Abandoning Emancipation? The Robinson Letter of August 17, 1864

In August 1864 Abraham Lincoln was facing what seemed to be an uphill struggle for reelection. The major military offensives of the spring had bogged down and become summer stalemates. Members of his own party denounced him, some for not being radical enough on the issue of black equality, others for his pocket veto of the Wade-Davis Bill in July. Indeed, some Republicans were scheming to replace him at the head of the Republican ticket, with a splinter effort headed by John C. Fremont already in the field. Meanwhile, Democrats assailed him for waging a war to free back people at the cost of the blood of white soldiers, including those who were imprisoned in Confederate prison camps.

Some Republican leaders urged the president to fend off such attacks by denying that emancipation was a precondition for reunion. Best, they argued, to show that one was flexible on this issue, and that the Emancipation Proclamation itself might be modified or even withdrawn under the right circumstances.

On August 7, 1864, Charles Robinson, the editor of a Democratic paper, The Green Bay Advocate, wrote the president from Wisconsin:

Green Bay, Wis. Aug. 7, 1864.

Mr President: I am a War Democrat, and the editor of a Democratic paper. I have sustained your Administration since its inauguration, because it is the legally constituted government– I have sustained its war policy, not because I endorsed it entire, but because it presented the only available method of putting down the rebellion– In the course of pursuing this policy, I have had occasion to assist in the defeat of a “Copperhead” ticket in this State, giving and taking some hard knocks with some of my party in consequence. It was alleged that because I and my friends sustained the Emancipation measure, we had become abolitionized. We replied that we regarded the freeing of the negroes as sound war policy, in that the depriving the South of its laborers weakened the strength of the Rebellion. That was a good argument, and was accepted by a great many men who would have listened to no other. It was solid ground on which we could stand, and still maintain our position as Democrats– We were greatly comforted and strengthened also by your assurance that if you could save the Union without freeing any slave, you would do it; if you could save it by freeing the slaves, you would do it; and if you could do it by freeing some, and leaving others alone, you would also do that.

The Niagara Falls “Peace” movement was of no importance whatever, except that it resulted in bringing out your declaration, as we understand it, that no steps can be taken towards peace, from any quarter, unless accompanied with an abandonment of slavery. This puts the whole war question on a new basis, and takes us War Democrats clear off our feet, leaving us no ground to stand upon– If we sustain the war and war policy, does it not demand the changing of our party politics?

I venture to write you this letter, then, not for the purpose of finding fault with your policy — for that you have a right to fix upon without consulting any of us — but with the hope that you may suggest some interpretation of it, as well as make it tenable ground on which we War Democrats may stand — preserve our party [consistently?] — support the government — and continue to carry also to its support those large numbers of our old political friends who have stood by us up to this time.

I beg to assure you that this is not written for the purpose of using it, or its possible reply, in a public way. And I take the pains to send it through my friend Gov. Randall in the belief that he will guarantee for me entire good faith–

With the greatest respect,
Your obt Servant–
Charles D. Robinson–

Wisconsin governor Alexander Randall carried the letter to the White House and presented it to the president. Other people, including New York Times editor Henry Raymond, urged Lincoln to consider this argument.

Lincoln prepared two drafts of a letter in reply. The first one read as follows:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 17, 1864.

My dear Sir

Your letter of the 7 th was handed me yesterday by Gov Randall– To me it seems plain that saying re-union and abandonment of slavery would be considered if offered is not saying that nothing else would be considered if offered– But I will not stand on the mere construction of language. It is true, as you remind me, that in the Greeley letter of 1862 I said “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that” I also said in the same letter that “What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause” I said all this in the utmost sincerity, and I am as true to the whole of it now, as I was when I first said it– When I afterwards proclaimed emancipation, and employed colored soldiers, I only followed the declaration just quoted from the Greeley letter that “I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause”– The way these measures were to help the cause could only be by inducing the colored people to practically come over from the rebel side to ours– On this point nearly a year ago, in a letter to Mr Conkling of Illinois, I wrote as follows. “But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything 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.”

And this brings me us to the exact point of your letter. Do you think that whatever of promise to them colored people there is expressed or implied in the measures of emancipation and among those the colored people, should be broken, so soon as by breaking it, we can get a stipulation for peace and re-union? As a matter of morals could such an act, by any possibility, secure the approbation favor of Heaven, or of any good man? As a matter of policy, to announce such a purpose now, as it seems you would have me to do, would instantly ruin the Union cause itself– All recruiting of colored men would instantly cease; and all colored soldiers men now in our service would, (and rightfully too) throw down their arms– With these resources taken from us, the Union is not merely going, but is already gone– But, you ask, should the rebels say “we cease fighting, and consent to re-union, but we still claim to hold our slaves,” do you intend, Mr President, to reject that offer of peace and continue this war? It would be no matter of choice with me. I could not continue the war in such case. The sources and means of war would fail me. But if the rebels would only cease fighting & consent to reunion on condition that I would stipulate to aid them in re-enslaving the blacks, I could not do that either– The people, if they would, could do that too; but I could never be their agent to do it– For such a work, they must find another would have to be found. What then? Simply this. We will cease the war, restore the Union, and our remaining dispute about slavery we will submit to the peaceful tribunals of courts and votes– Before these tribunals I should have little fear for those blacks who shall have actively accepted our promise, by coming out from among the enemy– For the rest, I fear their case might not be quite so clear.

