Abraham Lincoln’s “Blind Memorandum”

(The following is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.)

Could George B. McClellan have become the seventeenth President of the United States? It certainly appeared to be a possibility as Abraham Lincoln assessed the military and political landscape of the United States in the summer of 1864.

President Lincoln understood that his chances of reelection in November hinged on military success in a war now in its fourth year. By the summer of 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had settled in for a prolonged siege against the Confederates near Petersburg, Va., and Gen. William T. Sherman made slow progress toward Atlanta. Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early, meanwhile, had led his troops to the very gates of Washington, D.C. in July. The war effort seemed to have stalled for the Union, and the public blamed President Lincoln.

The political news for Lincoln was no brighter. Republican insider Thurlow Weed told Lincoln in mid-August 1864 that “his re-election was an impossibility.” Republican party chairman Henry J. Raymond expressed much the same sentiment to Lincoln on Aug. 22, urging him to consider sending a commission to meet with Confederate President Jefferson Davis to offer peace terms “on the sole condition of acknowledging the supremacy of the Constitution,” leaving the question of slavery to be resolved later.

“Everything is darkness and doubt and discouragement,” wrote Lincoln’s secretary, John G. Nicolay, in August 1864. “Our men see giants in the airy and unsubstantial shadows of the opposition, and are about to surrender without a fight.”

Abraham Lincoln, text of “Blind Memorandum,” August 23, 1864, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

It was in this context that Abraham Lincoln wrote the following memorandum on Aug. 23, 1864:

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.  – A. Lincoln

Lincoln folded the memorandum and pasted it closed, so that the text inside could not be read. He took it to a cabinet meeting and instructed his cabinet members to sign the outside of the memo, sight unseen, which they did. Historians now refer to this document variously as the “Blind Memo” or “Blind Memorandum” because the cabinet signed it “blind.” In so doing the Lincoln administration pledged itself to accept the verdict of the people in November and to help save the Union should Lincoln not be re-elected.

As if on cue, Lincoln’s fortunes began to change. As expected, the Democrats nominated George B. McClellan for president on August 30 but saddled him with a “Copperhead” peace Democrat, Representative George H. Pendleton, as a running mate. The Democratic platform declared the war a failure and urged that “immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities,” which even McClellan could not fully support. Then General Sherman scored a tremendous victory when Atlanta fell to the Union on Sept. 2.

Signatures of Lincoln’s cabinet members on the reverse of the “Blind Memorandum.” Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The brighter military outlook, expert political maneuvering by Lincoln and his reinvigorated party (running in 1864 as the National Union Party), and the negatives associated with McClellan and the Democrats spelled victory at the polls for the Republicans. Safely re-elected, Lincoln brought the memorandum with him to the next cabinet meeting on November 11. He finally read its contents to the cabinet, reminding them it was written “when as yet we had no adversary, and seemed to have no friends.”

On its 150th anniversary, the “blind memorandum” reminds us that historical outcomes we may take for granted in hindsight (like Lincoln’s re-election in 1864) do not always appear so certain at the time.

Sources: Abraham Lincoln Papers and John G. Nicolay Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, eds., “Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay”; John C. Waugh, “Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency.”

But Did The Author Like the Movie?

Ever wonder, while watching a film made from a novel you’ve known and loved, what the author of the book thought about that movie? Whether they thought it was true to their vision? Whether they were annoyed at what landed on the cutting-room floor? Four great modern novelists will share a dialogue on just that […]

Letters About Literature: Dear Jhumpa Lahiri

In this final installment of our Letters About Literature spotlight, we feature the Level 3 National Honor-winning letter of  Riddhi Sangam of Saratoga, Calif., who wrote to Jhumpa Lahiri, author of “The Namesake.” Letters About Literature, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author […]

Junior Fellows Show Off Summer Finds

(The following is an article written by Rosemary Girard, intern in the Library of Congress Office of Communications, for the Library staff newsletter, The Gazette.) After weeks of researching, curating and unearthing some of the Library of Congress’s millions of artifacts, members of the Junior Fellows Program had a chance to present their most interesting […]

Letters About Literature: Dear George Orwell

We’re rounding out our spotlight of letters from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. National and honor winners were announced last month. You can read the […]

President Harding’s Letters Open to the Public

(The following is an article written by Mark Hartsell for The Gazette, the Library of Congress staff newsletter.) For most of two decades, a future president carried on an affair with a family friend. For 50 years, the love letters they wrote each other – discovered in a closet, sealed by a court order and, […]

Slammin’ those Books OPEN!

This year’s Library of Congress National Book Festival is going to segue from a big day of authors for all ages to an evening of excitement – starting with a poetry slam titled “Page [Hearts] Stage” at 6 p.m. in the Poetry & Prose Pavilion. The festival will be held from 10 a.m.–10 p.m. on […]

Letters About Literature: Dear Ray Bradbury

In this fourth installment of our Letters About Literature series, we highlight the Level 2 (grades 7-8) National Honor Winner Jane Wang of Chandler, Ariz., who wrote to Ray Bradbury, author of “Fahrenheit 451.” Dear Ray Bradbury,                   “Fahrenheit 451 the temperature at which books burn.” A title that would kindle any curious eighth grader’s […]

Letters About Literature: Dear Anne Frank

For the last two weeks, we’ve been featuring the winning letters  from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. Winners were announced last month. National and […]

Letters About Literature: Dear Sharon Draper

We continue our spotlight of letters from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. Winners were announced last month. There was a tie for the national […]