Abraham Lincoln and Public Opinion

Abraham Lincoln and Public Opinion

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Treasury official George S. Boutwell noted that Abraham “Lincoln possessed the almost divine faculty of interpreting the will of the people without any expression by them.”1 Abraham Lincoln was an expert on public opinion – what it was and how it could be managed. James Russell Lowell, the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly, wrote: “Nothing is more remarkable than the unerring tact with which, in his debate with Mr. Stephen A. Douglas, he went straight to the reason of the question; nor have we ever had a more striking lesson in political tactics than the fact, that, opposed to a man exceptionally adroit in using popular prejudice and bigotry to his purpose, exceptionally unscrupulous in appealing to those baser motives that turn a meeting of citizens into a mob of barbarians, he should yet have won his case before a jury of the people.”2

An understanding of public opinion was indeed central to Mr. Lincoln’s political skills. Lincoln scholars Kenneth L. Deutsch and Joseph R. Fornieri wrote: “Never above the fray of political conflicts, the mature Lincoln was a prodigious political manipulator. David Donald has amply demonstrated that despite Lincoln’s many failures with the press, the politicians, and even the public, ‘he was nevertheless a successful politician.’ Adroitly exercising political skills, Lincoln ‘gained the opportunity of becoming a superb statesman.’ Rejecting dogmatic positions, using self-deprecating humor and ribald storytelling, making friends of potential adversaries, and showing his capacity to suffer for the entire nation all contributed to his distinctive political leadership. But far more important to the emergence of that leadership were his great ambition and native intelligence.”3

In managing public opinion, Mr. Lincoln never played the demagogue. Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan wrote: “President Lincoln practiced positive propaganda. He never called the Confederacy or Jeff Davis the enemy. He never played a race card. He reached out to political enemies and adversaries. He did not make politics personal; for Lincoln the political was not the personal. He admonished one politician, ‘You have more of that feeling of personal resentment than I. Perhaps I have too little of it; but I never thought it paid. A man has no time to spend half his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack me I never remember the past against him.’”4 Historian James Oakes wrote: “Lincoln took his time making decisions. Having made a decision, he said no more than needed to be said. He had a small d democrat’s sense of humility before the authority of the people, but he had an ear so finely tuned to the movement of public opinion that he was able to calibrate his own moves with astonishing skill. He knew just how far he could push the public mind, which arguments worked and which did not.”5

The Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois was Mr. Lincoln’s laboratory for American public opinion. Lincoln scholar M. L. Houser wrote: “But however important to Mr. Lincoln’s education and intellectual development this consorting with his more-distinguished friends on the circuit may have been, many philosophers believe that just as important, both to himself and to the country, was the understanding he acquired of the great mass of ordinary men who form that intangible but determinative thing called public opinion.”6 Not only did the Eighth Circuit expose Mr. Lincoln to everyday opinions in Illinois, it also gave him valuable practice in persuading the opinions of twelve-man juries.

In his 1842 Address on Temperance, Abraham Lincoln said: “When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and true maxim ‘that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what you will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”7

After a five-year sabbatical from the world of political persuasion, Mr. Lincoln reentered it after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1854. Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Driven by a clear understanding of the Union’s purpose, by a view of slavery as a doomed aberration in an enterprising, egalitarian society, and by a personal need to achieve, a politically reinvigorated Lincoln embarked in 1854 on a period of earnest public activity. As law partner William Herndon recalled, Lincoln the limited fatalist ‘made efforts at all times to modify and change public opinion and to climb to the Presidential heights; he toiled and struggled in this line as scarcely any man ever did.’”8

Political scientist Joseph R. Fornieri wrote: “Lincoln emphasized that slavery was the only evil that seriously threatened the Union. His moral case against slavery is complemented by the legal and historical case against it earlier in the speech. The case against the extension of slavery in the Peoria Address involved a prudent balancing of both moral obligation to the natural law and legal obligation to the Constitution.”9 The Kansas-Nebraska Act instituted by Senator Stephen A. Douglas did serious damage, in Mr. Lincoln’s view, not only to the intent of the Founders, but also to the opinions of Americans who believed that the issue of slavery’s expansion into northern territories had been settled with the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. Historian Herman Belz wrote: “Lincoln believed that passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was an act of violence, not law, that corrupted public opinion. The act was carried by senators’ votes ‘in violent disregard of the known will of their constituents,’ and it was maintained in violence when subsequent elections showing a clear demand for its repeal were disregarded.”10

In a speech to fellow Republicans in Chicago in December 1856, Mr. Lincoln said: “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or on? any subject, always has a ‘central idea,’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That ‘central idea’ in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, ‘the equality of men.’”11 Mr. Lincoln always believed that most Americans shared his belief in the centrality of the Declaration of Independence. At the initial Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ottawa, Illinois in August 1858, he had said: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”12 But he understood that his opponents were also seeking to mold public opinion. In his House Divided Speech, Mr. Lincoln said of Democrats’s goals: “Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and mould public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, to not care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.”13

But Mr. Lincoln also understood risk as he approached the 1858 Senate campaign against Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Treasury official George S. Boutwell wrote that in 1858 “Douglas availed himself of the opportunity to excite the prejudices of the people, and thus secured his re-election to the Senate. Mr. Lincoln had a higher object: he sought to change public sentiment. No man ever lived who better understood the means of affecting public sentiment, or more highly appreciated its power and importance.”14 Lincoln scholar Dwight Anderson wrote: “According to Lincoln, ‘he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.’ But the molder of public sentiment, in playing for greater historical stakes, must also be willing to forfeit immediate success.”15 Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “As an experienced politician and, more particularly, one who had spent his career in minority parties, Lincoln was acutely aware of the importance of public opinion.” According to Wilson, “In the campaign of 1858, which featured the famous serious of debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln made the influencing of public opinion a primary issue. If the public had been led to believe by the actions of the founders and subsequent developments that slavery had been placed on a course of ultimate extinction, then Douglas and his Democratic cohorts, Lincoln argued, had been deliberately trying to undermine that sentiment.”16

