Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War

By Michael S. Green | Go to book overview

1
Freedom, Union, and Power:
The Civil War Republican Party

No TWO MEN could have been more alike and more different than Charles Sumner and William Pitt Fessenden. Both were Republican senators from New England. Both rebelled against their previous parties and joined the Republicans. Both chaired key committees where their talents shone—Sumner headed Foreign Relations, with his knowledge of and connections to Europe; Fessenden led Finance, with his cautious and analytical mind. Both could be difficult to deal with: Sumner reveled in his intellectual superiority, and his idealism and selfabsorption only grew worse after his caning by Preston Brooks in 1856; Fessenden turned dyspeptic when egos and debate detracted from completing the job at hand. And each captured his party's competing views. Fessenden said, "I have been taught since I have been in public life to consider it a matter of proper statesmanship, when we aim at an object which we think is valuable and important, if that object … is unattainable, to get as much of it and come as near it as we may be able to do." Sumner said, "A moral principle cannot be compromised."1

The differences between Sumner and Fessenden, between principle and pragmatism, represent and reflect the Republican party's ideological transformation during the Civil War. The party of "free soil, free labor, free men" retained its antebellum commitment to freedom, but events prompted a redefinition, in some cases a reordering, of its beliefs. Victory in the 1860 presidential election, the South's subsequent secession, and the accompanying Republican takeover of Congress made Republicans the ruling party, responsible for restoring a Union that some of them occasionally had considered unworthy of salvation. The depth of the party's commitment to the Union varied, although its members almost unanimously agreed that it should be preserved, if only to end the Souths reliance upon slavery. To radicals like Sumner, the Union mattered as a means to freedom, the broadly

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