Letter to John Fremont (September 2, 1861)

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#57 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“Two points in your proclamation of August 30th give me some anxiety.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, September 2, 1861

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How Historians Interpret

“Frémont’s political blundering upset Lincoln more than his military ineptitude.  On August 30, the impulsive, flamboyant, grandiose Pathfinder of the West issued a proclamation establishing martial law throughout Missouri, condemning to death civilians caught with weapons behind Union lines, and freeing the slaves and seizing the property of rebels.  Before issuing this fateful decree, he had consulted his wife and a Quaker abolitionist but no one in the administration.  While the Northern press generally lauded the Pathfinder’s emancipation edict, residents of the Bluegrass State indignantly denounced it as ‘an abominable, atrocious, and infamous usurpation’. . .Lincoln gently but firmly urged Frémont to rescind the emancipation order, which went beyond the Confiscation Act passed by Congress in early August, freeing only those slaves directly supporting Confederate military efforts. . .The quarrelsome Frémont, who was temperamentally reluctant to follow orders and predisposed to ignore others’ feelings, rashly declined to modify his decree without being instructed to do so.  He argued that if ‘I were to retract of my own accord it would imply that I myself thought it wrong and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded. But I did not do so. I acted with full deliberation and upon the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary, and I think so still.’  Defiantly, Frémont ordered thousands of copies of the original proclamation distributed after the president had demanded its modification.  Reluctantly, Lincoln complied with Frémont ’s request for a direct order and thus ignited a firestorm of protest.  His mailbag overflowed with letters denouncing the revocation.  Pro-secession Missourians took heart. One observer reckoned that the president’s action ‘gave more ‘aid and comfort to the enemy’ in that State than if he had made the rebel commander, Sterling Price, a present of fifty pieces of rifled cannon.’”

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapters, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 2, Chapter 24 (PDF), pp. 2587-2591

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Private and confidential.
Washington D.C. Sept. 2, 1861.
 
Major General Fremont
 
My dear Sir:
Two points in your proclamation of August 30th give me some anxiety. First, should you shoot a man, according to the proclamation, the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best man in their hands in retaliation; and so, man for man, indefinitely. It is therefore my order that you allow no man to be shot, under the proclamation, without first having my approbation or consent.
 
Secondly, I think there is great danger that the closing paragraph, in relation to the confiscation of property, and the liberating slaves of traiterous owners, will alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us—perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky. Allow me therefore to ask, that you will as of your own motion, modify that paragraph so as to conform to the first and fourth sections of the act of Congress, entitled, “An act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes,” approved August, 6th, 1861, and a copy of which act I herewith send you. This letter is written in a spirit of caution and not of censure.
 
I send it by a special messenger, in order that it may certainly and speedily reach you.
 
Yours very truly
A. LINCOLN
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