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Abraham Lincoln’s “Blind Memorandum”

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(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.”

Comments (5)

  1. What a fascinating story–as only the Library can tell these little-known but significant moments in history. Just in case any of us think we know all there is to know about Lincoln, Michelle has proved us wrong. Thanks for this wonderful post!

  2. HI:
    I made a few edits to my previous comment. If you can, please use the following to supersede it.

    As an amateur Lincoln enthusiast, I was not surprised to learn some interesting facts from Michelle Krowl’s post on the “blind memo” of August 3, 1864. However, I was surprised that she wrote as if Lincoln first revealed its contents on November 11, 1864.

    Although that may have been the first time members of his cabinet and others present at the time learned of Lincoln’s secret pledge to cooperate with his successor during the interregnum in the event he lost his reelection bid, the historical record suggests that it was not the first time Lincoln revealed his secret pledge.

    Vol. 8, (pp. 52-53) of Lincoln’s “Collected Works” contains a speech the President made on October 19, 1864 in response to a serenade from a group of citizens from Maryland. The brief speech was reported in the New York “Tribune” on October 20, 1864 and in the New York “Times” also around that time.

    In his speech on October 19, Lincoln not only revealed his pledge in public three months before disclosing it to his cabinet, but he also provides a rational for having written it, which is different from the explanation he gave his cabinet. I provide further details on this topic in an unpublished article which I would gladly furnish on request.

    If these “new” old facts I cite should stand up to your scrutiny, it would then seem curious that Lincoln
    did not open the eyes of his cabinet to the “blind memo” earlier than November 11,1864.

    If somehow I’ve made an error regarding this matter, please accept my sincere apologies in advance, and kindly let me know how I might correct my thinking. My defense is that I am an amateur, as stated at the outset of this comment. My hope is that I haven’t wasted your time.

    Bill Walsh

  3. Excellent read. Very much interested in Lincoln.

  4. As noted this Blind memorandum not only tells a story of how uncertain things can be in a time of strife but also how keenly aware of his constitutional duty Lincoln was to the (peaceful transfer power) to his political rival, as the will of the people has deemed. Even with the prospect of the dissolution of the Union Lincoln saw no other alternative.
    In his many writings for instance a House Divided our sacrifices was to preserve the Union first and if he could end slavery while doing so he would do that too. The Gettysburg Address “They gave their last full measure of devotion to see if that nation or any nation so conceived in liberty , may long endure.” Preserving the union was paramount in his mind and McCllan would not do that, but Lincoln swore an oath to the constitution to “ peaceful transfer power” and would do so.

  5. Regardless of timing or motivation Lincoln rightly understood that the peaceful transition of power and adherence to the rule of law are the cornerstone of the American form of democracy and government “by the people.”

    I there ever was such a thing as an “essential” person holding the office of president surely Lincoln would appear near the top of that list. Yet he was willing to cede power based up on people’s will.

    If only that lesson had been recently followed.

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