August 24/25, 1864: Lincoln, Henry J. Raymond, and Peace Negotiations

In August 1864 Abraham Lincoln was under a great deal of pressure to relent on his commitment to emancipation in order to secure his reelection. One of the people who pressured him was New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond, an associate of William H. Seward.

On August 22, 1864, Raymond wrote Lincoln as follows:

I feel compelled to drop you a line concerning the political condition of the country as it strikes me. I am in active correspondence with your staunchest friends in every state and from them all I hear but one report. The tide is setting strongly against us. Hon. E. B. Washburne writes that `were an election to be held now in Illinois we should be beaten.’ Mr. Cameron writes that Pennsylvania is against us. Gov. Morton writes that nothing but the most strenuous efforts can carry Indiana. This state, according to the best information I can get, would go 50,000 against us to-morrow. And so of the rest. Nothing but the most resolute and decided action on the part of the government and its friends, can save the country from falling into hostile hands.

Two special causes are assigned to this great reaction in public sentiment,—the want of military successes, and the impression in some minds, the fear and suspicion in others, that we are not to have peace in any event under this administration until Slavery is abandoned. In some way or other the suspicion is widely diffused that we can have peace with Union if we would. It is idle to reason with this belief—still more idle to denounce it. It can only be expelled by some authoritative act, at once bold enough to fix attention and distinct enough to defy incredulity & challenge respect.

Why would it not be wise, under these circumstances, to appoint a Commissioner, in due form, to make distinct proffers of peace to Davis, as the head of the rebel armies, on the sole condition of acknowledging the supremacy of the constitution,—all other questions to be settled in a convention of the people of all the States? The making of such an offer would require no armistice, no suspension of active war, no abandonment of positions, no sacrifice of consistency.

If the proffer were accepted (which I presume it would not be,) the country would never consent to place the practical execution of its details in any but loyal hands, and in those we should be safe.

If it should be rejected, (as it would be,) it would plant seeds of disaffection in the south, dispel all the delusions about peace that prevail in the North, silence the clamors & damaging falsehoods of the opposition, take the wind completely out of the sails of the Chicago craft, reconcile public sentiment to the War, the draft, & the tax as inevitable necessities, and unite the North as nothing since firing on Fort Sumter has hitherto done.

I cannot conceive of any answer which Davis could give to such a proposition which would not strengthen you & the Union cause everywhere. Even your radical friends could not fail to applaud it when they should see the practical strength it would bring to the common cause.

I beg you to excuse the earnestness with which I have pressed this matter upon your attention. It seems to me calculated to do good—& incapable of doing harm. It will turn the tide of public sentiment & avert pending evils of the gravest character. It will rouse & concentrate the loyalty of the country &, unless I am greatly mistaken, give us an early & a fruitful victory.

Permit me to add that if done at all I think this should be done at once,—as your own spontaneous act. In advance of the Chicago Convention it might render the action of that body, of very little consequence.

I have canvassed this subject very fully with Mr. Swett of Illinois who first suggested it to me & who will seek an opportunity to converse with you upon it. . . .

On August 24, 1864, Lincoln prepared the following draft of a letter to Raymond:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 24. 1864.


You will proceed forthwith and obtain, if possible, a conference for peace with Hon. Jefferson Davis, or any person by him authorized for that purpose.

You will address him in entirely respectful terms, at all events, and in any that may be indispensable to secure the conference.

At said conference you will propose, on behalf this government, that upon the restoration of the Union and the national authority, the war shall cease at once, all remaining questions to be left for adjustment by peaceful modes. If this be accepted hostilities to cease at once.

If it be not accepted, you will then request to be informed what terms, if any embracing the restoration of the Union, would be accepted. If any such be presented you in answer, you will forthwith report the same to this government, and await further instructions.

If the presentation of any terms embracing the restoration of the Union be declined, you will then request to be informed what terms of peace would, be accepted; and on receiving any answer, report the same to this government, and await further instructions.

