Lincoln Goes On The Offensive
38th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln
by David Herbert Donald:
While Lincoln was trying to establish his control over the Army of the Potomac, he also sought to give new direction to public opinion. Up to this point he had largely accepted the traditional view that the President, once elected, had no direct dealings with the public. His job was to administer the government and to report his actions and wishes to the Congress. Presidents rarely left the capital city, except for brief vacations; they almost never made public addresses; and they maintained, in theory, a sublime indifference to public opinion and political pressures.
Like many other self-made men, Lincoln was very conventional and hesitated to break this tradition. It never occurred to him to go in person before Congress and read his eloquent messages, for that was something that had not been done since Jefferson's day. Though occasionally he would say a few words at a Union rally in Washington, he knew that he was not good at extemporaneous speaking and rarely made any public appearances outside the White House. His one innovation had been to maintain an open house at the Executive Mansion, during which as many of the curious and the complainers, the office seekers and the favor-hunters, as wanted to wait in line had an opportunity to speak with the President.
Though that kind of openness certainly did not injure him in public esteem, it did little to get his message across to the people, and by mid-summer of 1863 it was desperately important that the administration's policies should be understood. On no issue was this need so great as on the abrogation of civil liberties. Curtailment of the freedom of speech and of the press, arrests of dissenters and the disloyal -- always called "arbitrary arrests" by his opponents -- and, above all, suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus deeply troubled many Americans. . . .
Aware of the widespread public unhappiness, Lincoln grew restive at remaining a prisoner of the White House. For a time he considered attending a huge July 4 celebration planned for Philadelphia, where he could for the first time since his inauguration have a chance to speak directly to the public, but Lee's impending invasion of Pennsylvania put an end to that idea. The favorable reception of his public letters to friends of the Union cause in Manchester and London suggested another way he could explain to the people why he had found it necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. As ideas came to him that "seemed to have force and make perfect answer to some of the things that were said and written" about his actions, he jotted them down on scraps of paper and put them in a drawer. When the appropriate time came, he could put together these disconnected thoughts in a public letter.
The protest of a group of New York Democrats against the arrest of [anti-war, pro-Confederate Clement] Vallandigham (above, right) gave him the opportunity for which he had been waiting. Headed by Erastus Corning, president of the New York Central Railroad, the meeting adopted resolutions strongly condemning the arrest and trial of Vallandigham as a "blow . . . against the spirit of our laws and Constitution" and an abrogation of "the liberty of speech and of the press, the right of trial by jury, the law of evidence, and the privilege of habeas corpus." . . .
When a copy of the resolutions reached Lincoln, he realized that his enemies had been delivered into his hands. . . . Drawing on the notes he had collected in his drawer, Lincoln took exceptional care in preparing his response.
Lincoln's public letter began disarmingly with praise for the Albany protesters' "eminently patriotic" statement that they favored sustaining the Union and would uphold the administration in all constitutional measures. . . . Then, in his most effective paragraph, the President noted that even his Albany petitioners had to recognize his right and duty to sustain the armies by punishing desertion, even with the death penalty. "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts," he asked, "while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?"