An intimate view of our greatest president, based on the exhibition of documents from the Gilder Lehrman Collection on display at the New York Historical Society exploring Lincoln's legacy through letters and speeches written in his own hand.

Salt print photograph of Abraham Lincoln (1858) by Cole, Henry H. (fl. 1858); Cole, Roderick M. (1822-1910)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

"House divided" speech fragment, 1857

In the following draft of a speech from 1857, Lincoln identifies slavery as a moral and political issue that threatens the survival of the United States. Invoking the famous biblical words, "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he declared, "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave, and half free."

"House divided" speech fragment re: slavery, Dred Scott, Kansas (1857/1858)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Why, Kansas is neither the whole, nor a tithe of the real question. "A house divided against itself can not stand" I believe this government can not endure permanently half slave, and half free. I expressed this belief a year ago; and subsequent developments have but confirmed me. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and put it in course of ultimate extinction;...

...or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawfull in all the states, old, as well as new. Do you doubt it? Study the Dred Scott decision, and then see, how little, even now, remains to be done. That decision may be reduced to three points. The first is, that a negro can not be a citizen. That point is made in order to deprive the negro in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the U.S. Constitution which declares that "The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all previleges [sic] and immunities of citizens in the several States."...

The second point is, that the U. S. constitution protects slavery, as property, in all the U.S. territories, and that neither congress, nor the people of the territories, nor any other power, can prohibit it, at any time prior to the formation of State constitutions. This point is made, in order that the territories may be safely filled up with slaves, before the formation of the State constitutions, and thereby to embarrass the free state <sentiment, and enhance the chances of slave constitutions being adopted.>

Photograph, Bust portrait of Abraham Lincoln by A. Hesler (1865-08-17)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Notes on Lincoln's opposition to slavery, 1857-1858

In the following fragment Lincoln articulates two principles that informed his vision. First, that slavery, no matter how legal according to Southern statutes, was a violation of natural law, and thus morally wrong. Second, that the real purpose of law was to help people toward self-improvement by creating equality of opportunity. Looking back to the Declaration of Independence, he envisioned an America where all are entitled to the fruits of their labor.

Notes on Lincoln's opposition to slavery (1857)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

[The beginning is lacking] dent truth. Made so plain by our good Father in Heaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects. The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his next, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way; for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing...

...we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself. Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men, as I have, in part, stated them; ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance;...

...and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together. We made the experiment; and the fruit is before us. Look at it. Think of it. Look at it, in its aggregate grandeur, of extent of country, and numbers of population, of ship, and steamboat, and rail-<road.> [The end is lacking]

Abraham Lincoln to Major John Dix regarding a dispatch from Grant, Kirby Smith and Banks (1863-06-24) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Letter to Major John Dix, 1863

This 1863 letter, written on mourning stationery (note the black border) shows Lincoln's extraordinary perseverance in his own life. Still mindful of his son Willie's death the previous year but determined to carry on despite his personal tragedy, Lincoln here discusses military strategy with John Dix.

Major Genl. Dix

YorkTown, VA

We have a despatch [sic] from Gen. Grant of the 19th. Dont [sic] think Kirby Smith took Miliken's [sic] Bend since, allowing time to get the news to Joe Johnston & from him to Richmond. But it is not absolutely impossible-- Also have news from Banks to the 16th I think-- He had [inserted above: not] run away then, nor thought of it.

A. Lincoln

Charleston Mercury Extra: The Union is dissolved! (1860-12-20)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Charleston Mercury Extra, 1860

The election of Lincoln in November 1860 convinced Southern states that the new president would take action against slavery. This broadside was printed in Charleston, South Carolina, on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina voted to secede from the Union. The Confederate Constitution would take as its cornerstone the unrestricted right to hold slaves.

Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Simon Cameron ordering him to prepare a naval expedition (1861-03-29) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, 1861

Lincoln believed that there was time to resolve the crisis peacefully. During his first day as President, however, he received a letter from Major Robert Anderson, commander of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Anderson informed the President that Fort Sumter's supplies would be exhausted within a month and it would take 20,000 troops to defend the fort. In this letter, Lincoln orders Secretary of War Cameron to send troops and supplies to reinforce Fort Sumter, an act that precipitated the Civil War.

Honorable Secretary of War:

Sir-- I desire that an expedition, to move by sea, be got ready to sail as early as the 6th of April next, the whole according to memorandum attached, and that you co-operate with the Secretary of the Navy for that object.

Your Obedient Servant

A. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln to Andrew H. Foote, regarding naval support for Grant's Tennessee campaign (1862-01-23) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's handwritten telegram to Admiral Andrew H. Foote, 1862

In early 1862, newly appointed General ulysses S. Grant was preparing a campaign against Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. When Lincoln impatiently composed this telegram to Admiral Foote, Grant's troops were delayed by lack of naval support. Prompted by Lincoln's terse missive, Foote immeditately sent dispatched the needed ships. Grant took the forts on February 6, capturing a large number of prisoners and achieving the first major Union victory of the war.

The President wishes the rafts with their 13 inch mortars and all appointments to be ready for use at the earliest possible moment. What can we do here to advance this? What is lacking? What is being done so far as you know? Telegraph us every day, showing the progress, or lack of progress in this matter.

Photograph of Ulysses S. Grant (June 1864) by Brady, Mathew B. (1822-1896)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's handwritten telegram to General Ulysses S. Grant

Lincoln frequently expressed frustration at the lack of aggression and tenacity of his generals. The Army of the Potomac went through seven commanding generals in just three years, and none had shown the tenacity and fortitude that Lincoln and the Union needed. In early 1764, Lincoln promoted General Grant to a new position in command of all Union armies. May and June of 1864 brought some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, yet Grant kept fighting and advancing. Lincoln had finally found his general. In the following wonderfully succinct and prophetic letter, Lincoln expresses his faith in Grant's ability to end the war.

Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant (June 15, 1864) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lieut. Gen. Grant

Head Qrs. A.P.

Have just read your despatch of 1 P.M. yesterday. I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all.

A. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1863-11-08) by Gardner, Alexander (1821-1882)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, 1863

At the beginning of the war, citizens lost their right to vote when they travelled out of their home states. Although by 1864 nineteen states allowed absentee ballots, many soldiers were still disenfranchised. Lincoln had an interest in ensuring that soldiers, whose votes he hoped for, were permitted to go home at election time. From absentee ballots it can be confirmed that seventy eight percent of Union soldiers voted for Lincoln. Their votes helped carry Lincoln to victory in the close 1864 race.

Abraham Lincoln to Edwin M. Stanton, regarding allowing a soldier to apply for leave to go home to vote (1864-10-22) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Sec. of War please [struck: send] give this man the proper directions to apply for leave to go home to vote.

A. Lincoln

Oct. 22, 1864

Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1864-06-04)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, 1863

At other moments, Lincoln protected civil liberties against overreaching actions by his generals. Here Lincoln orders Stanton to revoke the closure of the Chicago Times, which had been shut down by General Abrose Burnside on May 5, 1863 for protesting his prosecution of peace Democrat, Clement Vallandigham for sedition. Clearly Lincoln thought Burnside had gone too far suppressing freedom of speech.

Hon. Sec. of War.

My dear Sir

I have received additional dispatches which, with former ones, induce me to believe we should revoke or suspend the order, suspending the "Chicago Times," and, if you concur in opinion, please have it done.

