The Civil War: Abraham Lincoln to John A. Gilmer

Springfield, Illinois

December 15, 1860

The outgoing president, James Buchanan, had delivered his lukewarm message of unity to the country. South Carolina wasn’t swayed; she continued her efforts to secede. The incoming president, Abraham Lincoln, had the opportunity to send to the country his own statement. Perhaps he still could save the Union without a war.

John A. Gilmer held out hope for this; Lincoln could show his opponents—even by simply sending Gilmer a letter—that he would not be the president they had feared. Gilmer wrote to Lincoln as such, but the response he received quashed this notion. “I am greatly disinclined to write a letter on the subject embraced in yours; and I would not do so, even privately as I do, were it not that I fear you might misconstrue my silence,” Lincoln wrote.

After the election—after winning the election—how could anyone ask Lincoln to discount himself and to renounce his own party, while in the ascendancy? Lincoln asked: “Is it desired that I shall shift the ground upon which I have been elected?” And he answered his own question: “I can not do it.”

“It would make me appear as if I repented for the crime of having been elected, and was anxious to apologize and beg forgiveness,” Lincoln wrote. And if anyone had any doubts about what specifically Lincoln could or couldn’t do, he hinted that those doubters need only remember that Congress was positioned to serve as a gatekeeper. He wrote, “I have no thought of recommending the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, nor the slave trade among the slave states, even on the conditions indicated; and if I were to make such recommendation, it is quite clear Congress would not follow it.”

And as to those controversial personal liberty laws that northern states had passed—galvanizing support from their residents and antagonizing the southern states—, Lincoln wrote that he had not read one and knew “very little of them.” He would be glad to see them repealed if they violated the Constitution, but, he wrote, “I could hardly be justified, as a citizen of Illinois, or as President of the United States, to recommend the repeal of a statute of Vermont, or South Carolina.”

With that, there would be no backing down from his position but, instead, it was a closer look at the incoming president: Lincoln—here, as ever—would exercise his judgment prudently, with the deliberation and introspection due to the high office he was preparing to take.

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