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Lincoln's Strong Defense of Emancipation to Illinois Friends: September 3, 1863.

By John A. O'Brien

Denver, Colorado

Sunday, September 3, 2023


President Lincoln was irritated as he put down his newspaper and fired off a telegram to James C. Conkling in Illinois. “I am mortified this morning to find the letter I sent you botched up in the Eastern papers.” Conkling received the message while on stage as Lincoln’s letter was about to be read to 50,000 Union supporters in Springfield. Lincoln had very much wanted to be there himself to make his case for the Emancipation Proclamation in his home state. But the travel would have been too inconvenient. He trusted that Conkling, who was an excellent orator, would pronounce the speech that Lincoln had written for the occasion. His only instruction was to “read it very slowly.”


Adams Street in Springfield IL (1865). The Globe Tavern is on the left. This was the first residence of Abraham and Mary Lincoln and where their first son, Robert, was born. Lincoln had tried to visit his home town for the mass Union meeting on September 3, 1863. (Credit: Library of Congress)

The Emancipation Proclamation had made the political situation in Illinois very difficult. In the fall elections of 1862, Copperheads (Peace Democrats) won 9 of 14 House seats, including Lincoln’s home district, and assumed control of both chambers of the state legislature. Voters had approved amendments to the state constitution that forbade black suffrage and black immigration. Early in 1863, the legislature adopted resolutions that condemned the Proclamation and protested the unconstitutional prosecution of the war. Republican Governor Richard Yates was so concerned by these resolutions that he prorogued the legislature in June and governed without it for over a year. In spite of the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Copperheads continued to challenge the president’s policies. The “fire in the rear,” as Lincoln dubbed it, was smoldering.

Gov. Richard Yates (Credit: Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s letter to Conkling was meant to expose the Copperheads for not supporting the war for the Union. “You desire peace, and you blame me that we do not have it. How can we attain it? There are but three conceivable ways. First, to suppress the rebellion by force of arms. This I am trying to do. Are you for it? … A second way is to give up the Union. I am against this. Are you for it? … There only remains some unimaginable compromise. I do not believe any compromise embracing the maintenance of the Union is now possible.”

Then the president launched his defense of the Proclamation. “But to be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro… I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose you do not.” Lincoln asserted that, “I have neither adopted, nor proposed any measure, which is not consistent even with your view, provided you are for the Union.” He defended the legality of his course and told how generals have described that the “colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” He again challenged the Copperheads, “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you, but no matter … I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union.” He described the united effort of northern states in prosecuting the war, including help from restored sections of the “Sunny South, in more colors than one also lent a hand … that their part in history was jotted down in black and white… The job was a great national one and let none be banned who bore an honorable part in it.”

Noting that “peace does not appear so distant as it did,” Lincoln thanked all the armed forces. But there was an odd reference to the Navy as “Uncle Sam's webbed feet.” While drafting the letter, Lincoln asked his secretary William Stoddard for comment. Stoddard went right to that curious phrase saying that some people will find fault with it. Lincoln’s shoulders rocked in silent laughter. “I’ll leave it in just as it is. I reckon the people’ll know what it means.”


The "Conkling Letter" was a tremendous success. Intending for this message to be reprinted in newspapers, Lincoln emphatically and adroitly stated his unwavering commitment to emancipation as necessary to save the nation. The letter also helped save the Republican cause in Illinois. Though the Copperheads would continue to stir insurrection in the northwest through 1864, their hold on Illinois politics was soon broken.


References:

  • Allen C. Guelzo, "Defending Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln and the Conkling Letter, 1863" (2002). Civil War History (Vol. 48, Issue 4).

  • Louis P. Masur, "Read It Very Slowly," New York Times, August 21, 2013.

  • Michael Burlingame (ed), Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln's Secretary, William O. Stoddard (2000).

  • Roy P. Basler (ed), "To James C. Conkling," The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1959), Vol. VI, 406-10.

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