Letter to Alexander H. Stephens, December 22, 1860

After the 1860 election, Lincoln wrote a letter to the future Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, concerning the South’s fears of his presidency threatening slavery.
Abraham Lincoln
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 7.

My dear Sir 

Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me. 

Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. 

The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us. 

Yours very truly 


This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-alexander-h-stephens/.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What clues are there within the letter as to why Lincoln wrote Stephens on this issue?
    He refers to Stephens “as once a friend,” implying that Lincoln believes he can reason with him. Teacher Note: You may want to excerpt Stephens’ November 14, 1860 speech, wherein he says the South should not secede from the Union.
  2. Question
    South Carolina issued an ordinance of secession from the United States on December 20, 1860, which was adopted on the 24th. What context does this provide to Lincoln’s letter?
    South Carolina was the first state to try to leave the United States, which informs what Lincoln says is the “present peril” of the country. This event shows the possible urgency in the letter to prevent other states in the South from doing the same.
  3. Question
    What does Lincoln tell Stephens the South should not fear from Republicans?
    They should not fear his administration “directly or indirectly interfer[ing] with their slaves.” In other words, he is stating that he has no intention of threatening the institution of slavery in the slave states.
  4. Question
    How does Lincoln establish similarities between Republicans and Southerners, and how does he say they are different?
    He makes reference to the “days of Washington,” referencing their common history and foundational ideals. He says there is only one “substantial difference between” them.
    Lincoln states the South believes “slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” Thus, their only difference is their stances on slavery.
  5. Question
    To what extent does this letter provide evidence of slavery as the cause of the Civil War?
    In this appeal to the future Vice President of the Confederacy, the sole issue Lincoln mentions is slavery. In this way, the letter illustrates Lincoln’s belief that slavery was the “difference” leading to disunion.
Reveal Answers
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