Proceedings in the House of Lords

[From the London Times of May 2, 1865.]

assassination of president lincoln.

Earl Russell (who was very indistinctly heard) said: My lords, I rise to ask your lordships to address her Majesty, praying that in any communications which her Majesty may make to the government of the United States, expressing her abhorrence and regret at the great crime which has been committed in the murder of the President of that country, her Majesty will at the [Page 148]same time express the sorrow and indignation felt by this house at that atrocious deed. In this case I am sure your lordships will feel entire sympathy with her Majesty, who has instructed me already to express to the government of the United States the shock which she felt at the intelligence of the great crime which has been committed. [Hear, hear.] Her Majesty has also been pleased to write a private letter to Mrs. Lincoln [cheers] expressive of sympathy with that lady in her misfortune. [Cheers.] I think that your lordships will agree with me that in modern times there has hardly been a crime committed so abhorrent to the feelings of every civilized person as the one I am now alluding to. [Hear, hear] After the first election of Mr. Lincoln as President of the United States, he was re-elected to the same high position by the large majority of the people remaining faithful to the government of the United States, and he was in the discharge of the duties of his office, having borne his faculties meekly, at the moment when an assassin attacked him at the theatre. There are circumstances connected with this crime which, I think, aggravate its atrocity. President Lincoln was a man who, though not conspicuous before his election, had since displayed a character of so much integrity, so much sincerity and straightforwardness, and at the same time of so much kindness, that if any one was able to alleviate the pain and animosities which prevailed during the period of civil war, I believe that Abraham Lincoln was that person. It was remarked of President Lincoln that he always felt disinclined to adopt harsh measures, and I am told that the commanders of his armies often complained that when they had passed a sentence which they thought no more than just, the President was always disposed to temper its severity. Such a man this particular epoch requires. The conduct of the armies of the United States was intrusted to other hands, and on the commanders fell the responsibility of leading the armies in the field to victory. They had been successful against those they had to contend with, and the moment had come when, undoubtedly, the responsibilities of President Lincoln were greatly increased by their success. But, though it was not for him to lead the armies, it would have been his to temper the pride of victory, to assuage the misfortunes which his adversaries had experienced, and especially to show, as he was well qualified to show, that high respect for valor on the opposite side which has been so conspicuously displayed. It was to be hoped that by such qualities, when the conflict of arms was over, the task of conciliation might have been begun, and President Lincoln would have an authority which no one else could have had to temper that exasperation which always arises in the course of civil strife. [Hear, hear.] Upon another question the United States and the confederates will have a most difficult task to perform. I allude to the question of slavery, which some have always maintained to have been the cause of the civil war. At the beginning the House will remember that President Lincoln declared that he had no right by the Constitution to interfere with slavery. At a later period he made a communication to the commander-in-chief of the United States forces in which he proposed that in certain States the slaves should be entirely free; but at a later period he proposed, what he had a constitutional qualification to propose, that there should be an alteration in the Constitution of the United States, by which compulsory labor should hereafter be forbidden. I remember that Lord Macaulay once declared that it would have been a great blessing if the penal laws against the Catholics had been abolished from the time of Sir R. Walpole, though Sir R. Walpole would have been mad to propose a measure for that purpose. So the same may be said of slavery, though I believe that the United States were justified in delaying the time when that great alteration of the United States law should take place. But, whatever we may think on these subjects, we must all deeply deplore that the death of President Lincoln has deprived the United States of a man, a leader on this subject, who by his temper was qualified to propose such a measure as might have made this great change acceptable to [Page 149]those before opposed to it, and might have preserved the peace of the great republic of America while undergoing that entire new organization which would be necessary under such circumstances. [Hear.] I think we must all feel both sympathy with the United States in this great affliction, and also a hope that he who is now, according to the American Constitution, intrusted with the power of the late President, may be able both on the one subject and on the other—both in respect to mercy and leniency towards the conquered, and also with regard to the measures to be adopted for the new organization which the abolition of slavery will render requisite—to overcome all difficulties. I had some time ago, at the commencement of this contest, occasion to say that I did not believe that the great republic of America would perish in this war, and the noble lord at the head of the government had lately occasion to disclaim on the part of the government of this country any feeling of envy at the greatness and prosperity of the United States. The course which her Majesty’s government have had to pursue during this civil war has been one of great anxiety. Difficulties have occurred to us, and difficulties have also occurred to the government of the United States, in maintaining the peaceful relations between the two countries; but those difficulties have always been treated with temper and moderation both on this side and the other side of the Atlantic. I trust that that temper and moderation may continue, and I can assure this House that, as we have always been guided by the wish that the American government and the American people should settle for themselves the conflict of arms without any interference of ours, so likewise during the attempt that has to be made to restore peace and tranquillity to America we shall equally refrain from any kind of interference or intervention, though we trust that the efforts to be made for restoring peace will be successful, and that the great republic of America will always flourish and enjoy the freedom it has hitherto enjoyed. [Hear, hear.] I have nothing to say with regard to the successor of Mr. Lincoln. Time must show how far he is able to conduct the difficult matters which will come under his consideration with the requisite wisdom. All I can say is that, in the presence of the great crime which has just been committed, and of the great calamity which has fallen on the American nation, the Crown, the Parliament, and the people of this country do feel the deepest interest for the government and people of the United States; for, owing to the nature of the relations between the two nations, the misfortunes of the United States affect us more than the misfortunes of any other country on the face of the globe. [Hear, hear.] The noble earl concluded by moving an humble address to her Majesty to express the sorrow and indignation of this House at the assassination of the President of the United States, and to pray her Majesty to communicate these sentiments on the part of this House to the government of the United States.

