Letter to Isaac M. Schermerhorn

Abraham Lincoln wrote this letter in response to an invitation to attend “the National Union ratification meeting” in Buffalo, NY. This reply came two months before the 1864 presidential election. In that election, the question of whether to finish the war or reach a peace agreement with the Confederate government was a central issue.
Abraham Lincoln
Grade Level

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

My dear Sir.

Yours inviting me to attend a Union Mass Meeting at Buffalo is received. Much is being said about peace; and no man desires peace more ardently than I. Still I am yet unprepared to give up the Union for a peace which, so achieved, could not be of much duration. The preservation of our Union was not the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced. It was commenced for precisely the reverse object to destroy our Union. The insurgents commenced it by firing upon the Star of the West, and on Fort Sumpter, and by other similar acts. It is true, however, that the administration accepted the war thus commenced, for the sole avowed object of preserving our Union; and it is not true that it has since been, or will be, prosecuted by this administration, for any other object. In declaring this, I only declare what I can know, and do know to be true, and what no other man can know to be false.

In taking the various steps which have led to my present position in relation to the war, the public interest and my private interest, have been perfectly parallel, because in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union. The whole field has been open to me, where to choose. No place-hunting necessity has been upon me urging me to seek a position of antagonism to some other man, irrespective of whether such position might be favorable or unfavorable to the Union.

Of course I may err in judgment, but my present position in reference to the rebellion is the result of my best judgment, and according to that best judgment, it is the only position upon which any Executive can or could save the Union. Any substantial departure from it insures the success of the rebellion. An armistice, a cessation of hostilities, is the end of the struggle, and the insurgents would be in peaceable possession of all that has been struggled for. Any different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it. Nor is it possible for any Administration to retain the service of these people with the express or implied understanding that upon the first convenient occasion, they are to be re-enslaved. It can not be; and it ought not to be.

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/draft-of-letter-to-isaac-m-schermerhorn/.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    According to Lincoln, who started the Civil War?
    The “insurgents” started it by firing at Fort Sumter, and the United States “accepted the war thus commenced.”
  2. Question
    According to Lincoln, why was his administration fighting the war?
    He declares that the goal of his administration has been “preserving our Union.” That, he wrote, was the “sole avowed object” of the administration and the administration’s prosecution of the war had not been “for any other object.”
  3. Question
    According to the letter, why does Lincoln oppose a peace compromise with the Confederate government? How does he justify his position?
    He claims that a peace compromise with the “insurgents” “insures the success of the rebellion,” as the “insurgents would be in peacable possession of all that has been struggled for.” He justifies his position simply by saying that he is the most informed about the situation and trusts his own judgment.
  4. Question
    According to the letter, why does Lincoln oppose changing the administration’s policy towards the inclusion of black Americans in the war effort?
    Lincoln does not defend this policy on grounds of racial equality or racial justice, but rather simply on the grounds that the government needs the services of black Americans in order to continue the war efforts.
  5. Question
    Do you consider the opinions Lincoln voices in this letter conservative or progressive?
    Answers will vary. One arguing that it is conservative might point to the fact that in this letter Lincoln only supports the rights of black Americans in so much as it is useful for the government and its prosecution of the war. One arguing that it is progressive might point to the fact that in this letter Lincoln refuses to change the administration’s policy towards the increasing rights of black Americans.
Reveal Answers
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