A few weeks ago I mentioned that I will be attending the New York History conference in Cooperstown in early June. My talk is going to be on the professional relationship between William E. Dodge Jr. and Theodore Roosevelt. One of the many organizations in which they worked together was the The Union League Club of New York. The Union Club was founded on February 6, 1863–150 years ago today. To note the occasion here is a piece I have written about the Loyal Publication Society, the League’s public relations apparatus responsible for what we would now call public diplomacy.
The midterm elections of 1862 were all the proof Americans—Northern and Southern alike—needed that the Union war effort was not going well. The Republican Party maintained its majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, if just barely. Things were not so dire in the Senate; when the third of that body up for election submitted to the will of the people, the Party of Lincoln gained two seats. The House was a different story. After the country had gone to the polls to elect their local congressmen that fall the Republicans lost twenty-three seats while the Democrats picked up twenty-eight, a fifty-one count turn-around. Republicans fared no better in many state legislatures, losing either significant majorities or control outright of many Northern state houses.
The gubernatorial elections were no less alarming. Joel Parker, Democrat and vociferous Lincoln critic, won the New Jersey governor’s mansion. The most stinging defeat came in New York, the nation’s most populous state and the one providing the most men to the war effort. Horatio Seymour now controlled the executive mansion in Albany. Diarist George Templeton Strong captured that mood when he wrote on November 5 that “Seymour is governor. [and] Elsewhere defeat, or nominal success by a greatly reduced vote. It looks like a great, sweeping revolution of public sentiment, like general abandonment of the loyal, generous spirit of patriotism that broke out so nobly and unexpectedly in April, 1861.”
President Abraham Lincoln understood the magnitude of the Republican defeat, and its reasons, as well as anyone. Writing to General Carl Schurz on October 10 he averred that “Three main causes told the whole story. 1. The democrats were left in a majority by our friends going to the war. 2. The democrats observed this & determined to re-instate themselves in power, and 3. Our newspapers, by vilifying and disparaging the administration, furnished them all the weapons to do it with.” Lincoln was correct, but the causes of the Administration’s unpopularity ran even deeper. When the conflict began a year and a half earlier most expected a short war of perhaps three months. Union defeats–and casualties–were soon mounting. First and Second Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, and other Confederate victories became synonymous in Northern minds with Union incompetence and futility. Even the victories were costly, as the reports from Shiloh and photographs from Sharpsburg illustrated.
Defeat was one thing, treachery another. When Lincoln released the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, days after the slim Union victory at Antietam, many Northerners felt betrayed. The proclamation played into the hands of Lincoln’s detractors, who used the document to stoke the fears of the many Northerners who had supported the cause of Union not emancipation. Two days later, on September 24, 1862, Lincoln issued another, equally controversial proclamation, suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Such was the milieu when Northerners began going to the polls one month later.
Loyal unionists also grasped the seriousness of the Union plight. In the summer and fall of 1862 citizens organized into Union Leagues throughout the mid-West to assist in the war effort. Such grassroots organizations were not new in American society. The Sons of Liberty were active during the colonial era, and Hickory Clubs were common in the Age of Jackson. Now, as the crisis intensified after the Union defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862, the wealthy Northeast establishment organized Union League clubs as well. The Union League Club of New York was officially founded on February 6, 1863. On February 14 members of the nascent organization met in the home of the attorney and co-founder of Union Theological Seminary Charles Butler, 13 East 14th Street, to form a Loyal Publication Society. In its own words the object of the Society was “the distribution of journals and documents of unquestionable and unconditional loyalty throughout the United States, and particularly in the armies now engaged in the suppression of the rebellion, and to counteract as far as practicable the efforts now being made by the enemies of the Government and the advocates of a disgraceful Peace.”
“Advocates of a disgraceful Peace” was a reference to August Belmont, Samuel F. B.Morse and other Northerners with Southern sympathies who had founded the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge the very evening before just down the street at Delmonico’s. This society’s purposes were to oppose Lincoln, his party, and emancipation, the Emancipation Proclamation having gone into effect just the month before. With Morse as president the Society soon began publishing pieces defending its Southern allies. One representative tract asked, “Who has constituted the two races physically different? There can be but one answer, it is God. To attempt, therefore a removal of this corner-stone . . . is of so presumptuous a character, that few should be rash enough to undertake it.” Corner-stone was an allusion to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s March 1861 speech explaining that slavery and racial inferiority were the corner-stones upon which secession lay.
Tomorrow, Part 2: The Loyal Publication Society begins its work
(image/daguerrotype of Samuel Morse by Macbeth Gallery, Smithsonian)