Education and persuasion were keys to Lincoln’s attempts to mold public opinion. Lincoln scholar David Zarefsky wrote: “Lincoln’s theory of public opinion reflected the paradoxical nature of persuasion in a democracy. The people rule not through their wants and desires of the moment, but through a durable public sentiment that transcends individuals and is the product of history and culture. Politicians and orators must respect this source of the people’s power and yet not regard its hold over them as absolute. They cannot deny or discredit it, but they must seek to define, interpret, and stretch it. The people’s will expressed through durable public sentiment checks against the people’s will expressed through the momentary wish of a majority. In the Ottawa debate, when Lincoln said, ‘Public sentiment is everything,’ he was expressing his own first principles of advocacy and of governance.”17

Lincoln’s respect for public opinion was tied to his respect for public language and the people themselves. He was a careful speaker who seldom made idle public comments for the sake of hearing himself talk or gratifying his listeners. Ohio journalist David R. Locke noted of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates: “Lincoln admitted frankly all the weak points in the position of his party in the most open way, and that simple honesty carried conviction with it. His admissions of weakness, where weakness was visible, strengthened his position on points where he was strong. He knew that the people had intelligence enough to strike the average correctly. His great strength was in his trusting the people instead of considering them as babes in arms. He did not profess to know everything. The audience admired Douglas, but they respected his simple-minded opponent.”18

Chicago journalist Horace White, who served as Secretary of the Illinois Republican State Committee, later wrote “Lincoln was a frequent visitor at the campaign headquarters, and on important occasions he was specially sent for. The committee paid the utmost deference to his opinions. In fact, he was nearer to the people than they were. Traveling the circuit he was constantly brought in contact with the most capable and discerning men of the rural community. He had a more accurate knowledge of public opinion in central Illinois than anybody else, what kind of arguments would be influential with the voters and what kind of men could best present them.”19

As President, Mr. Lincoln adroitly managed public opinion regarding slavery – moving neither too fast or too slow. Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote: “From the genuine abolition view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country – a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.”20 Clergyman Moncure D. Conway met with President Lincoln in early 1862 to press the case for emancipation. At the end of the interview, President Lincoln said, “In working in the antislavery movement you may naturally come in contact with a good many people who agree with you, and possibly many overestimate the number in the country who hold such views. But the position in which I am placed brings me into some knowledge of opinions in all parts of the country and of many different kinds of people; and it appears to me that the great masses of this country care comparatively little about the negro, and are anxious only for military successes.’”21 Another Lincoln critic, Eugéne Pelletan, wrote: “We reason as though Mr. Lincoln wielded a dictatorial, unrestricted power at the White House. But Mr. Lincoln simply presides over a republic where popular opinion rules, and he is surrounded by divers opinions on the question of slavery.”22

Mr. Lincoln carefully stage-managed public opinion in the months before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Historian Allan Nevins wrote that in advance of the issuance of the Draft Emancipation Proclamation that Mr. Lincoln “dealt shrewdly with public opinion. As premature disclosure would have done great harm, he deliberately obscured his purpose, talking to different men in different veins. He often dissented from visitors anyway, just to excite them to a more vigorous statement of their reasons. To radicals, such as a deputation of ministers, he now argued reasons for delay; to conservatives like a his old Maryland friend Reverdy Johnson he offered reasons for acting. He gave Chase the impression that he would let the field commanders arm Negroes for defensive action; Leonard Swett, however, departed with the impression that he was adamant against both emancipation and the use of freedmen as soldiers. The last thing he could afford at the moment was to speak out. Nevertheless he did drop some pregnant hints. He must save the government, he assured Reverdy Johnson, ‘and it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any card unplayed.’ More caustically he informed August Belmont that the nation would no longer play a game in which it staked everything and its opponents nothing. ‘These enemies must understand that they cannot experiment ten years trying to destroy the government and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.”23

Indeed, no issue required more of President Lincoln’s skills in managing public opinion than did his preparation for the draft Emancipation Proclamation. Historian James Oakes wrote of President Lincoln’s meeting with African-American leaders in August 1862: “Lincoln made sure that his high-handed remarks would appear verbatim in the national press the very next day. In short, it was not a meeting, it was a performance. Lincoln was using his handpicked delegates, none of them important black leaders, in an effort to make emancipation more palatable to white racists.”24 Several weeks later Mr. Lincoln also stage-managed a confrontation with white clergy from Chicago who were pushing the emancipation of slaves in the South. Though he had already written most of the draft proclamation, he played devil’s advocate in questioning whether such a proclamation would do any good.

President Lincoln was very aware that what pleased one group in the North often would alienate another. Indiana Congressman George Julian argued to Mr. Lincoln that putting John C. Frémont back in command would “stir” the country, President Lincoln replied: “It would stir the country favorably on one side and stir it the other way on the other. I would please Frémont’s friends and displease the conservatives; and that is all I can see in the stirring argument. My proclamation was to stir the country; but it has done about as much harm as good.”25 An inebriated John W. Forney once told Lincoln aide John Hay: “Lincoln is the most truly progressive man of the age, because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.”26

President Lincoln had to balance important constituencies with very different ideas on race and slavery. In his Annual message to Congress in December 1862, Mr. Lincoln promoted his colonization scheme, saying, “Among the friends of the Union there is great diversity, of sentiment, and of policy, in regard to slavery, and the African race amongst us. Some would perpetuate slavery; some would abolish it suddenly, and without compensation; some would remove the freed people from us, and some would retain them with us; and there are yet other minor diversities. Because of these diversities, we waste much strength in struggles among ourselves. By mutual concession we should harmonize, and act together. This would be compromise; but it would be compromise among the friends, and not with the enemies of the Union.”27 Mr. Lincoln pushed colonization to pacify the racism prevalent in the North, but after promulgation of the Final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he ceased to promote this solution.