The draft remained unfinished. Instead, Lincoln and several cabinet ministers met with Raymond the next day. As the president’s private secretary, John Nicolay, later described the encounter …

The President and the stronger half of the Cabinet, Seward, Stanton, and Fessenden, held a consultation with him and showed him that they had thoroughly considered and discussed the proposition of his letter of the 22d; and on giving him their reasons he very readily concurred with them in the opinion that to follow his plan of sending a commission to Richmond would be worse than losing the Presidential contest—it would be ignominiously surrendering it in advance. Nevertheless the visit of himself and committee here did great good. They found the President and Cabinet much better informed than themselves, and went home encouraged and cheered.

The Democrats would gather in Chicago the next week. At last Lincoln would formally learn who his primary opponent would be in the fall contest.

3 thoughts on “August 24/25, 1864: Lincoln, Henry J. Raymond, and Peace Negotiations

  1. Stefan Jovanovich August 25, 2014 / 5:42 am

    The Republicans, as a political party, were still utter novices; and, thanks to Raymond, its formal organization was a shambles. Here is Swett’s own description of where things stood in August, 1864: Raymond “”not only gave up, but would do nothing. Nobody would do anything. There was not a man doing anything except mischief. A movement was organizing to make Mr. Lincoln withdraw or call a convention and supplant him. I felt it my duty to see if some action could not be inaugurated. I got Raymond, after great labor, to call the committee at Washington three days after I would arrive here, and came first to see if Mr. Lincoln understood his danger and would help to set things in motion. He understood fully the danger of his position, and for once seemed anxious I should try to stem the tide bearing him down. When the committee met, they showed entire want of organization and had not a dollar of money.”

    One of the many achievements for which Grant will never receive his due regard is the fact that he, not Lincoln, established the Republican party as a political organization.

  2. Noma August 25, 2014 / 12:43 pm

    “I have canvassed this subject very fully with Mr. Swett of Illinois who first suggested it to me & who will seek an opportunity to converse with you upon it. . . . ”

    Hmm… Isn’t this the very same, sleezy Mr. Swett who attempted to swiftboat Grant back in his Cairo days, when Grant tried to crackdown on all the fraudulent contracts being awarded?

    “La Grange, Tenn., Nov 7, 1862
    Letter from Ulysses S. Grant to Elihu Washburne

    Not having much of special note to write you since your visit to Jackson, and knowing that you were fully engaged, I have not troubled you with a letter. I write now a little on selfish grounds.

    I see from the papers that Mr. Swett is to be called near the President in some capacity. I believe him to be one of my bitterest enemies. The grounds of his enmity I suppose to be the course I pursued while at Cairo towards certain contractors and speculators who wished to make fortunes off of the soldiers and government, and in which he took much interest, whether a partner or not. He called on me in regard to the rights of a post sutler for Cairo (an appointment not known to the law) whom he had got appointed. Finding that I would regard him in the light of any other merchant who might set up there, that I would neither secure him a monopoly of the trade nor his pay at the pay-table for such as he might trust out, the sutler never made his appearance. If he did he never made himself known to me.

    In the case of some contracts that were given out for the supply of forage, they were given, if not to the very highest bidder, to far from the lowest, and full 30 per cent. higher than the articles could have been bought for at that time. Learning these facts, I immediately annulled the contracts… ”

    If Mr. Raymond thinks this Mr. Swett is a reliable guy, then I have a lot of doubts about Mr. Raymond’s judgment in the present question.

    • Stefan Jovanovich August 25, 2014 / 1:17 pm

      Swett was one of Lincoln’s bagmen at the 1860 convention. Given Raymond’s own political practices, they were bound to be natural allies. The difference between them is that Swett, as a fellow lawyer, had Lincoln’s talent for fixing things. Raymond, as a journalist and publisher, only knew how to make a mess of them.

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