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The First GOP President Was Great, and Clever Too

I recently went to see the new movie Lincoln. It takes a few liberties with the exact truth, and so cannot be considered a documentary. But it doesn’t purport to be a documentary. I recommend the movie, which does seem to get the basic gist of history right, or at least arguably right. As with the stuff you read on the Internet (especially Wikipedia!), don’t believe everything you see in this movie, but don’t presume it’s false either.

One thing I wanted to confirm is the clever note that Lincoln sent to Congress in order to grease the way for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which was as great a law as any ever enacted by the human race). Turns out that director Stephen Spielburg wasn’t telling a fish story. Here’s the actual correspondence:

INDORSEMENT ON A LETTER FROM J. M. ASHLEY.

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, January 31, 1865.

DEAR SIR:–The report is in circulation in the House that Peace Commissioners are on their way or in the city, and is being used against us. If it is true, I fear we shall lose the bill. Please authorize me to contradict it, if it is not true.

Respectfully, J. M. ASHLEY.

To the President.

(Indorsement.)

So far as I know there are no Peace Commissioners in the city or likely to be in it.

A. LINCOLN. January 31, 1865

Well done Abe! The peace commissioners were far outside the city, which is where Lincoln would later meet with them. In the note quoted above, Lincoln didn’t lie, didn’t exactly reply with the whole truth, and even suggested (in the first five words) that something else might be going on. Even the brevity of the letter suggested to Congress that something else might be going on. Very well done.

Historically, there are those who say slavery was effectively dead anyway, or that the incoming Republican Congress would have easily approved the amendment. But nothing was a sure thing. Lincoln may have reasoned that, once the war ended, he would be obliged to make sure that congresscritters from the south were immediately seated, thus jeopardizing the Amendment. And he might have also reasoned that, with the war over, the momentum would shift from abolition to reconciliation. Perhaps he sensed his own impending doom, and doubted Andrew Johnson’s leadership on the issue. Or he may have realized that the Amendment was immediately necessary in order to make the South understand that it had completely lost, instead of leaving the matter to fester any more. Anyway, that was one very clever letter.

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