The Earl of Derby. My lords, when, upon the last occasion of our meeting, the noble earl opposite announced his intention of bringing forward the motion he has now submitted to the House, I ventured to express my hope that the government had well considered the form of the motion they were going to make, so that there might be nothing in the form which would in the slightest degree interfere with the unanimity desirable on such an occasion. It would have been more satisfactory to me if the noble earl had entered somewhat upon the consideration of the question, and had informed your lordships upon what grounds he proposed so unusual a course—though arising, I admit, out of unusual, if not unprecedented, circumstances—as that of addressing the Crown, and praying her Majesty to convey to a foreign government the sentiments of Parliament with regard to the event which has taken place. For myself, I confess that I am rather of the opinion that the more convenient and, I will not say the more usual, but the more regular course would have been to have simply moved a resolution of this, in conjunction with the other house of Parliament, expressing those feelings which it is proposed by the motion to place [Page 150]in the form of an address to the Crown. [Hear.] But I am so extremely detsirous that there should not appear to be the slightest difference of opinion a this moment [hear] that I cannot hesitate to give my assent to the form proposed by the government, whatever doubt I may entertain that the form is, the most convenient which might have been adopted. In joining in this address—that is to say, in expressing our sorrow and indignation at the atrocious crime by which the United States have been deprived of their Chief Magistrate-—your lordships will only follow, though the event has been known so short a time, the universal feeling of sympathy which has been expressed from one end of this kingdom to the other. [Hear, hear.] And if there be in the United States any persons who, misled by our having abstained from expressing any opinion as to the conflict now going on, or even from expressing the opinion we may have formed upon the merits of the two great contending parties—if there be any persons who believe that there is a generally unfriendly feeling in this country towards the citizens of the United States, I think they could hardly have had a more complete refutation of that opinion [cheers] conveyed in what I hope will be the unanimous declaration of Parliament, following the declarations which her Majesty has been pleased to make, both publicly and privately, to the American minister, as well as to the widow of President Lincoln, and again following the voluntary and spontaneous expression of opinion which has already proceeded from almost all the great towns and communities of this country. [Hear, hear.] Whatever other misfortunes may have attended this atrocious crime, I hope that, at least, one good effect may have resulted from it—namely, that the manner in which the news has been received in this country will satisfy the people of the United States that her Majesty’s subjects, one and all, deeply condemn the crime which has been committed, and deeply sympathize with the people of the United States in their feelings of horror at the assassination of their Chief Magistrate. [Hear, hear.] For the crime itself there is no palliation whatever to be offered. There may be differences of opinion as to the merits of the two parties who are contending, the one for empire and the other for independence, in the United States—I follow the words of the noble earl opposite; but there is, there can be, no difference of opinion upon this point: that the holiest and the purest of all causes is desecrated and disgraced when an attempt is made to promote it by measures so infamous as this. [Hear, hear.] If it were possible to believe that the confederate authorities encouraged, sympathized with, or even did not express their abhorrence of this crime, I should say they had committed that which was worse than a crime—a gross blunder; because, in the face of the civilized world, a cause which required or submitted to be promoted by the crime of assassination would lose all sympathy and kindly feeling on the part of those who might otherwise be well disposed towards it. But I am perfectly satisfied—I am as well satisfied as I can be of anything—that this detestable act of assassination is so entirely alien to the whole spirit in which the South have conducted this war, [cheers,] is so alien to the courageous, manly, and, at the same time, forbearing course which they have adopted in the struggle for everything that is dear to them, that I am convinced that, apart from the error of judgment which would be involved in sanctioning such a crime, they cannot have been guilty of so great a blunder, and cannot fail to express for it their detestation, and to feel at the same time that no step could have been taken which could have inflicted so great an injury on their own cause. [Hear, hear.] I will not venture to follow the noble earl even into the slight discussion which he has originated with regard to the internal politics of the United States. I will not discuss the difficulty which at the present moment is felt in the United States—the difficulty caused by slavery. I will not express any opinion as to the question whether the late defeats, serious as they are, and apparently fatal to the cause of the South, have produced, or are likely to lead to, an early termination of the war.

