by David J. Kent
Tuesday, August 29, 2023
On August 30, 1861, General John C. Fremont, who Lincoln had put in charge of the Department of the West based in Missouri, issued what effectively was martial law and a proclamation of emancipation. President Lincoln was not amused.
Fremont was not just some appointed general. He had been the first Republican nominee for president in 1856. Lincoln had supported Fremont at that time and even received 110 votes in nomination to be Fremont's vice-presidential running mate (he lost out to William Dayton). In the 1840s, Fremont earned his nickname "The Pathfinder" by leading several expeditions to California. He also married Jesse Benton, daughter of powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Fremont served in the Mexican War and was briefly the territorial governor of California, later becoming one of its first two senators. But he was also no stranger to controversy, including being court-martialed for insubordination in 1847 (later commuted to merely a dishonorable discharge by President Polk).
Fremont ran a strict operation in Missouri at the beginning of the Civil War. His proclamation included a rather problematic passage:
All persons who shall be taken with arms in their hands within these lines shall be tried by court-martial, and, if found guilty, will be shot. The property, real and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States, and who shall be directly proven to have taken active part with their enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated to the public use; and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared free.
Lincoln quickly recognized this as a major conflict with the confiscation acts passed by Congress, not to mention that Missouri had remained in the Union even though it was a slave state. Emancipating enslaved people by edict would violate the Constitution as Lincoln (and most others) understood it. Furthermore, taking such extreme action in a loyal state would cause problems with the other border states, most especially Kentucky. As Lincoln reportedly said elsewhere, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."
Finding out about Fremont's proclamation from the newspapers, Lincoln responded in his usual deferential way asking Fremont to reconsider. Fremont replied in his usual arrogant way by telling Lincoln he (i.e., Fremont) knew better than Lincoln and if Lincoln wanted Fremont to rescind the proclamation, he would have order it. Fremont sent his response with his wife, Jesse Benton Fremont, to be personally delivered on September 8. Equally self-assured, Jesse attempted to persuade Lincoln that Fremont's action was correct. Lincoln disagreed, and on September 11, 1861, Lincoln called Fremont's bluff and wrote:
Your answer, just received, expresses the preference on your part, that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do. It is therefore ordered that the said clause of said proclamation be so modified, held, and construed, as to conform to, and not to transcend, the provisions on the same subject contained in the act of Congress entitled ``An Act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes'' Approved, August 6. 1861; and that said act be published at length with this order. Your Obt. Servt A. LINCOLN.
Again, the rationale was clear. A general in the field may not issue proclamations that 1) are illegal in that they do not confirm to the laws, and 2) would cause tremendous national security issues that could result in the end of the United States. Not long after this incident, Lincoln sent envoys to assess the situation in Missouri. Their reports confirmed general disarray and Fremont "doing absolutely nothing." One reported that Fremont was "wholly incompetent." Seeing no other recourse, Lincoln removed Fremont from command. Fremont did get a second chance as commander of the forces on the Virginia and Kentucky border, but after being badly defeated in battle, Fremont eventually resigned.
The rescinded Fremont proclamation was one of many factors that pulled the slavery question one way and another over the course of the next years, the culmination of factors which would lead to the end of slavery in the District of Columbia and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.
[Photo of John C. Fremont from Wikimedia Commons]