President Lincoln discusses British Public Opinion and Emancipation

April 7, 1864

English abolitionist George Thomas and several American abolitionists visit the White House after Thompson spoke at the House of Representatives the previous night. The President was with artist France B. Carpenter when they arrived: “Dropping all business, he ordered the party to be immediately admitted. Greeting them very cordially, the gentlemen took seats, and Mr. Thompson commenced conversation by referring to the condition of public sentiment in England in regard to the great conflict the nation was passing through. He said the aristocracy and the ‘money interest’ were desirous of seeing the Union broken up, but that the great hear of the masses beat in sympathy with the North. They instinctively felt that the cause of liberty was bound up with our success in putting down the Rebellion, and the struggle was being watched with the deepest anxiety,” reported Carpenter in his memoirs. “

“Mr. Thompson,” responded President Lincoln, “the people of Great Britain, and of other foreign governments, were in one great error in reference to this conflict. They seemed to think that, the moment I was President, I had the power to abolish slavery, forgetting that, before I could have any power whatever, I had to take the oath of support the Constitution of the United States, and execute the laws as I found them. When the Rebellion broke out, my duty did not admit of a question. That was, first, by all strictly lawful means to endeavor to maintain the integrity of the government. I did not consider that I had a right to touch the ‘State’ institution of ‘Slavery until all other measures for restoring the Union had failed. The paramount idea of the constitution is the preservation of the Union. It may not be specified in so many words, but that this was the idea of its founders is evident; for without the Union, the constitution would be worthless. IT seems clear then that in the last extremity, if any local institution threatened the existence of the Union, the Executive could not hesitate as to his duty. In our case, the moment came when I felt that slavery must die that the nation might live! I have sometimes used the illustration in this connection of a man with a diseased limb, and his surgeon. So long as there is a chance of the patient’s restoration, the surgeon is solemnly bound to try to save both life and limb; but when the crisis comes, and the limb must be sacrificed as the only chance of saving the life, no honest man will hesitate”

“Many of my strongest supporters urged Emancipation before I thought it indispensable, and, I may say, before I thought the country ready for it., It is my conviction that, had the proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it. Just so, as to the subsequent action in reference to enlisting blacks in the Border States. The step, taken sooner, could not, in my judgment, have been carried out. A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap! We have seen this great revolution in public sentiment slowly but surely progressing, so that, when final action came, the opposition was not strong enough to defeat the purpose. I can now solemnly assert,” he concluded, “that I have a clear conscience in regard to my action on this momentous question. I have done what no man could have helped ‘doing, standing in my place.”

According to Carpenter, Oliver Johnson, formerly president of the Anti-Slavery Society of New York, “assured the President that they had fully appreciated the difficulties and embarrassments of his position; but when they realized the importance of the grand issue, and observed the conflicting influences that were surging around him, they were in an agony of anxiety lest he should somehow be led to take a false position. If, in the months preceding the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, they had seemed impatient and distrustful, it was because their knowledge of his character had not been sufficient to assure them that he would be able to stand up manfully against the opposing current. He thanked God that the result had shown that we had a President who was equal to the emergency; and for his part he was willing to sink all minor issues in the grand consummation he believed then in sight!”

Carpenter noted: “A characteristic incident occurred toward the close of the interview. When the President ceased speaking, the Rev. Mr. Pierpont. impressed with his earnestness, turned to Mr. Thompson, and repeated a Latin quotation from the classics. Mr. Lincoln, leaning forward in his chair, looked from one to the other inquiringly, and then remarked, with a smile, “Which, I suppose you are both aware, I do not understand.’”

As President Lincoln took his guest downstairs to look at Carpenter’s painting, he remarks to Thompson: “Your folks made rather sad work of this mansion when they came up the Potomcc in 1812. Nothing was left of it but the bare walls.”

President Lincoln writes General Benjamin F. Butler: “Mrs L. and I think we will visit Fort-Monroe some time next week; meanwhile whatever is to be done on the business-subject will be conducted through the War Department. Please do not make public our probable visit.”

Former Secretary of War Simon Cameron writes President Lincoln regarding Pennsylvania Republican politics: “Your friends had a very great triumph last night, in the action of the State Central Comt. uncommon efforts had been made all over the state to get a recommendation to delay the National Convention. These efforts were ordered by Gov– Curtin who joined the new secret order of the ” Strong Bond” to give more effort to his exertions. Ex-Governor Johnston was here too, as was, also Colonel [Alexander] McClure– But the committee would not be controled. They directed delegates to the National convention to be elected in the Districts, which is what your friends wanted. There is more bitterness against you than patriotism warrants– ”

 

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