Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

43

AL to Orville H. Browning:
CW, 4:531–532

General John Charles Frémont, known as “The Pathfinder” for his exploits in California in the 1840s, commanded the Department of the West and was headquartered in the pivotal border state of Missouri. He appeared well placed in his command since he was married to Jessie Benton, daughter of former Missouri U.S. senator Thomas Hart Benton and an influential national figure in her own right. Her husband, worried over growing rebel strength in Missouri and his own command's weaknesses, proclaimed martial law throughout the state, threatened to execute any civilians bearing arms against the United States, and emancipated all slaves of disloyal citizens. The move proved a shock to Lincoln, who worried that if Frémont's proclamation was not quickly reversed, Kentucky and other border states would join the Confederacy. Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland all contained considerable numbers of Confederate sympathizers, and Lincoln referred to one Union volunteer unit that refused to fight because of Frémont's order as evidence of the threat it posed. Lincoln knew Orville H. Browning as a man much like himself, a conservative Illinois Republican and former Whig. No doubt he felt heartened when Browning was named to complete the U.S. Senate term of Stephen A. Douglas, who had died the previous June—hence his shock when Browning expressed support for Frémont's emancipation order. Lincoln advised Browning that the move in Missouri was entirely unconstitutional and illegal, a reckless antislavery “dictatorship.” Contrary to Lincoln's statement to Browning, Frémont refused to back down, and his wife traveled to the White House to personally appeal on behalf of her husband. Vexed, the president curtly advised the general's bold wife that “General Frémont should not have dragged the Negro into it.” In November, he relieved the general of his

-218-

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