But, my friend, let me remind you, that no one who can control the rebel armies has made the offer supposed. Let it be made, and peace will follow; but until made, let not the common enemy distract us with it as an abstract question. This abstract question is not new to my thoughts– In the Conkling letter, before mentioned, I said “Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare that you will not fight to free negroes.”

Another draft of the letter offered a somewhat different approach:

My dear Sir:

Your letter of the 7th was placed in my hand yesterday by Gov. Randall.

To me it seems plain that saying re-union and abandonment of slavery would be accepted considered, if offered, is not saying that nothing else or less would be accepted considered, if offered. But I will not stand upon the mere construction of language.

It is true, as you remind me, that in the Greeley letter of 1862, I said: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some, and leaving others alone I would also do that.” I continued in the same letter as follows: “What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause; and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.” All this I said in the utmost sincerity; and I am as true to the whole of it now, as when I first said it. When I afterwards proclaimed emancipation, and employed colored soldiers, I only followed the declaration just quoted from the Greeley letter that “I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause” The way these measures were to help the cause, was not to be by magic, or miracles, but by inducing the colored people to come bodily over from the rebel side to ours. On this point, nearly a year ago, in a letter to Mr Conkling, made public at once, I wrote as follows: “But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motives — even the promise of freedom. And the promise, being made, must be kept.” I am sure you will not, on due reflection, say that the promise being made, must be broken on at the first opportunity. I am sure you would not desire me to say, or to leave an inference, that I am ready, whenever convenient, to join in re-enslaving those who shall have served us in consideration of our promise. As matter of morals, could such treachery by any possibility, escape the curses of Heaven, or of any good man? As a matter of policy, to announce such a purpose, would ruin the Union cause itself. All recruiting of colored men would instantly cease, and all colored men now in our service, would instantly desert us– And rightfully too. Why should they give their lives for us, with full notice of our purpose to betray them? Drive back to the support of the rebellion the material physical force which the colored people now give, and promise us, and neither the present, nor any coming administration, can save the Union. Take from us, and give to the enemy, the hundred and thirty, forty, or fifty thousand colored persons now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers, and we can not longer maintain the contest. The party who could elect a President on a War & Slavery Restoration Platform, would, of necessity, lose the colored force; and that force being lost, would be as powerless to save the Union as to do any other impossible thing. It is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force, which may be measured, and estimated as horse-power, and steam power, are measured and estimated. And by measurement, it is more than we can lose, and live. Nor can we, by discarding it, get a white force in place of it. There is a witness in every white mans bosom that he would rather go to the war with having the negro to help him, than to help the enemy against him. It is not the giving of one class for another– It is simply giving a large force to the enemy, for nothing in return.

In addition to what I have said, allow me to remind you that no one, having control of the rebel armies, or, in fact, having any influence whatever in the rebellion, has offered, or intimated a willingness to, a restoration of the Union, in any event, or on any condition whatever. Let it be constantly borne in mind that no such offer has been made or intimated. Shall we be weak enough to allow the enemy to distract us with an abstract question which he himself refuses to present as a practical one? In the Conkling letter before mentioned, I said: “Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then to declare that you will not fight to free negroes. I repeat this now. If Jefferson Davis wishes, for himself, of for the benefit of his friends at the North, to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.

We do not know whether Lincoln sent either letter. What we do know is that over the next week he had several conversations and drafted several documents that detailed what he intended to do. We’ll discuss those events on their 150th anniversaries this week on Crossroads.

7 thoughts on “Abandoning Emancipation? The Robinson Letter of August 17, 1864

  1. OhioGuy August 17, 2014 / 1:43 pm

    Very interesting. This really illustrates to me what a sly politician that old Abe was. The ending of that second version is so delicious the way he asks a question that he knows won’t be answered and then implies that he has an open mind about the question, when it’s clear from things like the Greeley letter that once he made up his mind for Emancipation he wasn’t going to back down. I refer, of course, to the last part of the Greeley letter which AL decided (as any sly politician would) not to quote in this response to Robinson: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” Lincoln knew how to play the game, and could play many of his fellow citizens like a used fiddle. And, I might add, we are all the much better for it. I’m a great admirer of Lincoln. I wish that even just a few of our politicians today would have such noble motives for their doublespeak.

  2. Michael Rodgers August 17, 2014 / 2:30 pm

    There’s some good commentary in disunion “Lincoln Agonisties” and I look forward to reading your posts.

  3. John Foskett August 18, 2014 / 6:36 am

    If I recall correctly, wasn’t this the month when Lincoln hosted a number of prominent black leaders a the White House?r

      • John Foskett August 19, 2014 / 3:33 pm

        Yep – had it confused with Douglass (and should have recalled it as conjoined with the Greeley letter)

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