Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Jefferson Davis
On Sept. 26, 1862, a Boston newspaper published a reply letter from Union President Abraham Lincoln to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Just four days before, Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation declaring that all slaves held in Confederate territory still opposed to the Union would be free as of Jan. 1, 1863. It’s obvious that the legality of abolishing slavery—whether it was constitutional—was on Lincoln’s mind, as seen in his comments to Davis.
Lincoln’s letter to Davis was published by the Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts) on Sept. 26, 1862:
Abraham Lincoln to Jeff. Davis
I have received your letter, and read it with due attention.
If you have therein accorded to my literary ability that justice which has been denied it elsewhere, I think I may be permitted to accept your compliment, since I do not thereby act contrary to the Constitution. If you recognize my capacity as a statesman, I need not decline this recognition, since it does not come in collision with my oath of office. But if you bear a laudatory testimony to my conduct of the war against yourself, I can only pass it over in modest silence, since it does not belong to the duties of my position to lend aid and comfort to the enemy.
If any one could doubt that I manifest my conservatism in my conduct of the war, I need only point him to the fact that, after a year and a half’s fighting, I have just got back to where I started; that Washington is again safe; and that the Potomac also will be safe once more, as soon as it is blockaded anew. If it is not yet blockaded, you have this to answer for, not I. If I do not conserve the lives and money of the citizens as I do the status quo, I am comforted by the fact that the Constitution has not a single word demanding this of me. If I maintain the Union “under the Constitution,” I do all that the past makes my duty. If I can save the Union by saving slavery, I am also bound not to suffer the ruin of those, without whom slavery would not exist. If you likewise desire to save the Union by saving slavery, I am sure that between us both the work will succeed. If, therefore, you contend against me, you are at bottom my rival for the rescue of the Union, and as such, I must spare you. If the Constitution is the basis on which we can join hands in saving the Union, you need only alter your Constitution a little, or take in hand the execution of ours, and all difference is at an end. If I contemplate the possibility of the destruction of slavery by the war, I see that in such a case the clauses of the Constitution which relate to that institution would have no longer any sense or significance, and that, consequently, the Constitution cannot endure without slavery. If the Constitution depends on slavery, and the Union on the Constitution, it follows that the Union can as little endure without slavery as the Constitution. If I seek to save both without “ideas,” I am all the time sticking to the legal path. If I have had an exceptional “idea” in regard to the negroes, it has happened because they do not stand under the Constitution.
If I remain President, do you remain in the Union, and, vice versa, I will remain true to you.
If we reflect that the Union began with a couple of million inhabitants, who were proportionately poor, we can still wage war for many years, before we restore “the Union as it was.”
If I may, in closing, beg a favor of you, it is this, that you will not order my Generals to be shot at so much in future, so that our best friends may not be lost.
Your suspended brother,
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