The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

He was tender-hearted to a fault, and never could resist the
appeals of wives and mothers of soldiers who had got into trouble
and were under sentence of death for their offences. His
Secretary of War and other officials complained that they never
could get deserters shot. As surely as the women of the
culprit’s family could get at him he always gave way. Certainly
you will all appreciate his exquisite sympathy with the suffering
relatives of those who had fallen in battle. His heart bled with
theirs. Never was there a more gentle and tender utterance than
his letter to a mother who had given all her sons to her country,
written at a time when the angel of death had visited almost
every household in the land, and was already hovering over him.

“I have been shown,” he says, “in the files of the War Department
a statement that you are the mother of five sons who have died
gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless
must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you
from your grief for a loss so overwhelming but I cannot refrain
from tendering to you the consolation which may be found in the
thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our
Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and
leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and the lost,
and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a
sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Hardly could your illustrious sovereign, from the depths of her
queenly and womanly heart, have spoken words more touching and
tender to soothe the stricken mothers of her own soldiers.

The Emancipation Proclamation, with which Mr. Lincoln delighted
the country and the world on the first of January, 1863, will
doubtless secure for him a foremost place in history among the
philanthropists and benefactors of the race, as it rescued, from
hopeless and degrading slavery, so many millions of his fellow-
beings described in the law and existing in fact as “chattels-
personal, in the hands of their owners and possessors, to all
intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever.” Rarely does
the happy fortune come to one man to render such a service to his
kind–to proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the
inhabitants thereof.

Ideas rule the world, and never was there a more signal instance
of this triumph of an idea than here. William Lloyd Garrison,
who thirty years before had begun his crusade for the abolition
of slavery, and had lived to see this glorious and unexpected
consummation of the hopeless cause to which he had devoted his
life, well described the proclamation as a “great historic event,
sublime in its magnitude, momentous and beneficent in its far-
reaching consequences, and eminently just and right alike to the
oppressor and the oppressed.”

Lincoln had always been heart and soul opposed to slavery.
Tradition says that on the trip on the flatboat to New Orleans he
formed his first and last opinion of slavery at the sight of
negroes chained and scourged, and that then and there the iron
entered into his soul. No boy could grow to manhood in those
days as a poor white in Kentucky and Indiana, in close contact
with slavery or in its neighborhood, without a growing
consciousness of its blighting effects on free labor, as well as
of its frightful injustice and cruelty. In the Legislature of
Illinois, where the public sentiment was all for upholding the
institution and violently against every movement for its
abolition or restriction, upon the passage of resolutions to that
effect he had the courage with one companion to put on record his
protest, “believing that the institution of slavery is founded
both in injustice and bad policy.” No great demonstration of
courage, you will say; but that was at a time when Garrison, for
his abolition utterances, had been dragged by an angry mob
through the streets of Boston with a rope around his body, and in
the very year that Lovejoy in the same State of Illinois was
slain by rioters while defending his press, from which he had
printed antislavery appeals.

In Congress he brought in a bill for gradual abolition in the
District of Columbia, with compensation to the owners, for until
they raised treasonable hands against the life of the nation he
always maintained that the property of the slaveholders, into
which they had come by two centuries of descent, without fault on
their part, ought not to be taken away from them without just
compensation. He used to say that, one way or another, he had
voted forty-two times for the Wilmot Proviso, which Mr. Wilmot of
Pennsylvania moved as an addition to every bill which affected
United States territory, “that neither slavery nor involuntary
servitude shall ever exist in any part of the said territory,”
and it is evident that his condemnation of the system, on moral
grounds as a crime against the human race, and on political
grounds as a cancer that was sapping the vitals of the nation,
and must master its whole being or be itself extirpated, grew
steadily upon him until it culminated in his great speeches in
the Illinois debate.

By the mere election of Lincoln to the Presidency, the further
extension of slavery into the Territories was rendered forever
impossible–Vox populi, vox Dei. Revolutions never go backward,
and when founded on a great moral sentiment stirring the heart of
an indignant people their edicts are irresistible and final. Had
the slave power acquiesced in that election, had the Southern
States remained under the Constitution and within the Union, and
relied upon their constitutional and legal rights, their favorite
institution, immoral as it was, blighting and fatal as it was,
might have endured for another century. The great party that had
elected him, unalterably determined against its extension, was
nevertheless pledged not to interfere with its continuance in the
States where it already existed. Of course, when new regions
were forever closed against it, from its very nature it must have
begun to shrink and to dwindle; and probably gradual and
compensated emancipation, which appealed very strongly to the new
President’s sense of justice and expediency, would, in the
progress of time, by a reversion to the ideas of the founders of
the Republic, have found a safe outlet for both masters and
slaves. But whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad,
and when seven States, afterwards increased to eleven, openly
seceded from the Union, when they declared and began the war upon
the nation, and challenged its mighty power to the desperate and
protracted struggle for its life, and for the maintenance of its
authority as a nation over its territory, they gave to Lincoln
and to freedom the sublime opportunity of history.

In his first inaugural address, when as yet not a drop of
precious blood had been shed, while he held out to them the olive
branch in one hand, in the other he presented the guarantees of
the Constitution, and after reciting the emphatic resolution of
the convention that nominated him, that the maintenance inviolate
of the “rights of the States, and especially the right of each
State to order and control its own domestic institutions
according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that
balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our
political fabric depend,” he reiterated this sentiment, and
declared, with no mental reservation, “that all the protection
which, consistently with the Constitution and the laws, can be
given, will be cheerfully given to all the States when lawfully
demanded for whatever cause as cheerfully to one section as to

When, however, these magnanimous overtures for peace and reunion
were rejected; when the seceding States defied the Constitution
and every clause and principle of it; when they persisted in
staying out of the Union from which they had seceded, and
proceeded to carve out of its territory a new and hostile empire
based on slavery; when they flew at the throat of the nation and
plunged it into the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century the
tables were turned, and the belief gradually came to the mind of
the President that if the Rebellion was not soon subdued by force
of arms, if the war must be fought out to the bitter end, then to
reach that end the salvation of the nation itself might require
the destruction of slavery wherever it existed; that if the war
was to continue on one side for Disunion, for no other purpose
than to preserve slavery, it must continue on the other side for
the Union, to destroy slavery.

