Lincoln's answer to the "Little Peoples' Petition": Lincolns most personal and powerful statement on God, slavery, and emancipation: "God ... wills to ... free all slave children."
Despite being a wartime president, Lincoln was remarkably accessible, and more than most nineteenth-century presidents, he was inundated by letters, requests, and petitions from his constituents. Most of this incoming correspondence—averaging between 250 and 500 letters a day—was dealt with summarily by his small office staff (principally John Hay and John G. Nicolay) or sent on to an appropriate federal agency or department for response. In the introduction to Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President, Harold Holzer described Lincoln's mailbag as swollen "to nearly unmanageable proportions ... with demands for favors, ... a mind-numbing avalanche of requests for jobs, ... pleas for pardons, requests for autographs, requests for passes through the lines, ideas on prosecuting the war, advice on political matters, pleas for private meetings, and letters accompanying gifts of all value and sizes, ... compliments and criticism of the President, and of nearly all the cabinet and military officers he had appointed, ... the inevitable ravings of seers, soothsayers, and mystics, and threats both violent and profane" (pp. 5, 32-33).
Nicolay later recalled that Lincoln probably saw only one out of every one hundred letters sent to him, although Hay remembered the ratio as closer to one out of every fifty. But occasionally a letter would elicit a personal response from the overtaxed President. Most often these were requests for a contribution of an autograph or relic for sale in support of the Sanitary Commission. But no piece of mail touched Lincoln as deeply as did a petition he received from a group of Concord, Massachusetts, schoolchildren in April 1864.
The text of the petition was heartbreakingly simple: "Children's Petition to the President asking him to free all the little slave children in this country." 195 boys and girls under the age of eighteen put their names to this document.
The additional brief text on the document is endorsements and comments from proud parents or teachers. The margin of the first page is annotated "These children understand the social relations, father, mother, brother and sister; and the thought of separation is distressing, and when they are instructed to know that little slave children are constantly liable to be sold away—fathers and mothers also, their sensibilities are wrought up to the highest indignation." The verso of this leaf is further glossed "This Petition is designed only for the President—a sort of private letter from the children of Concord, Massachusetts. They have been delighted with the idea of speaking to our good President, & of giving one cent—or more, for the benefit of the poor little slaves." The petition was given a bold headline in the hand of the widow of Horace Mann—"Petition of the children of the United States; (under 18 years) that the President will free all slave children"—and entrusted to Senator Charles Sumner for delivery to Lincoln.
Lincoln was clearly delighted with the petition and docketed it in his own hand "Little Peoples' Petition." He carefully drafted an answer, which, while directed to Mrs. Mann, was expressed in an easy but eloquent diction perfectly pitched to the ears of the youngsters who had approached him with their heartfelt appeal. He then recopied his text into a final form to send to Concord. Lincoln entrusted his response to the same hand that had delivered the petition to him, Charles Sumner: "If Senator Sumner thinks it would be proper, he may forward the inclosed to Mrs. Mann" (Basler 7:288). This is the letter that Sumner carried to Mary Mann:
"The petition of persons under eighteen, praying that I would free all slave children, and the heading of which petition, it appears you wrote, was handed to me a few days since by Senator Sumner. Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it."
Lincoln clearly took his time with this answer, which he may have anticipated would be reproduced in facsimile. His draft (still in the Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress) was written on a sheet of the same stationery he used for the final letter. He forgot a word in his first sentence, which he had to caret in above the fourth line of the draft. When he copied out the draft to send to Mrs. Mann, he generally opened up his word-spacing a bit so that the text occupies one more line in the final letter than it does in the draft.
Charles Sumner was the most appropriate messenger imaginable for this missive. He was the most articulate and passionate proponent of immediate emancipation in the Senate and was the de facto leader of the New England abolition movement. Sumner abhorred slavery on both constitutional and humanitarian grounds, and he determined during the run-up to the 1860 presidential campaign that he would launch an "assault on American slavery all along the lines" (Memoir and Letters 3:606). Although Lincoln was more conservative in his approach to emancipation, the two men had the same end in view, and Lincoln fully appreciated Sumner's influence.