A key Lincoln characteristic was his patience. Internal Revenue Commissioner George S. Boutwell recalled in his memoirs that Mr. Lincoln “chose to act upon his own judgment in a matter of the supremest gravity, and in which, from the nature of the case, the sole responsibility was upon him. On the great question of the abolition of slavery his mind reached a definite conclusion, a conclusion on which he could act, but neither too early nor too late. The Proclamation was issued at a moment when the exigencies of the war justified its issue as a military necessity, and when, as a concurrent fact, the public mind was first prepared to receive it, and to give to the measure the requisite support.”28

Pacing was key. War Department official Charles A. Dana wrote: “Lincoln had the most comprehensive, the most judicious mind; he was the least faulty in his conclusions of any man I have ever known. He never stepped too soon, and he never stepped too late. When the whole Northern country seemed to be clamoring for him to issue a proclamation abolishing slavery, he didn’t do it. Deputation after deputation went to Washington. I remember one a hundred gentlemen, dressed in black coats, mostly clergymen, from Massachusetts, came to Washington to appeal to him to proclaim the abolition of slavery. But he did not do it. He allowed Mr. Cameron and General Butler to execute their great idea of treating slaves as contraband of war and protecting those who had got into our lines against being recaptured by their Southern owners; but he would not prematurely make the proclamation that was so much desired. Finally the time came, and of that he was the judge. Nobody else decided it; nobody commanded it; the proclamation was issued as he thought best, and it was efficacious. The people of the North, who during the long contest over slavery had always stood strenuously by the compromises of the Constitution, might themselves have become half rebels if this proclamation had been issued too soon. At last they were tired of waiting, tired of endeavoring to preserve even a show of regard for what was called ‘the compromises of the Constitution’ when they believed the Constitution itself was in danger. Thus public opinion was ripe when the proclamation came, and that was the beginning of the end. He could have issued this proclamation two years before, perhaps, and the consequence of it might have been our entire defeat; but when it came it did its work, and it did us no harm whatever. Nobody protested against it, not even the Confederates themselves.”29

Although northern radicals and abolitionists criticized Lincoln on emancipation, according to historian William E. Gienapp, Lincoln acted with a sure grasp of public opinion. Gienapp noted that Frederick Douglass argued: “Within the context of public sentiment, ‘a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult,’ Lincoln had acted on slavery as swiftly as possible.” Gienapp wrote: “Throughout the war, Lincoln was guided by an understanding of the larger issues of the struggle, Instead of catering to popular passions or inflaming sectional hatreds, he upheld the ideal that this was a war to preserve democracy, not just in this country but throughout the world.” President Lincoln received many delegations, often clergymen, often seeking to pressure him on emancipation policies. One day, Mr. Lincoln received such delegation whose “spokesman, fired with uncontrollable zeal, poured forth a lecture which was fault-finding in tone from beginning to end. It was delivered with much energy, and the shortcomings of the Administration were rehearsed with painful directness,” recalled Lincoln friend Ward Hill Lamon, who said that Mr. Lincoln delivered his response with “unusual animation”:

“Gentlemen, suppose all the property you possess were in gold, and you had placed it in the hands of Blondin to carry across the Niagara River on a rope. With slow, cautious, steady step he walks the rope, bearing your all. Would you shake the cable, and keep shouting to him, ‘Blondin! stand up a little straighter! Blondin! stoop a little more; go a little faster; lean more to the south! Now lean a little more to the north!’ – would that be your behavior in such an emergency? No; you would hold your breath, every one of you, as well as your tongues. You would keep your hands off until he was safe on the other side. This government, gentlemen, is carrying an immense weight; untold treasures are in its hands. The persons managing the ship of state in this storm are doing the best they can. Don’t worry them with needless warnings and complaints. Keep silence, be patient, and we will get you safe across. Good day, gentlemen. I have other duties pressing upon me that must be attended to.”30

Nevertheless, President Lincoln was not insensitive to such entreaties and took public opinion very seriously. Mr. Lincoln wasn’t out merely to win elections. He wanted to win the battle of public opinion, which he thought must be ignored at democracy’s peril. At Bloomington in 1854, he spoke of the Missouri Compromise: “All the evidences of public opinion at that day seemed to indicate that this Compromise had become canonized in the hearts of the American people as a sacred thing, which no ruthless hand should attempt to disturb.31 At Peoria a few weeks later, Mr. Lincoln famously said: “A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, can not be safely disregarded.”32

Historian Kenneth M. Stamp wrote that President-elect. Lincoln was acutely aware of the currents of public opinion in the period before his inauguration: “Of one thing Lincoln could be certain: that his hostility to compromise was not displeasing to the masses of Republicans, that any other course would have discredited him with his own supporters. His numerous callers, his wide correspondence, and the Republican press never let him forget what the party faithful thought of proposals to abandon the Chicago platform.” 33 President Lincoln’s critics did not always recognize the competing claims of different public opinions. Although he was impatient with President in 1862, Frederick Douglass wrote in early 1866 a more perceptive interpretation of the President’s behavior: “He never shocked prejudices unnecessarily. Having learned Statesmanship while splitting rails, he always tested the thin edge of the wedge first, and the fact that he used this at all, meant that he would if need be, like the thick as well as the thin.”34

