1865 April 29: Senator Doolittle on the In-coming President
The following speech by U. S. Senator from Wisconsin James R. Doolittle comes from the April 29, 1865, issue of The Prescott Journal.
THE NEW PRESIDENT.
His Antecedents and Character.
S p e e c h o f S e n a t o r D o o l i t t l e.
(Made to the People of Racine at a Union meeting
held in the Presbyterian Church of that City,
on Sunday Evening, April 10th.)
Friends, Neighbors and Fellow-Citizens :
Abraham Lincoln is dead. He has fallen at the hand of an assassin.
His confidential adviser, the Secretary of State, has also been stabbed by an assassin, and, from some strange confusion in telegraphic reports, we do not know at this hour whether he is dead or alive. [William H. Seward]
My soul is overwhelmed, and would sink utterly but that I know God lives, and our country is in His holy keeping.
To any other people than my own neighbors, I could not now open my mouth to speak at all. And even to you, on this occasion, I will only answer such earnest inquiries as you have pressed upon me, and claim that I ought to answer.
And those questions do not concern President Lincoln nor Secretary Seward. You all know their good and great qualities. Though dead, they yet live ; live in their writings, in their speeches, in their great deeds, and in the grandest event of history, in which they have been chief actors. As in the revoluary [sic] period, in which our Republic was founded, George Washington was the great character and Hamilton was his confidential adviser ; so when future generations shall read the history of this second revolutionary crisis, in which our Republic is now redeemed and regenerated from the curse of slavery, Abraham Lincoln will stand out the greatest man of the age, and William H. Seward will be associated with him, as Hamilton is with Washington, to the latest generation.
But it is not of them that you wish to hear, nor that I would speak to-night.
You ask me to speak of Andrew Johnson.
Who is he ? what is he ? and what will be his policy ? And you insist that I shall give you, as a neighbor and a friend, what information I may have upon that most important subject. I will answer you briefly, and from the best information I have.
He is, I think, a native of North Carolina. He was an humble mechanic, a tailor by trade, and, it is said, received instructions in the first rudiments of education from his devoted wife. He is a man of full medium stature, compact and strong-built, of dark complexion and deep set black eyes. He is of bilious temperament, of strong intellect, indomitable energy and iron will, in whose character I should say, the strongest feature of all is that of stern justice, and a general hatred of all forms of aristocracy and oppression, and a patriotism so ardent that it amounts to a passion—almost a religion. He was the real author of the homestead law, although it did not pass both houses until after the rebellion began. On account of his determined and constant support of that measure of the people, and which, of itself, would bar slavery out of all the new territories, the aristocratic slaveholders of the South—Mason [James M. Mason], Slidell [John Slidell], Toombs [Robert A. Toombs], Davis [Jefferson Davis], and the like—long before the rebellion, hated him with a perfect hatred.
I have occasion to know now much he reciprocated their feelings toward him, for when I was occasionally, as a young Senator, engaged in controversy with them, he always took great pleasure in referring me to the necessary documents to enable me successfully to controvert them.
But, you ask me, is he a sober man ? Such was certainly his character during all the time he was in the Senate of the United States. My best impression is that he did not drink at all at that time. After his leaving the Senate to go to Tennessee as a Brigadier General to act as military governor, I, of course, do not know whether he did or did not, like a great many of the officers in the army, indulge in drinking. I am informed that when he left Tennessee to come on to Washington to attend the inauguration, he was just recovering from severe illness. That he came upon most urgent solicitation, against his own preferences. That he was sustained and kept up more or less by stimulants prescribed and recommended by his physician. On the day of his inauguration, what occurred then has given rise to a thousand criticisms and apprehensions. I shall not go farther into that than to say, I saw him several times afterwards and before I left Washington, at the house of Mr. Francis P. Blair, where he was staying by invitation in company with the Hon. Preston King³ of New York and I found him recovering from his illness and, so far as I could judge in all respects, as he was in the Senate.
I do not believe that Andrew Johnson, who always lived a temperate and upright life until past fifty years of age, now that the great responsibilities of the Presidency are thrown upon him, can or will permit himself to indulge in the use of intoxicating drinks, and thus endanger that Republic for which he has done and suffered so much, and for which he would willingly lay down his life. I would sooner believe that he would forswear all intoxications whatsoever.
But you ask me again what policy will he pursue ?
As to the re-construction question, he will undoubtedly pursue the same policy of Mr. Lincoln. In his address, when inaugurated, speaking of the States, he said, “They are not dead, but sleeping.” He is fully committed in favor of the reorganized free states of Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. As to this affair of Gen. Weitzel [Godfrey Weitzel] in Virginia he has not spoken, and of course I cannot assume to speak for him.
