Letter to Nathaniel Banks

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As the Civil War progressed and Union forces gained control of territory in states that had seceded, the question arose as to how that territory and its people – slave and free – should be dealt with. This issue became more pressing as the war ended. President Lincoln encouraged reconciliation, and a respect for the constitutional limits of the authority of the President, the Congress and the states. Other Republicans believed that the South had to be reconstructed in a fundamental way. They, too, considered constitutional limits (especially Thaddeus Stevens), and concluded that, for the ultimate good of the Union and all its people, the seceding states had to be treated as conquered territories. Meanwhile, the freed men and women sought to construct new lives in extraordinarily difficult circumstances (see “Many Thousand Gone“). The long-term effects of Reconstruction – or its failure – are evident in Senator Tillman’s speech from 1900. He defended the system of segregation developed in the South after Reconstruction (including lynching); segregation was not challenged until the 1950s and 1960s.

Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln Papers: Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916: Abraham Lincoln to Nathaniel P. Banks, Wednesday, August 5, 1863. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://goo.gl/J8K8G4

My dear General Banks,1

. . . Governor Boutwell read me to-day that part of your letter to him, which relates to Louisiana affairs. While I very well know what I would be glad for Louisiana to do, it is quite a different thing for me to assume direction of the matter. I would be glad for her to make a new Constitution recognizing the emancipation proclamation, and adopting emancipation in those parts of the state to which the proclamation does not apply.2 And while she is at it, I think it would not be objectionable for her to adopt some practical system by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new. Education for young blacks should be included in the plan. After all, the power, or element, of “contract” may be sufficient for this probationary period; and, by its simplicity, and flexibility, may be the better.

As an anti-slavery man I have a motive to desire emancipation, which pro-slavery men do not have; but even they have strong enough reason to thus place themselves again under the shield of the Union; and to thus perpetually hedge against the recurrence of the scenes through which we are now passing.

Gov. Shepley has informed me that Mr. Durant is now taking a registry, with a view to the election of a Constitutional convention in Louisiana. This, to me, appears proper. If such convention were to ask my views, I could present little else than what I now say to you. I think the thing should be pushed forward, so that if possible, its mature work may reach here by the meeting of Congress.

For my own part I think I shall not, in any event, retract the emancipation proclamation; nor, as executive, ever return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.

If Louisiana shall send members to Congress, their admission to seats will depend, as you know, upon the respective Houses, and not upon the President.

If these views can be of any advantage in giving shape, and impetus, to action there, I shall be glad for you to use them prudently for that object. Of course you will confer with intelligent and trusty citizens of the State, among whom I would suggest Messrs. Flanders, Hahn, and Durant; and to each of whom I now think I may send copies of this letter. Still, it is perhaps better to not make the letter generally public. Yours very truly.

A. Lincoln

  1. 1. Nathaniel Banks (1816-1894) was a Democratic politician who was appointed military commander for the Gulf District, which included Louisiana.
  2. 2. New Orleans had fallen into Union hands at the end of April 1862. Hence, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863, those slaves living in the New Orleans area had not been freed, since the proclamation applied only to slaves in areas still in rebel hands.
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