The Conkling Letter

On August 26, 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Illinois Republican James C. Conkling. It was to be read at a rally of Republicans in support of the war effort to be held on September 3.

Rather than recycle the story, I direct you to Louis P. Masur’s fine piece on this event. For my own comments, see this video, containing my remarks of February 12, 2013, at the annual banquet of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

To me, the most powerful part of this letter is found near the end.

Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost. And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonnet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.


9 thoughts on “The Conkling Letter

  1. James F. Epperson August 26, 2013 / 5:00 pm

    That is indeed powerful, and DiLorenzo (and his clones) are loathe to quote it.

  2. M.D. Blough August 26, 2013 / 7:36 pm

    The Conkling letter is so magnificent that it’s almost impossible for me to pick the most powerful part of it. Certainly, the passage you site, Brooks, is one of the leading contenders. So is this passage, especially the first tow and the last two sentences,

    “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistence to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.

    I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistence to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”

    • Christopher Shelley September 4, 2014 / 8:35 pm

      “And the promise being made, must be kept” is just so classically a Lincoln line.

  3. Eric A. Jacobson August 26, 2013 / 7:38 pm

    The fact that the letter in its entirety showed up on the SHPG page (coincidence no??) and no one commented means one of two things:

    a) no one actually read the letter in its entirety
    b) anyone who did read it couldn’t possibly find anything to fuss about

    I’d like to think option b, but I suspect a.

  4. Brad August 28, 2013 / 4:10 am

    One of my favorite letters of his (of many). He was unusually gifted in the images he could create.

  5. Christopher Shelley September 4, 2014 / 9:18 pm

    Very nice talk. I’m sure it was much better than the SOTU that night.

    I just finished listening to Mark Neely’s great talk on the Constitution and civil liberties during the war, and his take on the Corning letter is very severe. ( ) Elsewhere on “Crossroads”, Brooks, you’ve mentioned that you have a disagreement with Prof. Neely. Would you comment on that, or is there a site you can refer me to so I can look at it?

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