Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Lincoln’s “longest letter.”

January 19, 2010

Uncollected Letters of Abraham Lincoln © 1917

To Alexander H. Stephens

SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS, 19 January, 1860.

Duplicated for Senator Jno. J. Crittenden

Honorable A. H. Stephens [1]

Dear Sir: Your letter and one from Hon. J. J. Crittenden, reached me at the same time. He wants a new party on the platform of “The Union, the constitution and the enforcement of the Laws” — not construed. You from your retirement at Liberty Hall complain of the bad faith of many in the free states who refuse to return fugitives from labor, as agreed in the compromise of 1850, 1854: but I infer that you agree with Judge Douglas that the territories are to be left to “form and regulate their own domestic institutions subject only to the Constitution of the United States.” I remember the letter of the Whigs in Congress in 1852 which defeated Gen’l Winfield Scott on the ground that he did not present your view of States’ rights. Also that your letter destroyed the Whig party and it is said that you and Toombs voted for Webster after he was dead. You are still “harping” on “my daughter” and you supported Zach Taylor as a sound Kentuckian. If I understand you, here are two constructions: Crittenden being willing for the Henry Clay gradual emancipation, I think. The rights of local self-government as defined by Webster, also including state determination of citizenship, are clearly in the Constitution. When we were both Members of the Young-Indian Club in Washington you then argued for paramount state Sovereignty going very nearly to the extreme of state nullification of Federal laws with John C. Calhoun: and of secession at will with Robert Toombs. The Colonies were subject up to July 4, 1776, and had no recognized independence until they had won it in 1783: but the only time they ever had the shadows of separate sovereignty was in the two years before they were compelled to the articles of Confederation July 9, 1778. They fought England for seven years for the right to club together but when were they independent of each other? Let me say right here that only unanimous consent of all of the states can dissolve this Union. We will not secede and you shall not. Let me show you what I think of the reserved rights of the states as declared in the articles of Confederation and in the Constitution and so called Jeffersonian amendments; suppose that I sold a farm here in Illinois with all and singular the rights, members and appurtenances to the same in any wise belonging or appertaining, signed, sealed and delivered: I have now sold my land. Will it at all change the contract if I go to the clerk’s office and add a post script to the record; that all rights not therein conveyed I reserve to myself and my children? The colonies, by the Declaration of July 4, 1776, did not get nationality, for they were leagued to fight for it. By the articles of Confederation of July 9, 1778, under stress and peril of failure without union, a government was created to which the states ceded certain powers of nationality, especially in the command of the army and navy, as yet supported by the states. Geo. Washington was Commander in Chief and congress was advisory agent of the states, commending but not enacting laws for the thirteen, until empowered. This proved insufficient and the peril of failure was great as ever, at home and abroad. Alexander Hamilton and others of New York were first to urge that a government with no revenues, except state grants, could have no credit at home or abroad. Three years later Virginia led the states in urging concessions of power, and then by twelve states —Rhode Island objecting — was framed our original Constitution of 1787 fully three and a half years after the peace that sealed our United national Independence. The post-script erroneously all attributed to Thomas Jefferson, came in three installments. The first ten (10) proposed in the first session of the Congress of the United States 25th September 1789 were ratified by the constitutional number of states 15 December 1791, New Jersey 20 November 1789 and Virginia is December 1791, eleven states only, Georgia and Connecticut dissenting. The eleventh amendment, proposed 5 March 1794., Third Congress, was then declared duly adopted by a President’s message of 8 January, 1798, eleven states consenting & finally all consenting. The twelfth amendment was proposed in congress 12 December 1803 and declared ratified through the secretary of state 25 September 1804 by the constitutional quorum of states. The first ten articles are the Bill of Rights and each set of amendments had a preface. The eleventh limited the Federal Judiciary. The twelfth regulated general elections for President and Vice-President of the United States. Do any or all of these retract the fee-simple grant of great and permanent powers to the Federal Government? There are three great Departments: I, the President commanding the Army and Navy and with a veto upon a plurality of Congress. II, the Congress coining all moneys; collecting all imposts on imports, regulating all interstate as all external commerce; making all subordinate Federal Judiciary as appointed of the President with power to have a ten mile square seat and to take grants or to buy for Forts, Dock yards and Arsenals; having post offices and post roads under laws executed by the President, and to frame supreme constitutional laws and set up courts and Judges. III, The supreme court set as arbiter and expounder of the constitution and of all differences of states and with states or of them with the Federation; no loop hole left for nullification, and none for secession, — because the right of peaceable assembly and of petition and by article Fifth of the Constitution, the right of amendment, is the Constitutional substitute for revolution. Here is our Magna Carta not wrested by Barons from King John, but the free gift of states to the nation they create and in the very amendments harped upon by states rights men are proposed by the Federal congress and approved by Presidents, to make the liberties of the Republic of the West forever sure. All of the States’ Rights which they wished to retain are now and forever retained in the Union, including slavery; and so I have sworn loyalty to this constitutional Union, and for it let me live or let me die. But you say that slavery is the corner stone of the south and if separated, would be that of a new Republic; God forbid. When a boy I went to New Orleans on a flat boat and there I saw slavery and slave markets as I have never seen them in Kentucky, and I heard worse of the Red River plantations. I hoped and prayed that the gradual emancipation plan of Henry Clay or the Liberian colonization of John Q. Adams might lead to its extinction in the United States. Geo. Washington, the Massachusetts Adams, Presidents James Madison and Monroe, Benj. Franklin opposed its extension into the territories before I did. The ordinance of 1784, 1787 for the North West territory ceded by Virginia, was written by Thomas Jefferson and signed only by slave-holders and that prohibited forever slavery, or involuntary servitude not imposed for crime. Your grandfather, Captain Stephens, suffered at Valley Forge and bled at Brandywine for the principles of the men of 1776-1783. Your Uncle, Justice Grier of the Supreme Bench has recently expounded the Supreme Law as I honestly accept it. Senator Crittenden complains that by the device of party conventions and nominations of candidates for Presidents and Vice-Presidents the Federal plan of separate and unbiased Electoral Colleges is taken away and the popular feature of elections is restored to the people. I reckon they wanted it so. What are you agoing to do about it? To abolish conventions you must abolish candidates. In your Oxford College orations, you say “I love the Union and revere its memories; I rejoice in all its achievements in arts, in letters and in arms.”If it is a good thing, why not just keep it and say no more about it?

I am not in favor of a party of Union, constitution and law to suit Mr. Bell or Mr. Everett and be construed variously in as many sections as there are states.

This is the longest letter I ever dictated or wrote. But this is to only you alone, not to the public.

Your truly,


[1] From a pamphlet entitled Some Lincoln Correspondence with Southern Leaders before the Outbreak of the Civil War, from the Collection of Judd Stewart, 1909. The letter was there printed from a copy certified as correct by Mr. Stephens.

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