Lincoln on Slavery, Presidential Power, and the Constitution

On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote the following letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor, recounting the contents of a conversation he had days earlier with Hodges, Governor Thomas Bramlette, and former senator Archibald Dixon. You can see the original here.

Executive Mansion, Washington, April 4, 1864


A. G. Hodges, Esq
Frankfort, Ky.


My dear Sir: You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and Senator Dixon. It was about as follows:


“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, 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 even 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.

When, early in the war, Gen. Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When a little later, Gen. Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, Gen. Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter. In choosing it, I hoped for greater gain than loss; but of this, I was not entirely confident. More than a year of trial now shows no loss by it in our foreign relations, none in our home popular sentiment, none in our white military force,—no loss by it any how or any where. On the contrary, it shows a gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen, and laborers. These are palpable facts, about which, as facts, there can be no cavilling. We have the men; and we could not have had them without the measure.


[“]And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth.[”]


I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.


Yours truly

A. Lincoln

The letter gives a fairly good idea of where Lincoln’s thinking was by 1864 when it came to assessing the constitutionality of the measures he had taken to strike at slavery.


12 thoughts on “Lincoln on Slavery, Presidential Power, and the Constitution

  1. John Randolph April 4, 2014 / 11:04 am

    In other words, Lincoln is saying that on balance, regardless of the strict constitutionality of his policies, he viewed all of his actions (including the Emancipation Proclamation) as necessary to defend the Nation and Constitution, and none of them as a result of his personal moral beliefs. The last paragraph of his letter certainly anticipates the theme of his second inaugural address.

  2. Ned April 4, 2014 / 6:29 pm

    Its a great letter. One line particularly stood out for me: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” I see so much discussion (mostly in other online forums) that puts Lincoln at the center of everything, controlling all the decisions — ‘Lincoln chose war’, ‘Lincoln emancipated’, etc. — that I think this line is worth emphasizing.

  3. Candice Shy Hooper April 5, 2014 / 5:45 am

    “Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power.” Integrity was the mark of the man.

  4. neukomment April 6, 2014 / 10:57 am

    The statements in this letter regarding slavery and the Constitution are consistent with Lincoln’s previous public statements as found in the debates with Douglas and the Cooper Union address. Very interesting! Thank you for posting it.

  5. hankc9174 April 6, 2014 / 7:25 pm

    interesting that this letter is in the LoC rather than the archives…

  6. M.D. Blough April 7, 2014 / 9:55 am

    I think it has to be read in conjunction with Lincoln’s letter of August 26, 1863, to James C. Conkling to be read at a rally.which includes this passage:

    “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.”

    • Noma April 7, 2014 / 12:22 pm

      Pretty much covers all the bases — I wonder if Conkling wrote back to him!

      • M.D. Blough April 9, 2014 / 3:45 pm

        It wasn’t a personal letter to Conkling. This is from the intro to the text of the letter on Abraham Lincoln Online “During the Civil War, Union supporters in President Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, asked him to speak at a rally on September 3, 1863. Lincoln could not attend but wrote this letter to be read at the gathering by his long-time friend, James C. Conkling. The letter was accompanied by a brief note which read, “I cannot leave here now. Herewith is a letter instead. You are one of the best public readers. I have but one suggestion. Read it very slowly. And now God bless you, and all good Union-men.””

  7. Christopher Shelley April 7, 2014 / 11:45 am

    I will never understand why neo-Confederates refuse to take Lincoln at his word. This letter is pretty much consistent with everything he wrote or said on the topic.

    This letter is not in Basler, although it is in Fehrenbacher, vol II.

    • Andy Hall April 8, 2014 / 10:34 am

      “I will never understand why neo-Confederates refuse to take Lincoln at his word.”

      He’s much more useful to them as a evil incarnate.

  8. Brad April 9, 2014 / 4:16 am

    This, to me, is one of his great pieces of writing, second only to the Address and the Second Inaugural. His use of metaphor is unparalleled, at least by other Presidents. We also see the beginning, in written thought, of his grappling with the role of the Almighty in the Civil War. Oddly enough, he never saw himself as a great writer but we now know otherwise.

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