President Abraham Lincoln to Congress: He Seeks to Conclude the Francis Blair Matter, That Was Dividing His Party in the Midst of the Civil War

It pitted Radical and non-Radical Republicans against each other

An extremely rare communication of Lincoln to the House of Representatives, the first we have ever had

The Blair family were unwavering supporters of Abraham Lincoln during his rise to the presidency and years in office, and in return enjoyed his political patronage. Francis P. Blair, Sr. was a former Andrew...

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President Abraham Lincoln to Congress: He Seeks to Conclude the Francis Blair Matter, That Was Dividing His Party in the Midst of the Civil War

It pitted Radical and non-Radical Republicans against each other

An extremely rare communication of Lincoln to the House of Representatives, the first we have ever had

The Blair family were unwavering supporters of Abraham Lincoln during his rise to the presidency and years in office, and in return enjoyed his political patronage. Francis P. Blair, Sr. was a former Andrew Jackson Democrat who became disillusioned with slavery and helped found the Republican Party. During the Civil War, he was an advisor to Lincoln. His son Montgomery Blair was Lincoln’s Postmaster General. Another son, Francis P. (Frank) Blair, Jr., was a opponent of slavery and an advocate of free soil politics. He was elected to Congress from Missouri in 1856, and in 1858 delivered a speech describing slavery as a national problem and proposing to solve it by gradual emancipation and resettling of freed slaves. This was typical of the Blair position throughout the Civil War era: they were against slavery, but shied away from radical measures to aid freed slaves. As time went on, this put them in increasing conflict with Radical Republicans, a conflict made worse by the abrasive nature of the Blairs.

Frank Blair was again elected to Congress in 1860. At the outset of the Civil War, he organized pro-Union military units at his own expense that were instrumental in keeping Missouri in the Union. He was elected in 1862 to the 38th Congress, which would not convene in regular session until December 7, 1863, creating a lengthy gap in time. In the meanwhile, Blair wanted to serve in the field, and he resigned from the House of Representatives in July 1862, having been appointed a colonel of Missouri volunteers. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in August 1862 and then to major general in November. Blair was a successful general who earned the trust of the Union’s two most important military leaders: U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman. In 1863 Blair commanded a division in Grant’s Vicksburg campaign and in the fighting about Chattanooga.

Desiring to return to Congress, where his seat had not been filled, Blair submitted his resignation as major general to President Lincoln on January 1, 1864, and it was accepted on the 12th. There was a specific verbal understanding between Lincoln and Blair that, in Lincoln’s words, should Blair during the House session want to resume his military duties, he could “withdraw said resignation and return to the field.” This created an option whereby Blair could remain a congressman or resume his role as general at his discretion.

Blair had political enemies in Missouri, particularly the leader of the Radical Republicans, Samuel Knox, who had been defeated by Blair in the 1862 election. He now saw an opportunity to undermine if not defeat Blair altogether, and determined to challenge his taking his seat in Congress. Knox took his case against Blair to the House Committee on Elections, the Chairman of which was the Radical Republican Henry Dawes. Much evidence was taken, and there was wrangling on the floor of the House over what evidence to accept. As April 1864 drew to a close, it appeared that the House Committee was deadlocked. The war was not going well, Lincoln was preoccupied with that and with his reelection campaign, and the Blair matter was an undesired diversion. It was in fact causing so much animosity within Lincoln’s party – pitting Radicals and non-Radical Republicans against each other – that he wanted an end to it. He had provided Blair (and himself) with an honorable way out by allowing Blair to return to the army, and at this point Lincoln preferred that alternative. On April 23, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 178, naming Blair as commander of the 17th Army Corps in Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee.

However, Blair’s opponents in Congress were infuriated that their chance to embarrass the Blairs and weaken the non-Radicals would come to nought, so Dawes introduced a resolution calling on the President “to communicate to this House whether the Hon. Francis P. Blair, Jr…now holds any appointment or commission in the military service of the United States; and if so, what that appointment or commission is, and when the said Blair accepted the same.’’

The Incompatibility Clause of the U.S. Constitution – Article I, Section 6 – forbids federal officials from simultaneously serving in Congress. That clause reads: “…no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.” The framers of the Constitution understood the Incompatibility Clause primarily as an anticorruption device. Painfully familiar with the system of royal influence, whereby the English kings had purchased the loyalty of Members of Parliament with appointment to lucrative offices, the framers sought to limit the corrupting effect of patronage and plural office holding in the new Republic.

Thus Dawes sought to use the Incompatibility Clause to deny Blair the ability to return to the army, unless he received a brand new appointment from the President, one that would have to be approved by Congress.

Lincoln responded on April 28 in a document to the House of Representatives, saying that Blair had received no special favor, and that he had granted a similar request of General Robert C. Schenk, who had left the army and was now the Radical Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs. He dropped some names, adding that the Blair situation “was made known to Generals Grant and Sherman and assented to by them, and the particular corps for him designated. This was all arranged and understood…” And he concluded by offering to send “some letters, notes, telegrams, orders, entries, and perhaps other documents, in connection with this subject, which it is believed would throw no additional light upon it; but which will be cheerfully furnished, if desired.” On April 29, the House adopted a resolution requesting of Lincoln the copies of all “letters, notes, telegrams, order, entries, and other documents” referred to in his April 28 communication.

“In compliance with the request contained in your resolution of the 29th ultimo, a copy of which resolution is herewith returned, I have the honor to transmit the following.” According to the “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”, Lincoln forwarded to the House these letters: “Lincoln to Montgomery Blair, November 2, 1863; Robert C. Schenck to Stanton forwarding resignation, November 13, 1863; Edward D. Townsend, November 21, 1863, to Schenck, accepting resignation; Francis P. Blair, Jr. to Lincoln, January 1, 1864, “I hereby tender my resignation as a major general of the United States Volunteers”; James A. Hardie to Blair, January 12, 1864, accepting resignation; Lincoln to Grant, re Blair, March 15, 1864; Grant to Lincoln re telegram, March 16, 1864; Grant to Lincoln re telegram, March 17, 1864; John A. Logan to Lincoln, asking to be retained in Fifteenth Corps, March 26, 1864; Grant to Sherman, March 30, 1864, directing Blair to be assigned to Seventeenth Corps; Grant to Halleck, April 9, 1864, asking if Blair has been sent to Sherman; Blair to Lincoln, April 20, 1864, asking to be assigned immediately to command of Seventeenth Corps, endorsed by Lincoln to Stanton, April 21, 1864; Lincoln to Stanton, April 23, 1864; Blair to Stanton, April 23, 1864, withdrawing his resignation of January 12, 1864; AGO General Orders No. 178, assigning Blair to command of Seventeenth Corps.”

The certification conforming this, Autograph document signed, Washington May 2, 1864. “The foregoing constitutes all sought by the resolution, so far as is remembered, or has been found upon diligent search.” Communications of Lincoln to either House of Congress are very rare. In all of our decades in the field, we have had one to the Senate, and now with this, our first to the House.

Regardless of Congress, Blair assumed his new command on May 17, 1864 as was one of Sherman’s corps commanders, and served during the famous campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas. While Blair was fighting his way south with the Army of the Tennessee, and no longer practically effected, his political enemies in the House stripped him of his seat on June 10, 1864 and awarded it to Knox. The rationale was that Blair was ineligible for his Congressional seat because he had failed to resign his commission prior to the convening of the Congress to which he had been elected, a violation of the Incompatibility Clause.

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