One of the most pressing concerns was international relations with Europe.  Lincoln gave a powerful warning to France and Great Britain regarding the repercussions of giving diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy.  President Lincoln brilliantly stated the case that these countries had a moral, social, and political obligation not to support a group of individuals whose only bargaining chip was “King Cotton.”  He argued that Britain and France should know that commerce is better done with a strong nation than with a fragmented one.  President Lincoln also knew he had to suppress diplomatic support for the Confederacy because any recognition would make it harder for the United States to quell the rebellion.

To make matters more difficult, Great Britain and the United States already had a contentious relationship at this time.  Great Britain felt its neutrality had been breached when would-be Confederate diplomats were arrested onboard one of its ships.  This event, now known as the Trent Affair, brought the two countries to the brink of war.  Britain increased its military presence in Canada and on the open seas.  The United States released both diplomats, and the issue all but faded away. 

President Lincoln also requested the recognition of both Haiti and Liberia.  He believed this would create new allies, and benefit the country’s commerce.  Previously, the push to recognize either country was frowned upon by many, but Lincoln insisted on their recognition.  Liberia was seen as a place where freedom and equality were readily available to former slaves.  Indeed, during his early presidency, Lincoln supported colonization for former and current slaves, using Liberia as the model.

On the home front, President Lincoln had additional plans and ideas, some of which were informed and inspired by the war.  One such “military measure” was the creation of a railroad linking Unionist sections of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky together.  Lincoln boasted that the railroad was a necessary internal improvement project, much needed in the mountainous areas of the states.  Furthermore, he noted that the railroad would benefit the U.S. military in future campaigns.  Other domestic issues ranged from adding more judges to the Supreme Court bench to creating the Department of Agriculture and retaking the original 100 square mile area set aside as the District of Columbia by reassuming Arlington and Alexandria.

"HMS Trent and the USS Juanito," Library of Congress

President Lincoln also acknowledged the Union’s successes throughout his speech.  He noted that Union forces “have secured a footing on Hatteras Island, Port Royal, Tybee Island, and Ship Island.”  He also commented on the Union’s success at stopping illegal slave trading vessels and remarked on keeping Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri in the Union.  In retrospect, President Lincoln overestimated the Unionist sentiment across the south in his speech.  He believed that most southerners, especially those in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, were forced into the rebellion by state officials voting without their consent.  Lincoln felt the citizens of these states were still loyal to the U.S. government, but the country was divided against itself more than Lincoln first perceived.

As for the war itself, the President knew he needed new leadership.  With the retirement of General Winfield Scott, President Lincoln chose a young, enigmatic successor named George McClellan to train and prepare his troops for battle.  Lincoln also encouraged Congress to increase support for the Army and the Navy, insisting that more cadets attend military academies.  He spoke of the importance of properly controlling the rivers and lakes across the country and wanted to provide chaplains for hospitals occupied by volunteers.  Additionally, Lincoln wanted to see that new naval ranks were created to accompany the new U.S. Navy, which had “been created and brought into service since our difficulties commenced.” 

President Lincoln faced a heavy burden, but he trusted that he was sustaining a Union for the benefit of future generations.  Lincoln ended his address with these words:  “The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day; it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”

Mr. Cooper is the Senior Visitor Services Associate at President Lincoln’s Cottage

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