Communications expert David Zarefsky emphasized: “The appeal to public sentiment function as a kind of deus ex machina for Lincoln. It enabled him to work from an absolute value position while avoiding commitment to an absolutist policy. By paying homage to the virtue of public sentiment – a virtue Douglas hardly could oppose because he believed in majority rule – Lincoln was able to suggest that a public judgment that slavery eventually was on the way out would have the same ultimate effect as would its immediate abolition. He thereby could reconcile his moral conviction against slavery with his unwillingness to support a politically extreme position.”35 Mr. Lincoln understood that he ignored public opinion at his peril. Lincoln was acutely conscious of both morality and public opinion. Public policy could not be separated from public opinion or public morality. Lincoln administration official Hugh McCulloch wrote: “He did not undertake to direct public opinion, but no man understood better the leadings of the popular will or the beatings of the popular heart. He did not seem to gain this knowledge from reading or from observation, for he read very few of our public journals, and was little inclined to call out the opinions of others. He was a representative of the people, and he understood what the people desired rather by a study of himself than of them.” 36 Historian David M. Potter wrote: “To Lincoln, public attitudes were part of the complex of deterministic forces which set the limits of possible action – just as real a part as constitutional guarantees, economic arrangements, and the physical dissimilarities of blacks and whites. These attitudes were ‘a fact,’ something no realist could safely disregard and no idealist could alter. This was the disinterested opportunism which says that politics is the art of the possible.”37

Treasury official George S. Boutwell noted: “The entire public policy of Mr. Lincoln was the natural outgrowth of his political principles as a Republican. Throughout the influence of experience and the exercise of power the politician ripened into the statesman, but the ideas, principles, and purposes of the statesman were the ideas, principles, and purposes of the partisan politician. In prosecuting the war for the Union, in the steps taken for the emancipation of the slaves, Mr. Lincoln appeared to follow rather than to lead the Republican party. But his own views were more advanced usually, than those of his party, and he waited patiently and confidently for the healthy movements of public sentiment which he well knew were in the right direction.”38

After Lincoln’s death, German-American leader Carl Schurz wrote: “Lincoln’s strength consisted not in his genius, for he did not possess actual genius. He was strong because he was the living embodiment of the popular will. He felt instinctively the convictions and determination of the people because these went through the same course of development in him as in the masses; and what he said and did was the popular opinion expressed in the popular speech and fulfilled in the popular manner. For this reason he was slow in taking steps, and never stepped backward.”39 Schurz occasionally thought he understood public opinion better than the President, but learned better.

Mr. Lincoln was a master of the art of the possible. Political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa wrote: “Lincoln never attempted to propose what was more than one step ahead of the great body of political public opinion. But he always led the way.”40 Treasury official Maunsell B. Field “that Mr. Lincoln was the most consummate politician that this country has yet produced, except his great rival, Stephen A. Douglas. He was in politics what the London Times is in journalism – never leading public opinion, but always following its wave so closely that, when it breaks, it is found swimming upon the crest. To the unobservant he appeared to lead, whereas he only followed. He had an unerring and rapid perception of the popular will, and the policy which he from time to time adopted was but the crystallization of that will.”41

Lincoln scholar William Wolf wrote: that “His confidence in the people had its roots in religious reality and its presupposition in God. It was not the secular theory that the will of the people constituted right. That is the principle of mobocracy. Vox populi, vox deo meant for Lincoln that, if not thwarted by man’s rebellion, God so guided the consciences of men in history that the people’s verdict was properly their response to His guidance. Even the qualification in this last sentence, ‘if not thwarted by man’s rebellion,’ needs further modification, for Lincoln held that God was constantly overruling those designs which were at cross-purposes with His own.”42 Mr. Lincoln told Illinois Republican Richard J. Oglesby: “Dick, remember to keep close to the people; they are always right and will never mislead anyone.” 43 Fellow attorney Joseph Gillespie recalled that Mr. Lincoln “really believed that the voice of the People in our emergency was next thing to the voice of God. He said he had no doubt whatever of our success in overthrowing the rebellion at the right time. God he said was with us and the People were behaving so nobly that all doubt had been removed from his mind as to our ultimate success. He firmly believed that no People in ancient or modern times had evinced as much patriotism or such a self sacrificing spirit as the loyal People of the United States.”44

Mr. Lincoln trusted people and urged them to make rational analysis of public problems. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “Out of his deep regard for the common folk came Lincoln’s self-erring instinct for popular sentiment; he divined how far and how fast he could go without losing touch with the majority. Out of it came his consistent refusal to talk down to the people or appeal to their passions. As James Russell Lowell wrote, he never played the Cleon – the demagogue. Instead, he presented the people with careful arguments, addressed to their reason and their loftier instincts. ‘I beg of you,’ he once said, after listing a certain set of arguments, ‘a calm and enlarged consideration of them. On minor questions he believed the people could err grievously; but on fundamental issues he would trust them, in the end, to decide aright.”45

Aide William O. Stoddard recalled: “Mr. Lincoln understood the people very well. He was a sort of revolutionary dictator. He was ready and willing to use all powers given him by his unwritten commission to ‘See to it that the Commonwealth suffers no harm.’ He was also a Constitutional President, under an oath to protect the rights of all citizens of every part of the country.”46 Artist Francis B. Carpenter wrote: “Mr. Lincoln liked to feel himself the attorney of the people, not their ruler. Speaking once of the probability of his renomination, he said: ‘If the people think I have managed their ‘case’ for them well enough to trust me to carry it up to the next term, I am sure I shall be glad to take it.”47

