President Lincoln Reads his “Conkling Letter” Aloud to Aide

August 16, 1863

President Lincoln is preparing a major speech to be read at a Union rally at Springfield, Illinois.  Presidential aide William O. Stoddard later relates what happened that day after he decided to visit the White House Library on the second floor:

If it is a good place to loaf in, it is also a good place to read in, and we will go over to the library and get a book.

It is a fairly well selected library, largely from the fact that only part of it was in any manner selected, and all the rest simply gathered from time to time. It is an evening for novel-reading. Something tame and quiet, like Bulwer, to grow still and rested over, after the thrilling realities of the long life-romance of these White House days.

Why not read in the library? Nobody can tell; but it does not seem to be the right place to read in, and then Mr. Lincoln is still at work in his own rooms and you might as well be here.

One can really become interested in Bulwer’s Strange Story, but if he could have spent a few months in Andrew Jackson’s chair, what wonderful things he might have written!

“Ah! I’m glad you’re here. I was thinking everybody had gone. Come over into my room.”

“Certainly, Mr. Lincoln!”

Down come your feet from the mantel, the Strange Story shoots across the table, and you follow him back across the hall into the room where he and so many other Presidents before him have sat, alone or in company, and have pondered or discussed the condition of parties and the country and all the world, if not the other world.

Mr. Lincoln has evidently been sitting at the end of the Cabinet table, and he has been writing something. He has in hand a number of sheets of closely written foolscap paper.

“Sit down. I can always tell more about a thing after I’ve heard it read aloud, and know how it sounds. Just the reading of it to myself doesn’t answer as well, either.”

“Do you wish me to read it to you?”

“No, no; I’ll read it myself. What I want is an audience. Nothing sounds the same when there isn’t anybody to hear it and find fault with it.”

“I don’t know, Mr. President, that I’d care to criticise anything you’d written.”

“Yes, you will. Everybody else will. It’s just what I want you to do. Sit still now, and you’ll make as much of an audience as I call for.”

He has been punctuating his manuscript with a pen, while speaking, and he has drawn the pen across it, through something that is to come out.

If you are indeed an audience, you believe he has forgotten you are there for a moment, but that is only while he is beginning. He is more an orator than a writer, and he is quickly warmed up to the place where his voice rises and his long right arm goes out, and he speaks to you somewhat as if you were a hundred thousand people of an audience, and as if he believes that something like fifty thousand of you do not at all agree with him. He will convince that half of you, if he can, before he has done with it.

The manuscript is long. It is a letter nominally addressed to some gentlemen in Illinois, but really to the country and to the world. He. is satisfied that it is about what he intended it should be, and he laughs silently when at last he puts it down on the table.

            “Now! Is there any criticism that you wanted to make?”

“Well, I was thinking—of course, it’s as nearly beyond criticism as it well could be, but there’s one place”

            “What’s that? Take the paper and show it to me.”

“Why, Mr. Lincoln, some people will find fault with this: ‘Nor must Uncle Sam’s web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present, not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, the rapid river, but also up the narrow, muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been and made their tracks.'”

The silent laugh of the President becomes heartily audible, as he listens to that bit of criticism.

“I reckoned it would be some such place as that. I’ll leave it in just as it is. I reckon the people’ll know what it means.”

“That’s about the only fault I can find, but I never saw a web-footed gunboat in all my life. They’re a queer kind of duck.”

“Some of ’em did get ashore, though,” and the silent laugh comes again this time. “I’ll leave it in, now I know how it’s going to sound. That’ll do. I sha’n’t want you any more to-night.”

About this date, President Lincoln drafts a letter to General Stephen A. Hurlbut: “The within discusses a difficult subject–the most difficult with which we have to deal.  The able bodied male contrabands are already employed by the Army.  But the rest are in confusion and destitution.  They better be set to digging their subsistence out of the ground.  If there are plantations near you, on either side of the river, which are abandoned by their owners, first put as many contrabands on such, as they will hold–that is, as can draw subsistence from them.  If some still remain, get loyal men, of character in the vicinity, to take them temporarily on wages, to be paid to the contrabands themselves–such men obliging themselves to not let the contrabands be kidnapped, or forcibly carried away.  Of course, if any voluntarily make arrangements to work for their living, you will not hinder them.  It is thought best to leave details to your discretion subject to the provisions of the acts of Congress & the orders of the War Department.

By directions of the President.

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Published in: on August 16, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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