Despite their divergent views, writes David Herbert Donald, the two "men came to respect and ultimately to like each other. Lincoln knew the senator was incorruptible, if often irritating, Sumner found that the President wanted 'to do right and to save the country'" (Lincoln, pp. 321-22). Since Lincoln understood that opposition to his plan of gradual emancipation was "strongest in New England, he took great pains to keep Sumner, the most conspicuous spokesman of abolitionism in the Congress, on his side. Patiently he allowed Sumner to lecture him, sometimes two or three times a week, on his duty to act against slavery" (Lincoln, p. 345).
Mary Mann, like her husband, was an educator and antislavery advocate. After Horace Mann's death in 1859, his widow moved back near her hometown and opened a school in Concord. One of the bedrock principles of Mary Mann's philosophy of education was the innate goodness of children. Undoubtedly many of the 195 signatories of the "Children's Petition" were her own pupils.
Mrs. Mann replied to the President on 20 April, clearly thrilled by Lincoln's "sweet words to the children," and yet not hesitating to urge the President to quicker action. "It was wholly without my knowledge that my name was sent to you in connection with the petition of persons under eighteen in Concord—praying you to free all slave children—but I cannot regret it, since it has given me this precious note from your hand. I have been connected with some of the noblest most self-sacrificing & best informed women of the North, in endeavors to assist the suffering Freedmen, whose claims & touching aspirations for knowledge come nearer to my heart than those of any other earthly sufferers, and I assure you that there is no promise to us for the future welfare of our country which we value as we do the words for freedom which occasionally fall from your lips—for we consider its well-being inextricably interwoven with justice to the Slave. We often wish you could breath the atmosphere of N. England long enough to catch the spirit which would bring swift relief to every one of those long-suffering, hoping, trusting souls. ... We intend immediately to scatter fac-similes of your sweet words to the children like apple blossoms all over the Country—and we look with more hope than ever for the day when perfect justice shall be decreed, which shall make every able bodied colored man spring to the rescue of the nation which it is plain the white man alone cannot save. You who can hasten it must be the happiest of men, for in saving the colored man you will feel that you are doing equal service to the white man."
In order to protect Mrs. Mann's anonymity—and to keep the spotlight on the "just and generous sympathy" of Concord's youth—the facsimiles that were distributed are headed not to "Mrs. Horace Mann" but to " Mrs. —— (of Concord Mass.)."
Lincoln spoke and wrote frequently about slavery—but almost always as a politician. Indeed, the day before he responded to the "Little People's Petition," he wrote to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky, Commonwealth, "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" (Basler 7:281-82). But in the very next sentence, Lincoln clarified, "And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially on this judgment and feeling." In other words, Lincoln would not allow his personal beliefs to dictate his official actions as president; he continually repeated this principle both during his campaign and during his time in office.
Eventually, though, Lincoln came to view the preservation of the Union and the elimination of slavery as two sides of a single coin. He acknowledged as much in the conclusion of his celebrated letter to Hodges: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man, devised or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God."
That paragraph is a brilliant and yet bloodless summing up of Lincoln's thought; its legalistic tone and political consciousness somehow blunt its message. Compare that passage with the achingly transparent language of the present letter: "The petition of persons under eighteen, praying that I would free all slave children ... was handed to me a few days since by Senator Sumner. Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it."
Lincoln was famously indulgent of children, and it is in this letter to the children of Concord, Massachusetts, that he most explicitly and effectively expressed his determination to end slavery. The President likely felt he had no other choice: the Emancipation Proclamation had already been promulgated, the Thirteenth Amendment was just eight months from being submitted for ratification, and—most significant, he was addressing an audience that would not see slavery as a constitutional issue but understood it simply and fully as an evil arrangement in which "little slave children are constantly liable to be sold away—fathers and mothers also."
In August 1861 General John C. Frémont, Lincoln's only predecessor as a Republican candidate for president, issued a proclamation freeing all slaves in Missouri belonging to secessionists. When Lincoln revoked this order the following month, Charles Sumner lamented of the President in a letter to Dr. Francis Lieber, "We cannot conquer the rebels as the war is now conducted. ... how vain to have the power of a god and not to use it godlike!" (Memoir and Letters 4:42).
By the time he wrote the present letter, Lincoln was still reluctant to acknowledge that he held "godlike power" to free the slaves, but he was ready to act as the instrument of God's will to achieve that noble end.
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