But what course will he pursue toward the traitors ? We can only judge by his record early in the rebellion, during the last days of Buchanan’s administration [James Buchanan]. On the 2d of March, 1861, in a speech, in reply to Lane [Joseph Lane], of Oregon, speaking of the firing upon the Star of the West, and seizure of our arsenals, docks, forts and navy yards, he used the following memorable language :
“Show me who has been engaged in these conspiracies, who has given instructions to take our forts and custom houses, our arsenals and dock yards, and I will show you a traitor.” (Applause in the galleries. When order was restored, he conclude.) “WERE I PRESIDENT of the United States, I would so as Thomas Jefferson did, In 1800 , with Aaron Burr. I would have them arrested, and if convicted within the meaning and scope of the constitution, BY THE ETERNAL GOD I WOULD EXECUTE THEM.”
He is now President. Has anything since occurred to make him repent that solemn oath, or change his stern resolve ?
His wife and children have been captured by rebels, and are suffering all but death.—His property has been confiscated by them ; his sons imprisoned ; his neighbors and friends shot—murdered in cold blood—hung, gibbetted4 for no offense but that of loyalty to the United States Government. I see nothing in all this calculated to change his convictions or his purpose. On the other hand, in his speech upon the fall of Richmond and Lee’s surrender [Robert E. Lee], while most others in the delirium of joy and exultation over our success and of the approach of peace, spoke of amnesty, he alone did not forget the stern demands of justice ; he is made of sterner stuff. Upon this subject he said this : “The halter to intelligent, influential traitors. To the honest boy, the deluded man, who has been deceived into the rebel ranks, I would extend leniency. I would say, renew your support to the Government, and become a good citizen ; and the leaders I would hang.”
And now, after the culmination of all the wickedness of rebellion in the assassination of the President and the Secretary of State, as he lifts his hand by the dead body of the President to repeat the solemn oath administered by the Chief Justice, I see nothing to change his convictions. When he uttered those words : “The duties are mine ; I will perform them, trusting in God,” I think I see the same patriotic indignation beaming from his deep black eyes, and lighting up that iron face, which I saw four years ago, when he uttered, in the Senate, those words, now so terrible to traitors : “BY THE ETERNAL GOD I WOULD EXECUTE THEM !”
In this respect, I think Mr. Johnson’s administration may differ from that of Mr. Lincoln.
Mr. Lincoln would have dealt with the rebels as an indulgent father deals with erring children. Mr. Johnson will deal with them more like a stern and incorruptible judge. Thus, in a moment, the sceptre of power has passed from a hand of flesh to a hand of iron.
How strangely overruled have all things been to destroy slavery and the aristocracy founded upon it. Its maddened fanatical leaders made war upon the government to regain political power. That power has been utterly destroyed. They made war to extend and strengthen slavery. The war has destroyed it and set free every slave.
And now, by madly wreaking vengeance upon the head of the great, generous, magnanimous Lincoln, who, in the overflowing goodness of his heart, was just ready to issue a proclamation of amnesty to save them ; they have put the necks of their leaders into a halter, with no power to save but in the clemency of one sternly just, who, four years ago, declared in the most solemn form that, if President, he would execute them, and whose subsequent career and experience have all tended to strengthen rather than weaken that resolution.
Knowing them both as I do, I have said to Mr. Lincoln, be strong of heart and of good courage. Justice demands the punishment of the great criminals.
To Mr. Johnson I would say, While administering justice remember mercy.
I have thus, my friends, very hastily, but without reserve, given you an answer to your earnest inquiries.
Of course I speak by no authority, and merely from first impressions, rather as a matter of duty to you, as a neighbor and friend, having had some greater and better opportunities for personally knowing the man upon whom, by this terrible calamity, the great office of President has been thrown in these troublous times.
1. “Doolittle, Hon. James R. of Wisc. 36th Senate,” digital image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
2. “Andrew Johnson,” digital image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
3. Preston King (1806-1865) was a lawyer and politician from New York. He was a member of the New York State Assembly (1835-38), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York (1843-47 and 1849-53), and a U.S. senator from New York (1857-63). He served as White House Chief of Staff during the early days of the Johnson Administration. On August 14, 1865, King was appointed Collector of the Port of New York, in an effort to eliminate corruption in the Port of New York and to heal divisions within the Republican Party. Despairing of success, King committed suicide on November 13, 1865.
4. Publicly executed.