Mr. Lincoln understood that public opinion required public contact. When aide John G. Nicolay suggested on election day 1860 that Mr. Lincoln suspend his practice of receiving visitors at the State Capitol, Mr. Lincoln rejected the idea. He received visitors until he went to vote in mid-afternoon. President Lincoln “Saw people at all hours,” recalled longtime friend Joshua Speed.48 When friends urged him to cut back on the his office hours, he replied: “I call these receptions my public-opinion baths.” When Union officer Charles G. Halpine suggested to President Lincoln that he ought to screen his visitors, the President replied: “Ah, yes! Such things do very well for you military people, with your arbitrary rule, and in your camps. But the office of president is essentially a civil one, and the affair is very different. For myself, I feel, though the tax on my time is heavy, no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official, not to say arbitrary, in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong. I go into these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn as if waiting to be shaved in a barber’s shop. Many of the matters brought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage, out of which I sprang, and to which at the end of two years I must return. I tell you, Major, that I call these receptions my public-opinion baths; for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way, and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty. It would never do for a president to have guards with drawn sabres at his door, as if he fancied he were, or were trying to be, or were assuming to be, an emperor.”49 After Mr. Lincoln conversed with a mute woman who needed to write out her comments, Mr. Lincoln said: “That girl had no favor to ask, but she will live happier all her life because she met the President, and it is better at times to let a woman have her way and so he let her talk.”50

Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote: “He managed to leave his visitor not only free to utter his opinions, but by a wise reserve in the manner of insisting upon his own, he got even a little more from his visitor than his visitor got from him.”51 Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson recalled: “Mr. Lincoln was a genuine democrat in feelings, sentiments, and actions. How patiently and considerately he listened amid the terrible pressure of public affairs to the people who thronged his ante-room! I remember calling upon him one day during the war on pressing business. The ante-room was crowded with men and women seeking admission. He seemed oppressed, careworn, and weary. I said to him, ‘Mr. President, you are too exhausted to see this throng waiting to see you; you will wear yourself out and ought not see these people today.’ He replied with one of those smiles in which sadness seemed to mingle, ‘They don’t want much; they get but little, and I must seem them.’”52

Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Lincoln compensated for tying himself to Washington by turning his office schedule into an open-season for callers, petitioners, inventors, social-climbers, and what-not. ‘Nobody ever wanted to see the President who did not,’ Seward remarked to John Hay. “There never was a man so accessible to all sorts of proper and improper person.’ Ward Hill Lamon recalled that ‘Mr. Lincoln would let in People indiscriminately — Members of Congress could get to see him and most any time.’ Nicolay tried to screen out unwanted visitors (and earned the wrath of large portions of Washington officialdom in the process), but Lincoln insisted on lavishing large amounts of office time on them. ‘He said that as a republican government all men & women & Children had a right to see the Presdt & State his grievances,’ David Davis remembered.”53

Mr. Lincoln was not naive about the motives of men or why people brought him news and gossip. Secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote of Secretary of the Treasury’s Salmon P. Chase’s presidential maneuvers in late 1863 and early 1864: “The President was not unaware of this disposition of the minister of finance towards him. Presidents in even a greater degree than kings are kept informed of all currents of favor and hostility about them; for besides being to an equal degree the source of honors and of power, they are not encompassed by any of that divinity which hedges the hereditary ruler, and they are compelled to listen to the crude truth from the hundreds of statesmen and politicians who surround them.”54

Mr. Lincoln neither discounted nor was driven by public criticism. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “For most of his presidency, he was beset by critics on all sides. He found himself operating in a perpetual cross fire from congressmen, governors, generals, office seekers, ordinary citizens – all dissatisfied, and many sincerely convinced that he was incompetent and leading the nation down the path of destruction. His writings were an important part of his effort to respond to this pressure. His achievement is all the more remarkable when we consider that many of the presidential writings for which Lincoln is best known – the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural – were formulations of ideas and positions that were not immediately popular. That they eventually came to be widely admired and even venerated is a tribute to Lincoln’s rare combination of leadership and literary ability.”55 Pennsylvania journalist-politician Alexander K. McClure recalled: “With the possible exception of President Washington, whose political opponents did not hesitate to rob the vocabulary of vulgarity and wickedness whenever they desired to vilify the Chief Magistrate, Lincoln was the most and “best” abused man who ever held office in the United States. During the first half of his initial term there was no epithet which was not applied to him.

One newspaper in New York habitually characterized him as “that hideous baboon at the other end of the avenue,” and declared that “Barnum should buy and exhibit him as a zoological curiosity.”

Although the President did not, to all appearances, exhibit annoyance because of the various diatribes printed and spoken, yet the fact is that his life was so cruelly embittered by these and other expressions quite as virulent, that he often declared to those most intimate with him, “I would rather be dead than, as President, thus abused in the house of my friends.”56

Mr. Lincoln was assailed from all sides and he had to examine public policy from all sides. Frederick Douglass wrote more than a decade after the war ended that President Lincoln was “assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders; he was assailed by men who were for peace at any price; he was assailed by those who were for a more vigorous prosecution of the war; he was assailed for not making the war an abolition war; and he was most bitterly assailed for making the war an abolition war.”57 Historian F. Lauriston Bullard wrote: “Abraham Lincoln did not wobble. He was the leader of a political party, but he looked on all sides of all questions which he had to decide. He saw and listened to everybody. He called these daily seances his public opinion baths. He had to go warily amidst the conditions that had made him a minority President. He must keep his own conscience true, satisfy the reasonable wishes of a multitude of petitioners, and hew always to the line of the policy he had affirmed in the First Inaugural, the letter to Greeley, and the letter to James. C. Conkling and the other old friends in Springfield. He had his own apt illustration of the situation. Like Blondin crossing Niagara on a tightrope he must maintain a perilous equilibrium, being now this way and now that, while always going carefully though slowly forward.” 58

