Lincoln and Equal Rights: The Authenticity of the Wadsworth Letter


This article was originally published in The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb., 1966), pp. 83-87.

In the current national debate on the race problem, the authority of the Great Emancipator has been claimed by both sides. Some have represented Lincoln as an archsegregationist by quoting from the 1858 debates, in which he opposed political and social equality for Negroes, and by alluding to his advocacy of various colonizationist schemes.[1] The task of capturing the Presi­dent for the equalitarian cause has been more difficult; the evi­dence here consists mainly of general remarks by Lincoln about his dedication to the principles of the Declaration of Independ­ence, his suggestions to Governor Michael Hahn in March 1864, and a letter he is said to have written to Major General James S. Wadsworth in January 1864.[2] The last item goes far toward put­ting Lincoln squarely in the equalitarian camp—if it is authentic. There are circumstances, however, that cast doubt on its genuine­ness.

The letter, as it appears in Basler’s Collected Works of Lincoln, follows:

To James S. Wadsworth

[January, 1864?]

You desire to know, in the event of our complete success in the field, the same being followed by a loyal and cheerful submission on the part of the South, if universal amnesty should not be accompanied with universal suffrage.

Now, since you know my private inclinations as to what terms should be granted to the South in the contingency mentioned, I will here add, that if our success should thus be realized, followed by such desired results, I cannot see, if universal amnesty is granted, how, un­der the circumstances, I can avoid exacting in return universal suf­frage, or, at least, suffrage on the basis of intelligence and military service.

How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention; hence I think I am clear and decided as to what course I shall pursue in the premises, regarding it a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people, who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battlefield, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended.

The restoration of the Rebel States to the Union must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of both races; and it must be sealed by general amnesty.[3]

The first three paragraphs were published in the New York Tribune, September 26, 1865. As the source for its version, the Tribune cited the Southern Advocate of September 18, 1865. The editors of the Collected Works admit that they have not been able to find this newspaper (neither has the present writer), to say nothing of the original letter.[4] The fourth paragraph did not ap­pear in the Tribune. It originated as a quotation appearing in the Marquis de Chambrun’s “Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln,” Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 1 (January 1893), p. 36: “They [Lincoln’s ideas] seem to me far better summed up in a letter he wrote in 1864 to General Wadsworth, one of the victims of the civil war, in which he said …,” and then follows the fourth paragraph enclosed in quotation marks; no other part of the letter is quoted. The editors of the 1905 edition of Nicolay and Hay’s Complete Works attached it to the three paragraphs originally published in the Tribune, while omitting to point out that the Marquis himself had not alluded to those paragraphs.[5] The edi­tors of Basler’s Collected Works likewise included the fourth paragraph, citing the Scribner s article as their source. They then go on to say: “The contents of the excerpt [meaning the entire letter] is [sic], however, closely in keeping with the views ex­pressed by Lincoln elsewhere (see Fragment, August 26, 1863, supra), and seems to be genuine.” But the “fragment” cited makes no statement whatever about Negro suffrage, nor does Lincoln’s letter to James C. Conkling of the same date, of which the frag­ment may at one time have been a part.[6]

Internal inconsistencies alone cast serious doubt on the integ­rity of the Wadsworth letter. The first paragraph is merely in­troductory and may be ignored. In the second, universal amnesty is made conditional upon either (1) suffrage for all Negroes as well as whites or (2) suffrage for Negroes “on the basis of intel­ligence and military service.”

In the third paragraph, suffrage is asserted to be the “right” of those Negroes who have served in the Union army. This con­trasts with the previous statement, which by clear implication links amnesty for Southern whites with suffrage for Southern Negroes. Furthermore, the style of this paragraph (in comparison to that of the second) does not sound like Lincoln, who was not given to talking of his “religious duty” or to describing himself as the “nation’s guardian” of the Negro.

It is the final paragraph, however, which is totally anomalous. Here Lincoln supposedly asserts that the restoration of the South­ern states “must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of both races; and it must be sealed by general amnesty.” No other public or private statement by Lincoln even remotely approximates the substance of that sentence. As is well known, Lincoln was anything but an equalitarian. For years he was a proponent of colonization as the best solution to the race ques­tion. In both his first and second annual messages to Congress he asked for appropriations for that purpose. The day before the Emancipation Proclamation was promulgated, the President signed a contract with Bernard Kock, who undertook to settle Negroes on lie a Vache, Haiti, for fifty dollars a head. The colony was actually established in 1863, but failed miserably, the sur­vivors being brought back to the United States in March 1864.[7] On July 1 of that year John Hay remarked in his diary that Lin­coln had given up colonization, apparently because of the dis­honesty of the speculators involved.[8] However, if Benjamin F. Butler can be believed, Lincoln was still looking for a practicable method of expatriation just before his death. According to Butler, in April 1865 he had a conversation with the President in which the latter said: “But what shall we do with the negroes after they are free? I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes.” The Union now had a large navy, Lincoln continued. Would it not be possible to send the freedmen overseas? He asked Butler to think about it and give him the benefit of his advice.[9]

