Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

60

AL to James C. Conkling:
CW, 6:407–410

James C. Conkling, a Republican friend and confidant of Lincoln, had served as mayor of Springfield, Illinois, and later as a state legislator. In this letter, Lincoln responded to Conkling's invitation to speak at a rally in Springfield on September 3. Lincoln regretfully declined but sent this letter to be read by Conkling at the event. “Read it slowly,” he advised, so that there would be no misunderstanding. He knew that many of the “Union men” attending the rally questioned the constitutionality and purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation. He addressed the objections of conservatives with uncharacteristic impatience and defended his actions as consistent with his responsibilities as president and as commander in chief. He acknowledged that “you are dissatisfied with me about the negro,” but dismissed such objections by stating his preference for freedom over slavery. Although Lincoln had displayed little regard for the black soldiers in the Union army, accepting the humiliating discrimination inflicted on them as necessary to keep whites in the fight, he could not tolerate the even more callous disregard of his opponents. “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you,” he chastised. By the time of this letter, thousands of black troops had proven themselves in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, putting an end to white doubts in the North over black suitability for combat. Lincoln said nothing about black citizenship claims or black patriotism. Instead, he appealed to the self-interest of those who protested black recruitment and freedom for the slaves: “I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you?” The letter was later read to a mass meeting in New York, a city that had the previous month experienced one of the worst race riots in American history. The New York Times exclaimed that

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