Members of Congress: John B. Henderson (1826-1913)

John B. Henderson
John B. Henderson
John B. Henderson
John B. Henderson

Senator John B. Henderson took office on January 29, 1862 after Trusten Polk was expelled from the Senate. Brooks was a Democrat who has supported Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 election but whose loyalties lay firmly with the Union. At the outbreak of hostilities in the Civil War, he became a militia brigadier general. Henderson was a conservative on slavery but supported President Lincoln’s policies- especially in the tough summer days of 1862 when Mr. Lincoln seemed to be under attack from everywhere. Reporter Walter Stevens recorded a scene between Mr. Lincoln and “General Henderson.”

“Mr. Lincoln hesitated, not because he hadn’t made up his mind, but because he wanted to protect the loyal slaveholders of the border States as far as he could. His idea was that a plan to pay for these slaves could be put in operation, and then he would by proclamation strike off the shackles of all whose owners were engaged in rebellion. While he was trying to get this programme going he sent often for Gen. Henderson to come to the White House to discuss the details, and to urge more rapid action. It was on the occasion of one of these talks that Mr. Lincoln told the story which Gen. Henderson called to mind a few evenings since.

‘As I went in,’ said the General, ‘I noticed that the President was looking troubled. He was sitting in one of his favorite attitudes — in a rocking chair, with one leg thrown over the arm. I knew that he suffered terribly from headaches, and I said to him:

‘Mr. President, you must have one of your headaches; you look gloomy.

‘No,’ said he, ‘it isn’t headache this time. Chandler has just been here to talk again about emancipation; and he came on the heels of Wade and Sumner, who were here on the same errand. I like those three men, but they bother me nearly to death. They put me in the situation of a boy I remember when I was going to school.’

Gen. Henderson says the President’s face brightened, and he knew a story was coming. Mr. Lincoln leaned forward and clasped his hands around the knee of the leg resting on the arm of the chair.’ Then he proceeded with the story:

‘The text book was the Old Bible,’ Mr. Lincoln went on. ‘There was a rather dull little fellow in the class who didn’t know very much, and we were reading the account of the three Hebrews cast into the fiery furnace. The little fellow was called on to read, and he stumbled along until he came to the names of the three Hebrews – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. He couldn’t do anything with them. The teacher pronounced them over slowly and told the boy to try. The boy tried and missed. This provoked the teacher, and he slapped the little fellow, who cried vigorously. Then he attempted again, but he couldn’t get the names. ‘Well,’ said the teacher impatiently, ‘never mind the names. Skip them and go on.’ The poor boy drew his shirt sleeve across his eyes two or three times, snuffed his nose and started on to read. He went on bravely a little way and then he suddenly stopped, dropped the book in front of him, looked in despair at the teacher, and burst out crying. ‘What the matter now?’ shouted the teacher, and burst out of patience. ‘He – he – here’s them same – fellers agin,’ sobbed the boy.

‘That,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘is just my fix to-day, Henderson. Those same three – fellows have been here again with their everlasting emancipation talk.

‘He stopped a few moments to enjoy the story, and then becoming serious, continued:

‘But Sumner and Wade are right about it, I know it, and you know it too. I’ve got to do something, and it can’t be put off much longer. We can’t get through this terrible war with slavery existing. You’ve got sense enough to know that. Why can’t you make the border States members see it? Why don’t you turn in and take pay for your slaves from the Government? Then all your people can give their hearty support to the Union. We can go ahead with emancipation of slaves in the other States by proclamation and end the trouble.’

Gen. Henderson says that as early as May, in 1862, Mr. Lincoln told him of his intention to issue the emancipation proclamation. The action was not taken until six months later, and then the proclamation was made to take effect January, 1863. The President held out as long as he could in the hope that he might be able to carry out his border States policy.

The introduction of the bill to pay for the slaves of loyal owners inn Missouri was the result of Mr. Lincoln’s earnest support of this plan. This was the first of the bills. It was followed by others for Kentucky, Maryland and other border States which had slaveholders.

“I do not remember,” the General says, “whether Mr. Lincoln drafted the bill or whether I got it up, but the inspiration came from him. I did all in my power to press it. The proposition went through both House and Senate. But it was passed in somewhat different forms. The Senate increased the amount, and this difference had to be adjusted in conference. There was a good majority for the Missouri bill in both branches of Congress, and there was not much trouble about compromising the difference of opinion on the amount to be appropriated, but the session was almost at an end, and a small minority in the House was able by filibustering and obstructing to prevent the final action there. If the bill could have been got before the House in its finished form it would have passed as easily as it did in the Senate.”

