1864: “My Oath To Preserve The Constitution”

Washington, April 4, 1864.
My dear Sir: You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and Senator Dixon. It was about as follows:

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgement and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways.

And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgement and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government – that nation – of which that constitution was the organic law.

Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never widely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avowedly it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together….”

Abraham Lincoln to `Albert G. Hodges of Kentucky, April 4, 1864.

Source: Lincoln, Abraham. A. Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. (published 1989; Library of America.) page 585.

Kentucky: Border State

Last week we talked about Tennessee, so let’s spotlight Kentucky this time. While Tennessee joined the Confederacy but was fiercely divided, Kentucky stayed in the Union and was a true “border state.” Earlier in the Civil War, Kentucky announced its neutrality, but Union support won the battle and by 1862 the state had mostly decided to stay in the Union.

A Confederate Recruitment poster for Kentucky

But…Kentucky was a slave state. Newsflash – there were “Union states” that still allowed slavery, legally in their laws; afterall, it wasn’t outlawed by the Federal government yet. So, when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, it specifically targeted states “still in rebellion” – meaning border states that allowed slavery and stayed loyal to the Union would not be affected. (Don’t worry the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the border states, just not the Emancipation Proclamation!)

As for soldiers from the Bluegrass State, approximately 35,000 served with the Confederacy while 125,000 joined the Union volunteers. War on the homefront twisted into guerrilla warfare and a conflict where “brother fought brother” – literally.

Lincoln’s Opinions Solidified

This is one of my favorite Lincoln letters about abolition and politics. It’s personal and an explanation.

Notice how Lincoln explains the differences he sees. Morally – he will never support slavery. Constitutionally – he must abide by the law. However, as a war-time president, Lincoln acknowledged that he could/had/would take powers that would work to keep the country together and end the war. Addressing a citizen of Kentucky, Lincoln pointed out that he did not take abolitionist measures early in the conflict, waiting until he felt it was more in alignment with the good of the country and keep his oath.

Abraham Lincoln

However, with a promise of freedom made in 1863, Lincoln pushed for an amendment to the Constitution and knew that the nation – once reunited – could not continue with slavery.

Historical Musings

Ever notice how folks love or hate Lincoln? It’s kind of strange how polarizing he can be with some history buffs.

Lincoln expanded the powers of the presidency. He managed to do things in government because of the war and conflict necessities. But – if you decide to take his words at honest value – it is clear that he took the oath to defend the Constitution seriously. Sure, we could debate until the end of the year about his interpretation of the Constitution, but that’s not my point this evening.

My point: here was a leader who took a promise, an oath, a commitment seriously. He laid aside his personal preferences for what he saw as the good of the country. I hope that no matter personal politics or views on the 16th President, we can acknowledge that this is exemplary and a noble model of presidential decisions and actions.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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