#112 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
“If they will not do this, if they prefer to hazard all for the sake of destroying the government, it is for them to consider whether it is probable I will surrender the government to save them from losing all. If they decline what I suggest, you scarcely need to ask what I will do. What would you do in my position? Would you drop the war where it is? Or, would you prosecute it in future, with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones? Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied.”
On This Date
HD Daily Report, July 28, 1862
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How Historians Interpret
“Lincoln had no intention of feeding the robust Washington rumor mill by letting his plan out piecemeal. Rather he was looking to shape a platform that could be widely accepted in the spirit of national interest. To consolidate support he often floated positions that rose above parochialism, promoting a larger ideal that could be embraced by everyone. Sometimes he did it through his famous cornpone parables, and sometimes by directly challenging his interlocutors to view a situation from his perspective. He used this latter ploy a few days before he encountered Lucien Waters. When Cuthbert Bullitt, the U.S. marshal for Louisiana, passed on complaints that the administration’s contraband policies were disadvantaging Unionist slaveholders in the state, the president retorted: ‘What would you do in my position? … Would you give up the contest leaving any available means unapplied?’ Then, in a masterful argument, he subordinated all other interests to the prime goal. Everything he did, Lincoln protested, was done for one reason: to uphold the Union. ‘The truth is, that what is done, and omitted, about the slaves, is done and omitted on the same military necessity. … I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination.’ A few weeks later, Lincoln again moved to manage the public mindset when he published a similar response to a particularly critical New York Tribune piece by Horace Greeley, once more raising the Union above any other consideration. Understanding that much of the citizenry needed justification for an action as bold as liberating the slaves, Lincoln made the one argument with which most everyone could agree.”
–Elizabeth Brown Pryor, “Brief Encounter: A New York Calvaryman’s Striking Conversation with Abraham Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 30.2 (2009)
NOTE TO READERS
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Washington D.C. July 28. 1862
Cuthbert Bullitt Esq
New Orleans La.
The copy of a letter addressed to yourself by Mr. Thomas J. Durant, has been shown to me. The writer appears to be an able, a dispassionate, and an entirely sincere man. The first part of the letter is devoted to an effort to show that the Secession Ordinance of Louisiana was adopted against the will of a majority of the people. This is probably true; and in that fact may be found some instruction. Why did they allow the Ordinance to go into effect? Why did they not assert themselves? Why stand passive and allow themselves to be trodden down by a minority? Why did they not hold popular meetings, and have a convention of their own, to express and enforce the true sentiment of the state? If preorganization was against them then, why not do this now, that the United States Army is present to protect them? The paralysis –the dead palsy-of the government in this whole struggle is, that this class of men will do nothing for the government, nothing for themselves, except demanding that the government shall not strike its open enemies, lest they be struck by accident!
Mr. Durant complains that in various ways the relation of master and slave is disturbed by the presence of our Army; and he considers it particularly vexatious that this, in part, is done under cover of an act of Congress, while constitutional guaranties are suspended on the plea of military necessity. The truth is, that what is done, and omitted, about slaves, is done and omitted on the same military necessity. It is a military necessity to have men and money; and we can get neither, in sufficient numbers, or amounts, if we keep from, or drive from, our lines, slaves coming to them. Mr. Durant cannot be ignorant of the pressure in this direction; nor of my efforts to hold it within bounds till he, and such as he shall have time to help themselves.
I am not posted to speak understandingly on all the police regulations of which Mr. Durant complains. If experience shows any one of them to be wrong, let them be set right. I think I can perceive, in the freedom of trade, which Mr. Durant urges, that he would relieve both friends and enemies from the pressure of the blockade. By this he would serve the enemy more effectively than the enemy is able to serve himself. I do not say or believe that to serve the enemy is the purpose of Mr. Durant; or that he is conscious of any purpose, other than national and patriotic ones. Still, if there were a class of men who, having no choice of sides in the contest, were anxious only to have quiet and comfort for themselves while it rages, and to fall in with the victorious side at the end of it, without loss to themselves, their advice as to the mode of conducting the contest would be precisely such as his is. He speaks of no duty—apparently thinks of none—resting upon Union men. He even thinks it injurious to the Union cause that they should be restrained in trade and passage without taking sides. They are to touch neither a sail nor a pump, but to be merely passengers,—dead-heads at that—to be carried snug and dry, throughout the storm, and safely landed right side up. Nay, more; even a mutineer is to go untouched lest these sacred passengers receive an accidental wound.
Of course the rebellion will never be suppressed in Louisiana, if the professed Union men there will neither help to do it, nor permit the government to do it without their help.
Now, I think the true remedy is very different from what is suggested by Mr. Durant. It does not lie in rounding the rough angles of the war, but in removing the necessity for the war. The people of Louisiana who wish protection to person and property, have but to reach forth their hands and take it. Let them, in good faith, reinaugurate the national authority, and set up a State Government conforming thereto under the constitution. They know how to do it, and can have the protection of the Army while doing it. The Army will be withdrawn so soon as such State government can dispense with its presence; and the people of the State can then upon the old Constitutional terms, govern themselves to their own liking. This is very simple and easy.
If they will not do this, if they prefer to hazard all for the sake of destroying the government, it is for them to consider whether it is probable I will surrender the government to save them from losing all. If they decline what I suggest, you scarcely need to ask what I will do. What would you do in my position? Would you drop the war where it is? Or, would you prosecute it in future, with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones? Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied.
I am in no boastful mood. I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination. I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.