Letter to Horatio Seymour (August 7, 1863)

Contributing Editors for this page include Susan Segal

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#147 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“…I do not object to abide a decision of the United States Supreme Court, or of the judges thereof, on the constitutionality of the draft law. In fact, I should be willing to facilitate the obtaining of it; but I can not consent to lose the time while it is being obtained.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, August 7, 1863

The Lincoln Log, August 7, 1863

 

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Posted at YouTube by “Understanding Lincoln” participant, Susan Segal, October 18, 2013

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How Historians Interpret

“After the riots, the governor bombarded Lincoln with acrimonious letters, arguing that the Empire State’s draft quotas were disproportionate compared to its population. He also urged that no further conscription should be undertaken until courts had ruled on the constitutionality of the Enrollment Act, ominously hinting that violent resistance might otherwise be renewed. Seymour dispatched influential New Yorkers to urge the postponement of the draft, predicting that if conscription were renewed, Irish servant girls would torch their employers’ homes. Ignoring the tone of menace in Seymour’s appeal, Lincoln on August 7 tactfully refused to honor his request. The president, who told John Hay that he was ‘willing and anxious to have the matter before the Courts,’ explained to Seymour that he did ‘not object to abide a decision of the United States Supreme Court, or of the judges thereof, on the constitutionality of the draft law,’ and would ‘be willing to facilitate the obtaining of it.’ But, he insisted, he could ‘not consent to lose the time while it is being obtained.’ (He could have pointed out that under the Constitution, laws were to be enforced until the courts ruled against them in response to complaints by persons affected by those laws.) The Confederate government, which had instituted a draft in 1862, ‘drives every able bodied man he can reach, into his ranks, very much as a butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter-pen. No time is wasted, no argument is used.’ Thus the enemy ‘produces an army which will soon turn upon our now victorious soldiers already in the field, if they shall not be sustained by recruits.’ To placate Seymour, Lincoln agreed to reduce the quotas in some New York districts.

— Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript by Chapter, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 2, Chapter 31 (PDF), 2284-3385.

 

“Following the New York City draft riots, Governor Horatio Seymour of New York wrote Lincoln a long letter asking that the draft be suspended and its constitutionality be judged by the courts before the draft law was again executed. Lincoln in response both declined to suspend the draft (though he later reduced the state’s quota) and to wait until the United States Supreme Court determined the law’s constitutionality. He closed with an explanation: ‘My purpose is to be, in my action, just and constitutional; and yet practical, in performing the important duty, with which I am charged, of maintaining the unity, and the free principles of our common country.’”

— James A. Rawley, “The Nationalism of Abraham Lincoln Revisited,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 22, no. 1 (2001), 33-48.

NOTE TO READERS

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Searchable Text

Executive Mansion, Washington, August 7, 1863
 
His Excellency Horatio Seymour 
Governor of New-York
 
Your communication of the 3rd. Inst. has been received, and attentively considered.
 
I can not consent to suspend the draft in New-York, as you request, because, among other reasons, time is too important.
 
…I do not object to abide a decision of the United States Supreme Court, or of the judges thereof, on the constitutionality of the draft law. In fact, I should be willing to facilitate the obtaining of it; but I can not consent to lose the time while it is being obtained. We are contending with an enemy who, as I understand, drives every able bodied man he can reach, into his ranks, very much as a butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter-pen. No time is wasted, no argument is used. This produces an army which will soon turn upon our now victorious soldiers already in the field, if they shall not be sustained by recruits, as they should be. It produces an army with a rapidity not to be matched on our side, if we first waste time to re-experiment with the volunteer system, already deemed by congress, and palpably, in fact, so far exhausted, as to be inadequate; and then more time, to obtain a court decision, as to whether a law is constitutional, which requires a part of those not now in the service, to go to the aid of those who are already in it; and still more time, to determine with absolute certainty, that we get those, who are to go, in the precisely legal proportion, to those who are not to go.
 
 
My purpose is to be, in my action, just and constitutional; and yet practical, in performing the important duty, with which I am charged, of maintaining the unity, and the free principles of our common country. 
 
Your Obt. Servt.
A. LINCOLN.
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