Abraham Lincoln, Blind Memorandum (1864)

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.

When President Abraham Lincoln went to Gettysburg in November 1863 to help dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, the tide finally seemed to be turning in his favor.  The Union army had not only won pivotal victories during the previous summer by stopping the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania and by gaining full control over the Mississippi River, but also (and not unrelated) by achieving major political victories for Lincoln’s Republican Party and their Unionist allies in various fall elections .  Yet by the summer of 1864, that sense of Northern euphoria had collapsed.  The war was grinding on toward stalemate, and though Lincoln had been renominated by the National Union Party (a coalition of Republicans and War Democrats like Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, Lincoln’s new running mate), there was a growing sense that perhaps Lincoln was not up to the job of finishing the war.  In August 1864, there were even some leading Republicans who were calling to replace him at the head of the national ticket.  It was in this climate that Lincoln sat down at his White House desk on Tuesday morning, August 23, 1864 and composed a brief and mysterious memorandum that began by warning that his administration might very well be facing defeat at the polls in November.  Lincoln then pledged to “co-operate” with the winner of that election, presumably soon-to-be Northern Democratic nominee Gen. George McClellan, to “save the Union” before inauguration day (March 4, 1865) since no Democrat could “possibly save it afterwards.”  The president then folded up this memo and had his seven cabinet officers sign it without reading its contents.  He put the folded note away in his desk and did not reveal its contents to anyone until after he won a resounding victory on November 8, 1864.  Today, that document (located in the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Cognress) is known as the “Blind Memorandum.”
SOURCE FORMAT:  Private memorandum
WORD COUNT:  60 words

Executive Mansion
Washington, Aug. 23, 1864.
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.
CITATION:  Abraham Lincoln, Blind Memorandum, August 23, 1864, FULL TEXT via Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition
Lincoln’s August 23, 1864 memorandum (Library of Congress)

  • Why would Lincoln ask his cabinet secretaries to sign a document like this without reading it?  More important, why would any president’s subordinates agree to sign a document sight unseen?


  • If Lincoln really believed that he was going to lose the election, what else might he have done in August to try to avert his defeat?


  • Lincoln eventually revealed this secret document to his cabinet secretaries following his November victory.  But who might have been the intended audience for this memorandum in the event that Lincoln had actually lost the 1864 election?

Prof. Pinsker on the Blind Memorandum (1864)