Abraham Lincoln to George Robertson, 15 August 18551Springfield, Ills. Aug: 15. 1855Hon: Geo. RobertsonLexington, Ky.My dear Sir:
The volume you left for me has been received– I am really grateful for the honor of your kind remembrance, as well as for the book–2 The partial reading I have already given it, has afforded me much of both pleasure and instruction– It was new to me that the exact question which led to the Missouri Compromise, had arisen before it arose in regard to Missouri; and that you had taken so prominent a part in it– Your short, but able and patriotic speech upon that occasion, has not been improved upon since, by those holding the same views; and, with all the lights you then had, the views you took appear to me as very reasonable–3
You are not a friend of slavery in the abstract– In that speech you spoke of “the peaceful extinction of slavery” and used other expressions indicating your belief that the thing was, at some time, to have an end. Since then we ^have^ had thirtysix years of
<Page 2>experience; and this experience has demonstrated, I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us– The signal failure of Henry Clay, and other good and great men, in 1849, to effect any thing in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly–4 On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been– When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that “all men are created equal” a self evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim “a self-evident lie” The fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day— for burning fire-crackers!!!–5 That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution– Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the
<Page 3>states adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact, that not a single state has done the like since–6 So far as peaceful, voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent– The Autocrat of all the Russias will sooner resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans, sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves–
Our political problem now is “Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently— forever— half slave, and half free?” The problem is too mighty for me– May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution–7Your much obliged friend, and humble servantA. Lincoln–
1Abraham Lincoln wrote and signed this letter. This letter was bound in the back of a copy of George Robertson’s Scrap Book on Law and Politics, Men and Times, which Robertson inscribed and gave to Lincoln.
2Robertson had represented Abraham and Mary Lincoln and other Illinois heirs of Robert S. Todd in a lawsuit against Robert Wickliffe. Robertson had visited Springfield, Illinois, in Abraham Lincoln’s absence, leaving behind this inscribed copy of this book. Lincoln was in Chicago attending sessions of the U.S. Circuit Court, Northern District of Illinois. He returned to Springfield on July 18.
Todd et al. v. Wickliffe, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d edition (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Details.aspx?case=141847; Todd et al. v. Wickliffe, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Details.aspx?case=141848; The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, 2 July 1855, http://www.thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1855-07-02; 18 July 1855, http://www.thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1855-07-18; Inscription of George Robertson to Abraham Lincoln in Scrap Book on Law and Politics, Men and Times; Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 2:317-19.
3Lincoln references the controversy over allowing slavery in the Arkansas Territory. While Congress considered legislation creating Missouri as a state, settlers living below the southern boundary of the proposed state began petitioning Congress for a new state of their own. In December 1818, Robertson, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a resolution to inquire into the expediency of creating the Territory of Arkansas. The House adopted this resolution, and on December 21, 1818, Robertson introduced a bill to establish a separate territorial government for Arkansas. On February 18, 1819, Representative John Taylor moved to amend the bill by adding a section prohibiting the further introduction of slavery into the proposed territory and freeing children of slaves born in the territory at the age of twenty-five. The Taylor amendment was similar to the amendment proposed by Representative John Tallmadge to the Missouri enabling bill. During the ensuing debate, Robertson delivered a lengthy speech opposing congressional interference with slavery in Arkansas. The House of Representatives rejected the prohibition portion of Taylor’s amendment by a vote of 70 yeas to 71 nays but adopted the portion calling for the gradual emancipation of slave children by a vote of 75 yeas to 73 nays. On February 19, Robertson motioned that the House refer the bill to a select committee with instructions to delete the part of Taylor’s amendment adopted the previous day. The House deadlocked on this motion, 88 yeas to 88 nays, with Speaker Henry Clay casting his vote in the affirmative. The select committee reported back the bill with the instructed deletion, and the House passed it by a vote of 89 yeas to 87 nays. The U.S. Senate concurred, and on March 2, President James Monroe signed into law the bill without slavery restrictions.
U.S. House Journal. 1818-1819. 15th Cong., 2nd sess., 119, 283-86, 289-90, 291-92, 352; William R. Johnson, “Prelude to the Missouri Compromise: A New York Congressman’s Effort to Exclude Slavery from Arkansas Territory,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 24 (Spring 1965), 50, 51, 58, 64; George Robertson, Scrap Book on Law and Politics, Men and Times (Lexington, KY: A. W. Elder, 1855), 20-23, 25-27; “An Act Establishing a Separate Territorial Government in the Southern Part of the Territory of Missouri,” 2 March 1819, Statutes at Large of the United States 3 (1846):493-96.
4Lincoln references the failure of the anti-slavery movement in Kentucky to include emancipation in the new constitution enacted in 1850. Emancipationists and abolitionists in Kentucky had clamored for many years for a constitutional convention, believing the convention would exclude slavery from the new constitution, opening the door for emancipation. Proponents for a constitutional convention succeeded in getting a convention in 1849. Debate over slavery reached its height in the summer of 1849, as pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces battled to elect delegates to the convention. Delegates sympathetic to slavery secured a slight majority in the convention, and they used their majority to increase protections for slavery in the forthcoming constitution.
James C. Klotter and Craig Thompson Friend, A New History of Kentucky, 2nd ed. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018), 151-55.
5Lincoln references a key point of a speech that John Pettit of Indiana gave in the U.S. Senate during that body’s debate of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Pettit had argued that, in crafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had never intended the phrase “all men are created equal” to apply to slaves. In a play upon Jefferson’s concept of self-evident truths, Pettit declared the notion a “self-evident lie,” asserting that “it is not true that even all persons of the same race are created equal.”
Cong. Globe, 33rd Cong., 1st Sess., Appendix, 214 (1854).
6Between 1777 and 1804, states north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where slavery was of minimal economic importance, provided for the immediate or gradual abolition of slavery, New Jersey being the last to enact laws to that effect in 1804.
William G. Shade, “Antislavery,” Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 1:135.
7In his “House Divided” speech and debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln concluded that the United States could not endure permanently half free and half slave.
Report of Speech at Springfield, Illinois; Report of Speech at Springfield, Illinois; Fragment of A House Divided: Speech at Springfield, Illinois; Report of Speech at Springfield, Illinois.
Autograph Letter Signed, 3 page(s), Lincoln Collection, Rare Books Collection, Library of Congress (Washington, DC).