Like a tightrope-walker, President Lincoln was cautious. Lincoln scholar Herman Belz wrote: “Lincoln viewed public opinion primarily as a concept in which it embodies universal, objective, rational ideas and principles. This can be seen in well known references in his speeches to the ‘universal sense of mankind,’ ‘public sentiment,’ and ‘a universal feeling’ as enduring elements of political community and government.” Belz noted: “In April 1865, Lincoln told a crowd gathered to celebrate the end of the war that at that moment he was ‘not ready to say anything that one in my position ought to say.’ He explained his hesitation: ‘Everything I say, you know, goes into print. If I make a mistake it doesn’t merely affect me nor you but the country.’ Lincoln realized that the phenomenon of mass communications had the potential to change the relationship between the people and their government.”59

Mr. Lincoln needed to define the core concepts which held a democracy together. Political philosopher Harry Jaffa wrote that “public opinion, according to Lincoln, was not essentially or primarily opinion on a long list of individual topics, such as James Randall has enumerated, nor was it the kind of thing that the Gallup poll attempts to measure. ‘Public opinion, on any subject,’ said Lincoln, ‘always has a ‘central idea’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate.’ And the ‘central idea in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be ‘the equality of men.’”60

President Lincoln also recognized that public opinion had to be managed for long-term victory, not short-term effect. Aide John Hay wrote: “Nothing was more remarkable, during the whole progress of the war, than that gradual growth and consolidation of opinion which at last assured and accomplished the victory and prepared the reconstruction. The first rush to arms was rather at the bidding of an earnest patriotism to defend the flag and ‘redress wrongs long enough endured’ than the result of any logical reasoning process. But as the fight went on, month by month and year by year, in spite of all temporary reverses and checks, it was to be seen that the circle of fire was continually narrowing around the Rebellion, and the issue ceased to be doubtful.”61

The nature of Mr. Lincoln’s leadership of public opinion has sometimes been obscured by a passage in an April 1864 letter to Kentucky editor Albert G. Hodges. Writing about his leadership on slavery issues, Mr. Lincoln said: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected, God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.”62

Mr. Lincoln understood that he could lead but not outrun events. He did not always lead by obvious direction and his alleged passivity was deceiving. “Mr. Lincoln was always the master and he did not put on the appearance of it at all. He never gave a hair’s breadth, never gave way – he always had his own way. The relations between him and all the Secretaries were perfectly cordial always and unaffected, and without any appearance of his thinking himself the boss, but it was always his will, his order, that determined a decision,’” maintained War Department official Charles A. Dana.63 Illinois Governor Richard Yates, observed: “He was by far, too modest when he said in his letter to Hodges, that he ‘claimed not to have controlled events.’ The truth is, that while he aimed to consult the popular will, because he knew that that will was the power of the government, yet he did much to shape that will and to bring the people to believe in, and to do, what he wanted and intended should be done.”

Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote that “when one places this frequently quoted comment in the context of the complete letter, the impression of an essentially passive leader is dispelled. Lincoln concluded the letter with remarks that suggested that God, not he, was in control and that he as president was operating as the Almighty’s principal negotiator in the American political arena: ‘Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.’”64

Even longtime friends could be confused by Mr. Lincoln. “Lincoln never confided to me anything,’ David Davis complained in later years,’ “he said he ran the machine himself.’ And while he ‘listened patiently to all that had an idea,’ he ‘asked no man advice’ and ‘took no mans advice.’ If anything, he delighted in putting the over-curious off the track by painstakingly pointing out to them every sign of danger or dissonance in the path they were recommending, even though he personally planned to follow exactly that path. He preferred to keep up constantly the appearance of being led by the case rather than leading the jury, casting his real wishes by hypotheses and inviting his hearers to think of the unpleasant consequences if this or that should be the result, always avowing the most minimal of intentions and yet always ending with a tantalizing, almost off-hand suggestion that some dramatic new development might be over the hill of the next argument. He had no ‘disposition to make my own personal will supreme,’ he explained to a Missouri delegation; he simply wanted to ‘preserve one friend within me, whoever else fails me, to tell me. that I have acted right.”65

Novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe met with President Lincoln in the White House. She later wrote: “Lincoln is a strong man, but his strength is of a peculiar kind; it is not aggressive so much as passive, and among passive things, it is like the strength not so much of a stone buttress as of a wire cable. It is strength swaying to every influence, yielding on this side and on that to popular needs, yet tenaciously and inflexibly bound to carry its great end; and probably by no other kind of strength could our national ship have been drawn safely thus far during the tossings and tempests which beset her way. Surrounded by all sorts of conflicting claims, by traitors, by half-hearted, timid men, by Border States men, and Free States men, by radical Abolitionists, and Conservatives, he has listened to all, weighed the words of all, waited, observed, yielded now here and now there, but in the main kept one inflexible, honest purpose, and drawn the national ship through.”66

Patience was not passivity. Pennsylvania journalist Alexander K. McClure wrote: “The President was often in opposition to the general public sentiment of the North upon certain questions of policy, but he bided his time, and things usually came out as he wanted them.” It was Lincoln’s opinion, from the first, that apology and reparation to England must be made by the United States because of the arrest, upon the high seas, of the Confederate Commissioners, Mason and Slidell. The country, however (the Northern States), was wild for a conflict with England. “One war at a time,” quietly remarked the President at a Cabinet meeting, where he found the majority of his advisers unfavorably disposed to “backing down.” But one member of the Cabinet was a really strong supporter of the President in his attitude. “I am reminded,” the President said after the various arguments had been put forward by the members of the Cabinet, “of a fellow out in my State of Illinois who happened to stray into a church while a revival meeting was in progress. To be truthful, this individual was not entirely sober, and with that instinct which seems to impel all men in his condition to assume a prominent part in proceedings, he walked up the aisle to the very front pew. “All noticed him, but he did not care; for awhile he joined audibly in the singing, said ‘Amen’ at the close of the prayers, but, drowsiness overcoming him, he went to sleep. Before the meeting closed, the pastor asked the usual question – ‘Who are on the Lord’s side?’ – and the congregation arose en masse. When he asked, ‘Who are on the side of the Devil?’ the sleeper was about waking up. He heard a portion of the interrogatory, and, seeing the minister on his feet, arose.