If Lincoln wanted Negroes out of the country so badly, it is scarcely possible that he would make their “civil and political equality” a condition of reconstruction. And there is direct as well as circumstantial evidence demonstrating that he intended no such thing. His proclamation of December 8, 1863, establishing conditions under which Union governments could be erected in the South, said nothing whatever about suffrage, other than to disqualify certain categories of high-ranking Confederates.[10] Such a government was set up in Louisiana by General Nathaniel P. Banks under the President’s careful supervision. The free Ne­groes of the state urged Lincoln to insure that they be enfran­chised by the new constitution. The result was the most extreme position Lincoln ever took on Negro suffrage, the well-known confidential letter of March 13, 1864, to Louisiana’s Union gover­nor, Michael Hahn. In it he “barely” suggested for Hahn’s “pri­vate consideration” that “very intelligent” Negroes and those who had served in the United States army be given the vote. “But,” he concluded, “this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone.”[11] The Wadsworth letter, it will be recalled, was supposedly written early in 1864; necessarily, it could not have been written later than May, when Wadsworth was killed. Lincoln’s attitude remained unchanged to the very end, for in his last public address (April 11, 1865) he said: “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man [by the new Louisiana constitution]. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”[12]

These statements are consistent with the second paragraph of the Wadsworth letter. They are only partially in agreement with the third paragraph. And they are completely at variance with the final paragraph. Had that paragraph been available to the Tribune, it would most certainly have been printed. Horace Greeley’s slogan for reconstruction in 1865 was “Universal Am­nesty and Impartial Suffrage.”[13]

What doubtless happened was that the quotation from the Marquis de Chambrun’s Scribner’s article was merely his inac­curate summary of the letter which appeared in the Tribune and other newspapers. Either he or Scribner’s added quotation marks, whereupon it was taken by the editors of Nicolay and Hay’s Com­plete Works and Basler’s Collected Works as an additional para­graph.

To conclude, then, the first two paragraphs of the Wadsworth letter are completely in agreement with Lincoln’s public and pri­vate statements on Negro suffrage. The third paragraph does not ring true and quite possibly may have been added by some zeal­ous member of the Tribune staff. The fourth paragraph is not authentic. It is, of course, the key one for purposes of the present dispute on the race question.

Lincoln has been dead for a century, and yet he is so little un­derstood that his spirit continues to be invoked to sanctify some absolute political or moral principle. It must reveal something about the American character when the most consummate pragmatist in our history is transformed into a Moses with command­ments.

[1] For example, see the advertisement of the Citizens’ Councils of America, Washington Post, February 10, 1964.

[2] See the New York Times, February 11, 1964, for comments of various his­torians on the advertisement mentioned in note 1. None of them mentioned the Wadsworth letter. The Washington Post, February 10, 1964, cited it in an edi­torial rebutting the advertisement. In arguing for Lincoln’s commitment to equal rights, Fawn M. Brodie, in “Who Won the Civil War, Anyway?” New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1962, stressed Lincoln’s “generally forgotten” letter to Wadsworth. The letter is accepted by Eric McKitrick, “The Decision to Recon­struct the South, 1865-1867: A Question of Alternatives,” in Leonard W. Levy and Merrill D. Peterson (eds.). Major Crises in American History: Documentary Problems (2 vols., New York, 1962), II, 15; and by Marvin R. Cain, “Lincoln’s Views on Slavery and the Negro: A Suggestion,” Historian, XXVI (August 1964), 512, 515. No attempt has been made to compile an exhaustive list of such in­stances.

[3] Roy P. Basler et al. (eds.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols, and index. New Brunswick, 1953-1955), VII, 101-102.

[4] Ibid., 102n. The letter is not in the Wadsworth Papers, which are now in the Library of Congress.

[5] John G. Nicolay and John Hay (eds.). Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln (Biographical Edition, 12 vols.. New York, 1905), XI, 130-31. The letter was included in an appendix devoted to items that did not appear in Nicolay and Hay’s original edition of the Works. This appendix was compiled by numerous collectors and especially by Gilbert Tracy.

[6] Basler et al. (eds.). Collected Works of Lincoln, VII, 102n; VI, 406-11.

[7] Frederic Bancroft, “The Colonization of American Negroes,” in Jacob E. Cooke, Frederic Bancroft, Historian (Norman, Okla., 1957), 203; William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln’s Plan of Reconstruction (Tuscaloosa, 1960), 93-94.

[8] Tyler Dennett (ed.), Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay (New York, 1939), 203.

[9] Benjamin F. Butler, Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler (Boston, 1892), 903.

[10] Basler et al. (eds.), Collected Works of Lincoln, VII, 53-56. ” Ibid., 243.

[11] Ibid., 243.

[12] Ibid., VIII: 403.

[13]Glyndon G. Van Deusen, Horace Greeley, Nineteenth-Century Crusader (Philadelphia, 1953), 324. The Tribune (September 26, 1865) claimed that the letter (without the fourth paragraph, of course) showed that Lincoln favored both universal amnesty and universal suffrage.


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