President Lincoln watched the progress of the legislation with a great deal of interest and did all he could to further it. He could not understand why the border State members should not be for it.

“And I could not either,” says the General; “it was perfectly plain to me that slavery had got to go. Here was a voluntary offer on the part of the Government to compensate the loyal men in the border States for the loss of their property. I talked with the members from Missouri and from Kentucky and with the others who were most interested, but I couldn’t make them see it as I did. They had exaggerated ideas of the results which would ensue from a free negro population. They took the position that slavery must not be touched, and it was their determined opposition to the end that defeated the bill to give the Missouri slaveholders $20,000,000 for their slaves. If the Missouri bill had gone through the others would have followed undoubtedly and the loyal slaveholders in all of the border States would have received pay for their slaves.’

Gen. Henderson was asked if he remembered what the compensation would have amounted to in the case of the Missouri slaveholders.

“Yes,” he replied, “I recollect quite distinctly the calculation I made at the time. I found that the amount which the Government would have turned over to Missouri under the terms of the bill finally agreed upon would have paid the loyal owners in my State $300 for each slave – man, woman or child. That I considered a pretty good price, for, while we were legislating, the emancipation had gone into effect, and it was very evident to my mind that slavery was doomed, even among those slaveholders who had remained loyal.’1

Congressional scholar Allan G. Bogue wrote: “Bright, eloquent, and still in his mid-thirties, Henderson won respect among Republicans as one of the most realistic of the senators from the border states, and succeeded winning reelection although his supporters agreed to support the radical candidate, B. Gratz Brown, for the other position.”2 Senator Henderson was the kind of border state representative President Lincoln liked – one with whom he work to bring about emancipation compromises. In September 1862, Henderson wrote the President: “I have made several speeches to our people in the largest of our slaveholding counties since my return, and I have in each case urged most successfully upon their consideration your very generous proposition for compensated emancipation.”3 In January 1863, Henderson wrote Mr. Lincoln: “I hope the President will telegraph Genl. Curtis to so manage the negro question in Missouri, as to avoid…ill feeling on the part of Union men until for a week or ten days – In that time I hope to have a bill passed to settle it forever. The indications in Missouri are bad.4 Although no such legislation to provide financial assistance for emancipation in Missouri passed Congress, President Lincoln did try to get General Samuel Curtis’s cooperation.

President Lincoln had consulted Henderson regularly during 1862 about Border State policy on emancipation of slaves. Henderson’s influence was reflected in the story told by Anna Byers-Jennings about her appearance at Mr. Lincoln’s office in search of a parole for a Confederate prisoner from Missouri: “When I offered my papers to the President he didn’t touch them, but said, without raising a hand: ‘Now, suppose you read them over for me. Your eyes are younger than mine. Besides, as I told you, I am very, very tired.’ By accident, the petition was the first thing I took up. When came to John B. Henderson’s name he reached out and said quickly: ‘Let me see that.’ As he glanced over it to the bottom, he laid the paper down, slapped his hand upon the table and exclaimed: ‘Plague on me, if that ain’t John Henderson’s signature. Well, I’ll release this man just because John Henderson asks me to do it. I know he wouldn’t ask me if it wasn’t right, nor send any one here that would do anything detrimental to our government. Come in tomorrow at 8 o’clock – mind, at 8 precisely. Bring that petition with John Henderson’s name on it and I’ll fix it so you can get this man out of prison.'”5

Like all Senators, Henderson regularly submitted lists of desired favors and patronage. Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “In mid-March 1865 came Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri with two lists of men and boys held in military prisons in State or near by. All sorts of appeals had been coming to the Senator, and before leaving for home he wanted to clear up as many of these cases as he could. He laid before Lincoln first a list of those he considered fairly innocent. Lincoln looked it over. ‘Do you mean to tell me, Henderson, that you wish me to let loose all these people at once? Henderson said Yes; the war was nearly over; the time had come to try generosity and kindness. ‘Do you really think so?’ asked Lincoln Henderson was sure he thought so; he was trying to slow down the guerrilla warfare of his torn and weary State. ‘I hope you are right,’ said Lincoln, ‘but I have no time to examine this evidence. If I sign this list as a whole, will you be responsible for the future good behavior of the men?’ Henderson would. ‘Then I will take the risk and sign it,’ said Lincoln as he began writing the word ‘Pardoned’ after each name of some man convicted by a military commission, finally writing a general order release.’6