As he said, “Events control me; I cannot control events,” and as
the dreadful war progressed and became more deadly and dangerous,
the unalterable conviction was forced upon him that, in order
that the frightful sacrifice of life and treasure on both sides
might not be all in vain, it had become his duty as Commander-in-
Chief of the Army, as a necessary war measure, to strike a blow
at the Rebellion which, all others failing, would inevitably lead
to its annihilation, by annihilating the very thing for which it
was contending. His own words are the best:

“I understood that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the
best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving by
every indispensable means that government–that nation–of which
that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose
the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law,
life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be
amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to
save a limb. I felt that measures otherwise unconstitutional
might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation
of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation.
Right or wrong, I assumed this ground and now avow it. I could
not feel that to the best of my ability I had ever tried to
preserve the Constitution if to save slavery or any minor matter
I should permit the wreck of government, country, and
Constitution all together.”

And so, at last, when in his judgment the indispensable necessity
had come, he struck the fatal blow, and signed the proclamation
which has made his name immortal. By it, the President, as
Commander-in-Chief in time of actual armed rebellion, and as a
fit and necessary war measure for suppressing the rebellion,
proclaimed all persons held as slaves in the States and parts of
States then in rebellion to be thenceforward free, and declared
that the executive, with the army and navy, would recognize and
maintain their freedom.

In the other great steps of the government, which led to the
triumphant prosecution of the war, he necessarily shared the
responsibility and the credit with the great statesmen who stayed
up his hands in his cabinet, with Seward, Chase and Stanton, and
the rest,–and with his generals and admirals, his soldiers and
sailors, but this great act was absolutely his own. The
conception and execution were exclusively his. He laid it before
his cabinet as a measure on which his mind was made up and could
not be changed, asking them only for suggestions as to details.
He chose the time and the circumstances under which the
Emancipation should be proclaimed and when it should take effect.

It came not an hour too soon; but public opinion in the North
would not have sustained it earlier. In the first eighteen
months of the war its ravages had extended from the Atlantic to
beyond the Mississippi. Many victories in the West had been
balanced and paralyzed by inaction and disasters in Virginia,
only partially redeemed by the bloody and indecisive battle of
Antietam; a reaction had set in from the general enthusiasm which
had swept the Northern States after the assault upon Sumter. It
could not truly be said that they had lost heart, but faction was
raising its head. Heard through the land like the blast of a
bugle, the proclamation rallied the patriotism of the country to
fresh sacrifices and renewed ardor. It was a step that could not
be revoked. It relieved the conscience of the nation from an
incubus that had oppressed it from its birth. The United States
were rescued from the false predicament in which they had been
from the beginning, and the great popular heart leaped with new
enthusiasm for “Liberty and Union, henceforth and forever, one
and inseparable.” It brought not only moral but material support
to the cause of the government, for within two years 120,000
colored troops were enlisted in the military service and
following the national flag, supported by all the loyalty of the
North, and led by its choicest spirits. One mother said, when
her son was offered the command of the first colored regiment,
“If he accepts it I shall be as proud as if I had heard that he
was shot.” He was shot heading a gallant charge of his
regiment…. The Confederates replied to a request of his
friends for his body that they had “buried him under a layer of
his niggers….;” but that mother has lived to enjoy thirty-six
years of his glory, and Boston has erected its noblest monument
to his memory.

The effect of the proclamation upon the actual progress of the
war was not immediate, but wherever the Federal armies advanced
they carried freedom with them, and when the summer came round
the new spirit and force which had animated the heart of the
government and people were manifest. In the first week of July
the decisive battle of Gettysburg turned the tide of war, and the
fall of Vicksburg made the great river free from its source to
the Gulf.

On foreign nations the influence of the proclamation and of these
new victories was of great importance. In those days, when there
was no cable, it was not easy for foreign observers to appreciate
what was really going on; they could not see clearly the true
state of affairs, as in the last year of the nineteenth century
we have been able, by our new electric vision, to watch every
event at the antipodes and observe its effect. The Rebel
emissaries, sent over to solicit intervention, spared no pains to
impress upon the minds of public and private men and upon the
press their own views of the character of the contest. The
prospects of the Confederacy were always better abroad than at
home. The stock markets of the world gambled upon its chances,
and its bonds at one time were high in favor.

Such ideas as these were seriously held: that the North was
fighting for empire and the South for independence; that the
Southern States, instead of being the grossest oligarchies,
essentially despotisms, founded on the right of one man to
appropriate the fruit of other men’s toil and to exclude them
from equal rights, were real republics, feebler to be sure than
their Northern rivals, but representing the same idea of freedom,
and that the mighty strength of the nation was being put forth to
crush them; that Jefferson Davis and the Southern leaders had
created a nation; that the republican experiment had failed and
the Union had ceased to exist. But the crowning argument to
foreign minds was that it was an utter impossibility for the
government to win in the contest; that the success of the
Southern States, so far as separation was concerned, was as
certain as any event yet future and contingent could be; that the
subjugation of the South by the North, even if it could be
accomplished, would prove a calamity to the United States and the
world, and especially calamitous to the negro race; and that such
a victory would necessarily leave the people of the South for
many generations cherishing deadly hostility against the
government and the North, and plotting always to recover their

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