“‘I don’t exactly understand the question,’ he said, ‘but I’ll stand by you, parson, to the last. ‘But it seems to me,’ he added, ‘that we’re in a hopeless minority.’ ‘I’m in a hopeless minority now,” said the President, ‘and I’ll have to admit it.’”67

New York Times editor Henry Raymond wrote that President Lincoln was governed by the country’s practicalities rather than his principles in dealing with slavery: “By awaiting the development of public sentiment, President Lincoln secured a support absolutely essential to success; and there are few persons now, whatever may be their private opinions on slavery, who will not concede that his measures in regard to that subject were adopted with sagacity, and prosecuted with a patient wisdom which crowned them with final triumph.”68 Mr. Lincoln had a long view of public policy and public opinion. Lincoln scholar David Zarefsky wrote that “Lincoln emphasized that it was public sentiment not opinion, not belief, but sentiment. Lincoln chose his words with care, and it is worth noting the difference between ‘sentiment’ and other terms he might have used. Public sentiment is more enduring than public opinion; it touches deeper roots in an individual’s system of beliefs and values. And it is not purely cognitive and rational; it reflects emotion wellsprings, too. If public sentiment held that slavery was doomed to eventual extinction, that meant something more than acceptance of an abstract proposition. It meant a commitment that sprang from the nexus of religious and ethical conviction, cultural tradition and narrative, and intellectual principle and reason.”69

President Lincoln understood he could not move public opinion by himself. He sought to employ journalists and editors as well as public officials and minister in his campaign to influence public opinion. “I wish, when you write or speak to people, you would do all you can to correct the impression that the war in Virginia will end right off and victoriously,” President Lincoln said to journalist Noah Brooks in June 1864. “The most trying thing of all this war is that the people are too sanguine; they expect too much at once.”70 As usual, President Lincoln turned out to be right.

Historian Allan Nevins wrote that President Lincoln “occasionally expressed his profound sense of duty, avowing that he could never betray ‘so vast and so sacred a trust as these free people have confided to me.’ But he never thought that this gave him license to abuse honest opponents. He had only one political test: let me help carry the war for the Union to success, and they might quarrel with him on any other issue whatever. If they would only vote supplies of men and money, discourage desertions, and encourage enlistments, he would admit their right to support slavery, defend State rights, oppose tariff changes, and denounce the homestead bill. Party differences were to him not merely permissible, but a necessity. ‘We cannot have free government elections,’ he said; nor, he would have added, without Congressional battles. If dangerous men spoke up in debate, everyone would soon know their badness: ‘What kills the skunk is the publicity it gives itself.’”71

French writer Charles Adolphe Pineton, the Marquis de Chambrun, met Mr. Lincoln in the last months of his life. He wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was not one of those rare and terrible geniuses who, being once possessed of an idea, apply it, curbing and sacrificing other men to the imperious instinct of their will. No; but, on the other hand, he knew better than anyone the exact will of the American people. Amid the noisy confusion of discordant voices which always arises in a free country at moments of crises he would distinguish with marvelous acuteness the true voice of public opinion. He had, however, nothing in common with these politicians, ever on the track of what seems to them to be popular caprice. His firm will, his exalted nature, above all, his inflexible honesty, always kept him aloof from those lamentable schemes; yet he well understood that he was the people’s agent, and that his duty obliged him to stand by his principle; for he was well aware of that close union which must exist in a free democracy between the authority representing the nation and the nation itself.”72

A knowledge of self was at the core of Mr. Lincoln’s understanding of public opinion.”Mr. Lincoln had more respect for & confidence in the masses than any statesman this country has ever produced,” according to friend Joseph Gillespie. “He told me in the spring of 1864 that the People were greatly ahead of the poloticians [sic] in their efforts for and confidence in putting down the rebellion. He said the government had been driven by the public voice into the employment of means & the adoption of measures for carrying on the war which they would not have dared to put into practise without such backing. He prized the suggestions of the unsophisticated People more than what was called State craft on political wisdom. He really believed that the voice of the People in our emergency was next thing to the voice of God”.73 Another fellow attorney, William. H. Herndon, remembered: “He was a very sensitive man, modest to the point of diffidence, and often hid himself in the masses to prevent the discovery of his identity. He was not indifferent, however, to approbation and public opinion. He had not disgusting egotism and no pompous pride, no aristocracy, no haughtiness, no vanity. Merging together the qualities of his nature he was a meek, quiet, unobtrusive gentleman.74