When Henderson pulled out a list of less-deserving recipients of presidential pardons, Mr. Lincoln said: “I hope you are not going to make me let loose another lot.” When Henderson replied in the affirmative, Mr. Lincoln said “I am charge with making too many mistakes on the side of mercy.” Henderson urged his signature anyway. “Now, Henderson, remember you are responsible to me for those men. If they do not behave, I shall have to put you in prison for their sins,”7

Rufus Rockwell Wilson wrote about the case of an accused Confederate spy: “Allmon Vaughan, who had become a captain in the Union army, appealed to Senator J Henderson to save his brother. Henderson laid the case before Stanton, who, after due investigation, decided that George Vaughan was guilty and that there could be no change in the sentence that had been passed upon him. Then Henderson appealed to Mr. Lincoln, at whose instance an order was issued for a new trial. This resulted in a second verdict of guilty. Again appeal was made toe the President, who ordered still another trial, but a third time a court-martial pronounced against the accused man’s innocence. Henderson, however, continued the fight for his life. It was the spring of 1865, and, in urging the President to exercise clemency, the Senator insisted that, the war being practically over, Vaughan’s pardon would be in the interest of peace and conciliation. ‘See Stanton, and tell him that this man must be released,’ said Mr. Lincoln. ‘I have been to Stanton, and he will do nothing,’ protested Henderson. ‘See him again,’ was the reply, ‘and if he will do nothing come back to me.’ Stanton would do nothing, and early in the evening of April 14, Henderson again sought the President whom he found dressed for the theatre. Mr. Lincoln shook his head when the Senator reported the outcome of his interview with Stanton. Then, without a word, he seated himself at his desk, wrote a few lines on a sheet of paper, and handed it to Henderson. It was an order for Vaughan’s unconditional release and pardon, and it was the last official act of the President’s life.”8

Henderson was drawn into the constant bickering over Union commanders that consumed Missouri politics. In 1863 President Lincoln determined to change the Union commander in Missouri in order to quite the complaints of Republican radicals but to promote him to major general in order to confirm that his conduct was not being censured. “The conservative Senator, Henderson, friendly to [John M.] Schofield, would vote for his confirmation as major general, while the radical Senator, Gratz Brown, hated Schofield sufficiently to be willing to make him major general if he would get out of Missouri,” wrote biographer Carl Sandburg.9 On May 11, 1863, Attorney General Edward Bates noted in his diary: “Mr. Henderson and Gov King of Mo. are here, urging upon the Prest the necessity to make a change of commander in Mo., and at once. Today, Henderson tells me that the Prest. talked as if he’d do it at once.”10

Historian Roy M. Basler noted that Henderson “was what was called ‘a progressive Conservative,’ and was the leading advocate of emancipation in his state. On January 11, 1864, Henderson introduced a Joint Resolution into the Senate proposing ‘that slavery shall not exist in the United States.’ Senator Sumner of Massachusetts, however, preferred different language and introduced his own Joint Resolution on February 8, providing that ‘everywhere within the limits of the United States, and of each State or Territory thereof, all persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave.’ The phrase ‘all persons are equal before the law,’ taken from the Constitution of Revolutionary France, was particularly dear to Sumner.”11

Henderson lost reelection in the convoluted and bitter politics of post-war Missouri. He served as a federal prosecutor investigating the Whiskey Ring as well as an Indian commissioner.


  1. Michael Burlingame, editor, Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter’s Lincoln, p. 170-173.
  2. Allan G. Bogue, The Earnest Men: Republicans of the Civil War Senate, p. 48.
  3. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John B. Henderson to Abraham Lincoln, September 3, 1862).
  4. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John B. Henderson to Abraham Lincoln, January 1863).
  5. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 376 (Anna Byers-Jennings, St. Paul, 1900).
  6. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 128.
  7. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 129.
  8. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 487-488.
  9. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Washington: The Capital City and its Part in the History of the Nation, pp. 243-243.
  10. Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. 292.
  11. Roy P. Basler, A Touchstone for Greatness, p. 197-198.