President-elect Abraham Lincoln received a letter from Congressman John A. Gilmer, a moderate North Carolinian whom Lincoln had briefly considered for a cabinet position. Gilmer asked Lincoln to make some kind of declaration that would assure southerners that he meant them no harm. He also asked specific policy questions, such as what his views were on abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. In a private reply, Lincoln repeated his reluctance to make any public statements out of fear they would be misinterpreted. However, he felt that he had to reply to Gilmer to avoid having Gilmer “misconstrue my silence.” Lincoln wrote:
“Is it desired that I shall shift the ground upon which I have been elected? I can not do it. You need only to acquaint yourself with that ground, and press it on the attention of the South. It is all in print and easy of access. May I be pardoned if I ask whether even you have ever attempted to procure the reading of the Republican platform, or my speeches, by the Southern people? If not, what reason have I to expect that any additional production of mine would meet a better fate?”
If he tried to explain himself any further, Lincoln feared it “would make me appear as if I repented for the crime of having been elected, and was anxious to apologize and beg forgiveness.” He assured Gilmer that he was opposed to interfering with the laws of any state: “In one word, I never have been, am not now, and probably never shall be, in a mood of harassing the people, either North or South.”
Regarding Gilmer’s question about slavery in D.C., which was under Federal jurisdiction, Lincoln told Gilmer that “I have no thought of recommending the abolition of slavery” in D.C. because “if I were to make such a recommendation, it is quite clear Congress would not follow it.” He also expressed opposition to interfering with the interstate slave trade “among slave states” or tampering with slavery in Federal forts within slave states for the same reason.
Lincoln wrote that if any northern state laws “are in conflict with the fugitive slave clause, or any other part of the constitution, I certainly should be glad of their repeal…” but he added, “I could hardly be justified, as a citizen of Illinois, or as President of the United States, to recommend the repeal of a statute of Vermont, or South Carolina.”
Lincoln then declared: “On the territorial question, I am inflexible… On that, there is a difference between you and us; and it is the only substantial difference. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other.” Although Lincoln had marked the letter “Strictly Confidential,” it ended up being published in several newspapers, including the Missouri Democrat and Cincinnati Daily Commercial.
The president-elect wrote a similar letter to Congressman Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia. Stephens and Lincoln were old friends, having served in the U.S. Congress as Whigs, and Stephens had recently garnered attention by urging his fellow Georgians to act in moderation. Lincoln tried to assure Stephens that his administration would not interfere with slavery where it already existed in a letter denoted “for your eye only”:
“The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub.”
Stephens replied that, in the South’s eye, the true driving force of the sectional crisis was that Lincoln’s administration would “put the institutions of nearly half the states under the ban of public opinion and national condemnation. This, upon general principles, is quite enough of itself to arouse a spirit not only of general indignation but of revolt on the part of the proscribed.” He concluded that “conciliation and harmony, in my judgment, can never be established by force. Nor can the Union under the Constitution be maintained by force.”
Lincoln’s interactions with southerners were not confined to letters. One day while the president-elect was going through his daily routine of greeting visitors in his office at the State Capitol, he was visited by “a regular genuine secessionist” named D.E. Ray of Yazoo, Mississippi. Ray “stalked into Lincoln’s reception room wearing a blue cockade (the symbol of secession) displayed upon his hat,” and sat quietly on a nearby sofa as Lincoln continued greeting guests.
One of the guests wanted Ray’s opinion on whether southerners seriously wanted to secede and asked him, “Isn’t that all gas?” Ray answered that “they were not afraid down South of Mr. Lincoln himself, but of those who followed him.” Lincoln overheard the discussion and told Ray that “although the republicans were anti-extensionists, they would not interfere with slavery where it existed.” Ray seemed somewhat satisfied and asked Lincoln for a copy of his famous 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln signed a copy and jokingly “hoped its possession would not give him any trouble on his return to Mississippi.”
As Lincoln walked Ray to the door, he said: “You will find that the only difference between you and me is that I think Slavery wrong, and you think it right; that I am opposed to its extension, while you advocate it; and as to the security of the institution and to the protection of slave property in the states where it has a lawful existence, you will find it as great under my Administration as it ever was under Mr. Buchanan’s.”
Lincoln assured the visitor that if the southern states were waiting to use an attack by him as a reason to secede, “they would never leave the Union.” He asked Ray to tell his fellow Mississippians that the incoming president would mean no harm, “so people were not afraid of getting hurt by him.” Ray replied, “No, we ain’t.” A “stout-looking yankee farmer” overheard him and responded, “Barking dogs never bite!”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
- Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.