“Mr. Lincoln is not in the habit of saying, ‘This is my opinion, or my theory,’ but, ‘This is the conclusion to which, in my judgment, the time has come, and to which, accordingly, the sooner we come the better for us.’ His policy has been the policy of public opinion based on adequate discussion and on a timely recognition of the influence of passing events in shaping the features of events to come,” wrote James Russell Lowell after Mr. Lincoln’s death. “One secret of Mr. Lincoln’s remarkable success in captivating the popular mind is undoubtedly an unconsciousness of self which enables him, though under the necessity of constantly using the capital I, to do it without any suggestion of egotism. There is no single vowel which men’s mouths can pronounce with such difference of effect. That which one shall hide away, as it were, behind the substance of his discourse, or, if he bring it to the front, shall use merely to give an agreeable accent of individuality to what he says, another shall make an offensive challenge to the self-satisfaction of all his hearers, and an unwarranted intrusion upon each man’s sense of personal importance, irritating every pore of his vanity, like a dry northeast wind, to a goose-flesh of opposition and hostility. Mr. Lincoln has never studied Quinctilian; but he has, in the earnest simplicity and unaffected Americanism of his own character, one art of oratory worth all the rest. He forgets himself so entirely in his object as to give his I the sympathetic and persuasive effect of We with the great body of his countrymen. Homely, dispassionate, showing all the rough-edged process of his thought as it goes along, yet arriving at his conclusions with an honest kind every-day logic, he is so eminently our representative man, that, when he speaks, it seems as if the people were listening to their own thinking aloud. The dignity of his thought owes nothing to any ceremonial garb of words, but to the manly movement that comes of settled purpose and an energy of reason that knows not what rhetoric means. There has been nothing of Cleon, still less of Strepsiades striving to underbid him in demagogism, to be found in the public utterances of Mr. Lincoln. He has always addressed the intelligence of men, never their prejudice, their passion, or their ignorance.”75

President Lincoln could not ignore critics. Historian Jennifer L. Weber wrote that at the beginning of the Civil War: “Although public outcry against Lincoln and the war remained fairly limited and posed no serious challenge to the government, it was clearly beginning to percolate further into the culture. Women, who were not allowed to vote and many of whom had been political agnostics, grew more vocal about the matters of the day.”76 Public opinion fluctuated wildly throughout the war. “To say that people were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war and the performance of the administration under Lincoln would be the blandest understatement,” wrote historian James G. Randall. “Less than a year after Lincoln took office a disappointed citizen wrote to his senator that the Republican party in Illinois was nearly ‘paralyzed by the imbecility of President Lincoln in the management of the war.’ He added: ‘No Republican in Illinois doubts the honesty of Abe Lincoln, yet his opposition to striking rebellion where a blow is effectual, has utterly destroyed all confidence in his statesmanship. Nothing is more common than to hear men who did all in their power for the election of Abe Lincoln say that Lincoln has done more to aid Secessia than Jefferson Davis has done. Were the trial made to-day February 4, 1862 Mr. Lincoln would not receive one in ten of the votes given him in Illinois at the late presidential election.’”77

Fundamentally, Mr. Lincoln did not try to impress. He tried to persuade. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “It seems clear from the experience of many observers that, when in the presence of stylish visitors who came to size him up, Lincoln regularly resorted to homespun language and stories.”78 Mr. Lincoln contended: “I have found in the course of a long experience that common people – common people – take them as they run, are more easily influenced and informed through the medium of a story than in any other way.” 79 Mr. Lincoln said to his law partner: “Billy, don’t shoot too high; shoot low down, and the common people will understand you. They are the ones which you wish to reach; at least they are the ones whom you ought to reach. The educated ones will understand you anyhow. If you shoot too high, your bullets will go over the heads of the mass and only hit those who need not hitting.”80

Historian Matthew Pinsker wrote that Mr. Lincoln was “at ease with the nation’s ordinary people, someone capable of ‘conversing freely with men’ and willing to listen to ‘those who had borne the brunt of the fight.’ Lincoln’s genuine accessibility often helped win over skeptics who felt empowered by his apparent interest in them.” Pinsker maintained that “the president’s decision to relocate to the Solders’ Home takes on a broader meaning, serving not just as his family’s private retreat but also as a striking example of his outreach efforts. The daily commute promised regular, unstructured interaction with the people, which sometimes had value beyond calculation, as the clipping from the Tribune attests.”81

An army officer once asked the President about a report from the Committee on the Congressional Conduct of the War for which he “possessed official evidence completely upsetting all the conclusions of the Committee.” The officer suggested that he “set this matter right in a letter some paper, stating the facts as they actually transpired.” President Lincoln responded: “Oh, no, at least, not now. If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”82

Treasury official George S. Boutwell recalled: “Mr. Lincoln possessed the almost divine faculty of interpreting the will of the people without any expression by them. We often hear of the influence of the atmosphere of Washington upon the public men residing there. It never affected him. He was of all men most independent of locality and social influences. He was wholly self-contained on all that concerned his opinions upon public questions and in all his judgments of the popular will. Conditions being given, he could anticipate the popular will and conduct.” According to Boutwell, “He not only possessed the apparently innate faculty of comprehending the tendency, purposes and opinions of masses of men, but he observed and measured with accuracy the peculiarities of individuals who were about him, and made those individuals, sometimes through their peculiarities and sometimes in spite of them, the instruments or agents of his own views.”83


References

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  55. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 7.
  56. Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, pp. 127.
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  58. F. Lauriston Bullard, “Lincoln’s Conquest of New England,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, June 1942, p. 63.
  59. Elliott Abraham, Democracy: How Direct? Views from the Founding Era and the Polling Era, pp. 35-36 (Herman Belz, “Lincoln’s View of Direct Democracy”).
  60. Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis in the House Divided, p. 309.
  61. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 126 (“The Heroic Age in Washington”).
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  64. Don E. Fehrenbacher, completed and edited by Ward M. McAfee, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, p. 319.
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  70. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C. in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 138.
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  76. Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, p. 47.
  77. James Garfield Randall, “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln,” Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, June 1943, pp. 258-259.
  78. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 143.
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  83. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp. 110, 126 (George S. Boutwell).

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