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In whatever way the war may be terminated, it must be the desire of every friend of humanity that it should be terminated soon, and without further and unnecessary effusion of blood. But I join entirely with the noble earl in lamenting the loss of a man who had conducted the affairs of a great nation, under circumstances of great difficulty, with singular moderation and prudence, and who, I believe, was bent upon trying to the utmost a system as conciliatory as was consistent with the prosecution of the war in which the country was engaged. I agree that the death of such a man, in such a manner, and at such a time, is a subject not only for deep regret and for abhorrence of the crime by which he was deprived of life, but that it is also a serious misfortune, in the present condition of affairs, for the state over which he exercised authority and for the prospects of an amicable settlement. [Hear, hear.] I can only hope that, notwithstanding some ominous expressions which have already fallen from him, the successor who has so unexpectedly been elevated to the high position filled by Mr. Lincoln may be disposed and enabled to follow the wise and conciliatory course which, I believe, in the prospect of success, Mr. Lincoln had decided upon adopting. [Hear.] I am not insensible to the danger that public exasperation arising out of this act may force upon the government a less conciliatory and more violent course than that which Mr. Lincoln seemed to have marked out for himself; but I am satisfied that the adoption of such a course can only further protract the horrors of this civil war, adding to the other motives of the South the most powerful of all motives—the motive of despair—leading the South to fight out this question to the bitter end, so that while the one side is exasperated into the desire to exterminate its opponents, they, in their despair, will be ready to submit to extermination, rather than accept the unreasonable terms of the North. [Hear, hear.] Thus in the act itself, in the circumstances under which this crime has been committed, and in the fatal influences which it may exercise upon the returning prospects of peace in the United States, we must find reasons for deeply lamenting the occurrence which has taken place; and I am quite sure that, independently of all political motives, but not saying that political motives do not enter into our views, I am expressing the universal feeling of this House and of the country when I say that we view with horror, with detestation, and with indignation the atrocious crime by which the life of the President of the United States has been ended. [Cheers.]

Lord Stratford de Redcliffe. My lords: In consideration of my residence in the United States of America—at a somewhat distant period, it is true, but nevertheless in the character of a British representative—I hope I may be allowed to offer a few words in addition to those which have been so ably and justly expressed on both sides of the House. I cannot pretend to make any addition of real importance to what has been said already with so much effect, and it is therefore only for the gratification of a private feeling and for the discharge, as it were, of a personal debt, that I venture to claim your lordships’ indulgence for a few moments. The crime of assassination is so utterly revolting to the hearts and feelings of Englishmen, that we cannot wonder at the cry of horror and indignation with which the death of President Lincoln has been received in this country throughout the breadth and length of the land. The circumstances under which that atrocious crime was perpetrated could not but heighten the abhorrence with which the act itself is to be viewed. Whether we look to the private affliction caused by its commission, or to the public consequences which may flow from the catastrophe, our compassion on the one side, and our anxiety on the other, is naturally roused to the highest degree. It is not in my province to pronounce any kind of judgment on the qualities, the conduct, or the intentions of the late President of the United States. It would be unkind and unworthy not to give him credit for the best claims on our esteem and regret. But when I figure to myself the Chief Magistrate, the temporary sovereign of a great nation, struck down by a sudden and dastardly blow in the [Page 152]presence of his astounded family, in the first moments of relaxation from the toils and severe anxieties of a great civil contest, and in the midst of those who gave him their admiring acclamations, every thought is lost in one overpowering sentiment of horror and disgust. [Hear, hear.] At the time of my personal acquaintance with America the relations between the different portions of the Union were such as to promise a long series of peaceful and prosperous years. The dreadful rupture which took place on the election of the late lamented President could hardly have been foreseen by the most sagacious and far-sighted politician. This country, as we all know, was seized with unfeigned astonishment and deep concern at the unexpected event; and I must do her Majesty’s government the justice to say that during the whole course of the war the balance of a strict neutrality has been maintained with the most even-handed and resolute sense of duty. I am slow to believe that the people of the United States entertain towards this country the sentiments of mistrust and animosity which have been sometimes attributed to them. Of this I feel sure, that no such hostile sentiments are entertained by the people of this country towards them; and, were it otherwise, I am persuaded that while on this side every unpleasant feeling unaffectedly merges in sympathy for the late bereavement at Washington, so, on the other, the expression of that sympathy, pure and deep as it is, cannot fail to obliterate any impressions unfavorable to us which may have arisen in any portion of the American population. The expression of our sympathy is not confined to numerous associations in every part of the country. It now assumes the more solemn character of a parliamentary condolence, confirmed by the unanimous consent of both houses and crowned by the gracious participation of a sovereign whose sad acquaintance with sorrow is the strongest pledge of her sincerity. It is not for me to hazard any conjecture as to the cause of that atrocious crime which we all concur in lamenting, or the quarter whence it proceeded. But it is next to impossible that the gallant and high-minded leaders of the one conflicting party could have descended so low as to support their imperilled cause by an assassination as base as it is execrable, and equally hard to conceive that those of the, triumphant Union should entertain a suspicion at once so improbable and so unlike the magnanimity they are called upon to display. It is rather to be hoped and expected that the terrible calamity which has occurred, with such awful suddenness, will sober the agitated passions on both sides, and render acceptable to all the expressions of sympathy about to be transmitted from this country to our kindred beyond the Atlantic. [Hear, hear.]

The motion, having been put by the lord chancellor, was carried nemine contradicente.