Defending Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln and the Conkling Letter, 1863

By Guelzo, Allen C. | Civil War History, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Defending Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln and the Conkling Letter, 1863


Guelzo, Allen C., Civil War History


Abraham Lincoln might well have believed that "I never in my life was more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing" the Emancipation Proclamation into military law on January 1, 1863. But doing what was right and what was politically viable were two different things. "At no time during the war was the depression among the people of the North so great as in the spring of 1863," remembered James G. Blaine, and largely because "the anti-slavery policy of the President was ... tending to a fatal division among the people." The simple fact of announcing his intention to proclaim emancipation back in September had created more public anger than Lincoln had anticipated. William O. Stoddard, one of Lincoln's White House staffers, gloomily recalled "how many editors and how many other penmen within these past few days" rose in anger to remind Lincoln

   that this is a war for the Union only, and they never gave him any 
   authority to run it as an Abolition war. They never, never told him that he 
   might set the negroes free, and, now that he has done so, or futilely 
   pretended to do so, he is a more unconstitutional tyrant and a more odious 
   dictator than ever he was before. They tell him, however, that his edict, 
   his ukase, his decree, his firman, his venomous blow at the sacred liberty 
   of white men to own black men is mere brutem fulmen, and a dead letter and 
   a poison which will not work. They tell him many other things, and, among 
   them, they tell him that the army will fight no more, and that the hosts of 
   the Union will indignantly disband rather than be sacrificed upon the 
   bloody altar of fanatical Abolitionism. (1) 

It was not that Lincoln or the Proclamation lacked defenders. A long queue of prominent Republicans--George Boker, Francis Lieber, Grosvenor Lowrey, and Robert Dale Owen--promptly entered the lists with pamphlets and articles. But an equally formidable roster of Northern Democratic critics and jurists--including Benjamin Curtis, Montgomery Throop, and Joel Parker--were there waiting for them. Agitation mounted in many places for a negotiated settlement to the war or a national peace convention that would avoid emancipation. "The Darkest hour of our Country's trial is yet to come," warned Benjamin F. Butler. "Nothing is surer than an assembly to settle this struggle on the basis of the Union as it was? Even worse, it was rumored "that the President will recoil from his Emancipation Proclamation" because of the heavy political costs it imposed. (2) In the end, if Lincoln had any hope of turning public opinion in favor of emancipation by argument, the arguments would have to be his, and he would have to be his own best apologist for the Proclamation.

The surest mark of how Lincoln rose to that challenge is the public letter he wrote on August 26, 1863, for James Cook Conkling and a "mass meeting of unconditional Union men" in Lincoln's own home town of Springfield, Illinois. After months of uncertainty, the Conkling letter signaled that Lincoln's commitment to emancipation was absolute and would not be bargained away in return for concessions by the Confederates. Thus, a straight line runs from the Proclamation through the Conkling letter to the Thirteenth Amendment and the final abolition of slavery.

It also speaks directly to the legion of skeptics who have doubted the tenacity or the sincerity of Lincoln's pledges of freedom in the Proclamation. The prose style itself has raised this skepticism, beginning with Lincoln's own time. Adam Gurowski, the curmudgeonly Polish expatriate who labored as a translator in the State Department, growled into his diary that the Proclamation was "written in the meanest and the most dry routine style; not a word to evoke a generous thrill." "This all-important paper," wrote Daniel Kirkham Dodge sixty years later, in friendly bewilderment, "is as lacking in literary qualities as the calls for troops and the formal communications to Congress on routine business. …

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