#42 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

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“Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States … have further deemed it advisable to set on foot a blockade of the ports within the States aforesaid, in pursuance of the laws of the United States, and of the law of Nations, in such case provided.”

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How Historians Interpret

“It is not surprising that many observers at home and abroad should have regarded Lincoln as a man patently out of his depth in a crisis of such magnitude. To the London Times, for instance, he seemed weak, dilatory, and destined to be more of a follower than a leader in the conduct of the government. Yet the very confusion of circumstances, the very uniqueness and urgency of the problems confronting him, amounted to a slate wiped clean, offering an extraordinary opportunity for the exercise of leadership. How did Lincoln respond? Decisively, beyond question. Within the first three weeks following the attack on Fort Sumter: He issued proclamations of a blockade, dated April 19 and 27, that were tantamount to declaring the existence of a state of civil war.”

— Don E. Fehrenbacher, “Lincoln’s Wartime Leadership: The first Hundred Days,Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 9, no. 1 (1987), 2-18.


“While these actions may have bent the Constitution slightly, more serious extraconstitutional steps were also taken in the ten weeks between the bombardment of Sumter and the convening of Congress in July. Lincoln acted unilaterally in the belief that his emergency measures would be endorsed retrospectively by the House and Senate and thus made constitutional. On April 19, he declared his intention to blockade ports in the seven seceded states; a week later he extended it to cover Virginia and North Carolina. This he justified as a response to the Confederacy’s announcement on April 17 that it would issue letters of marque, authorizing privateers to seize Union shipping. In the momentous cabinet session of April 14, a majority agreed with Gideon Welles, who maintained that a blockade was more appropriate for a war between two nations rather than for a rebellion. Better to simply close the ports in the seceded states, argued the navy secretary, who understandably feared that the Union fleet was too small and antiquated to enforce a blockade. Bates believed that a blockade was ‘an act of war, which a nation cannot wage against itself’ but that closing ports was ‘altogether different.’ Seward, however, countered that closing Southern ports might provoke foreign nations to declare war. Lincoln at first sided with Welles, but Seward took him ‘off to ride, explained his own view,’ and the president gave in. The following day he told the cabinet and ‘that we could not afford to have two wars on our hands at once’ and therefore he would declare a blockade.”

— 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 23  (PDF), 2459-2460.


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April 19, 1861
By the President of the United States of America:
A Proclamation.
Whereas an insurrection against the Government of the United States has broken out in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, and the laws of the United States for the collection of the revenue cannot be effectually executed therein conformably to that provision of the Constitution which requires duties to be uniform throughout the United States:
And whereas a combination of persons engaged in such insurrection, have threatened to grant pretended letters of marque to authorize the bearers thereof to commit assaults on the lives, vessels, and property of good citizens of the country lawfully engaged in commerce on the high seas, and in waters of the United States: And whereas an Executive Proclamation has been already issued, requiring the persons engaged in these disorderly proceedings to desist therefrom, calling out a militia force for the purpose of repressing the same, and convening Congress in extraordinary session, to deliberate and determine thereon:
Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, with a view to the same purposes before mentioned, and to the protection of the public peace, and the lives and property of quiet and orderly citizens pursuing their lawful occupations, until Congress shall have assembled and deliberated on the said unlawful proceedings, or until the same shall have ceased, have further deemed it advisable to set on foot a blockade of the ports within the States aforesaid, in pursuance of the laws of the United States, and of the law of Nations, in such case provided. For this purpose a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels from the ports aforesaid. If, therefore, with a view to violate such blockade, a vessel shall approach, or shall attempt to leave either of the said ports, she will be duly warned by the Commander of one of the blockading vessels, who will endorse on her register the fact and date of such warning, and if the same vessel shall again attempt to enter or leave the blockaded port, she will be captured and sent to the nearest convenient port, for such proceedings against her and her cargo as prize, as may be deemed advisable.
And I hereby proclaim and declare that if any person, under the pretended authority of the said States, or under any other pretense, shall molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board of her, such person will be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this nineteenth day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-fifth.
By the President:
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State