Yours truly

A. Lincoln

Emancipation Proclamation (1864-06-01)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln

This copy of the Emancipation Proclamation is one of only twenty four signed by Lincoln known to exist. It originally sold for $10 at the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia, one of a series of fundraisers whose the proceeds of which went to care for sick and wounded soldiers. The Philadelphia fair at which this document was sold in June 1864 was the only event of its kind that President Lincoln actually attended. The emotional response of his audience that day persuaded his advisors it would be too dangerous to attend another.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton by E. & H. T. Anthony (1858) by Abraham LincolnThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, 1863

In the following personal note, President Lincoln asks Secretary Stanton to help William Dole who was trying to form the first regiment of African American soldiers in Washington, D.C. Dole, a commissioner of Indian affairs, encouraged Lincoln to allow Native Americans and African Americans to fight for the Union cause. Coincidentally, the Massachusetts 54th was mustered in on the following day, May 13, and officially became the first colored regiment in the Union army.

Letter to Sec. of War Edwin M. Stanton May 12, 1863 (1863-05-12) by Abraham LincolnThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Sec. of War, please see Mr. Dole & others, about the first colored regiment. Please do the best for them you can.

May 12. 1863 A. Lincoln

Photograph, Seated portrait of Abraham Lincoln by A. Gardner (1863-11-08)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln on Reconstruction, 1864

The following pieces of manuscript survived because government printer John Defrees realized, when Lincoln was assassinated, that the late President's handwriting had sacred value. He distributed the fragments to his friends. These few lines hint at Lincoln's relatively lenient plan for Reconstruction, but the Radical Republicans in Congress wanted to punish the South and eventually passed harsher legislation.

Lincoln on Reconstruction (1864-12-06)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

<but maryland> presents the example of complete success. Maryland is secure to liberty and Union for all the future. The genius of rebellion will no more claim Maryland. Like another unclean spirit, being driven out, it may seek to tear her, but it will woo her no more.

[In later hand:]

Portion of Lincoln's last message in his own hand writing.

[2] [In later hand:]

Washington, June 1 1866

I hereby certify that this is a portion of Mr. Lincoln's last annual message to COngress, in his own hand writing.

Jno. D. Defrees

Govt. Pub. Printing

The Inaugural Address of President Abraham Lincoln delivered at the National Capitol (1864-03-05)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's Second Inaugural, 1865

In this printing of the Second Inaugural, the blue ink is the most significant detail. After the assassination, all copies were printed in black ink appropriate to a national mood of mourning. In the days before Lincoln's assassination, readers were focused primarily on the tone of reconciliation that on March 4th had moved his audience to tears.

Carte de visite of Mary Todd Lincoln (ca. 1861) by Brady, Matthew B. (1822-1896)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

A letter from Lincoln to his wife, 1865

Eager to share the good news that Grant's forces were overwhelming the Confederate defenses, Lincoln penned the following jubilant letter just hours before Richmond fell. With the Confederate capitol in Union hands, Lee's surrender at Appomattox would soon follow. It is the last letter Lincoln ever wrote to his wife.

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln (1865-04-02) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Mrs A. Lincoln,

Washington, D.C.

Last night Gen. Grant telegraphed that Sheridan with his Cavalry and the 5th Corps have captured three brigades of Infantry, a train of wagons, and several batteries, prisoners amounting to several thousands. This morning Gen. Grant [inserted: having ordered an attack along the whole line] telegraphs as follows

"Both wright and Parks got through the enemies lines. The battle now rages furiously. Sheridan was with his Cavalry, the 5th Corps, & Miles Division of the 2nd Corps, which was sent to him since 1. this A.M. is now sweeping down from the West...

...All now looks highly favorable. Ord is engaged, but I have not heard the result on his front"

Robert yesterday wrote a little [inserted: cheerful] note to Capt. Penrow, which is all I have heard of him since you left. Copy to Secretary of War

A. Lincoln

Thirteenth amendment resolution (1865-02-01)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Abraham Lincoln's signed copy of the 13th Amendment Resolution, 1865

This document is one of seven copies of the Thirteenth Amendment signed by Lincoln and members of Congress. Because presidents normally did not sign amendments, Lincoln's signature here underscores his antipathy toward slavery and perhaps his pride at having helped bring it to an end.

A Resolution submitting to the legislatures of the several states a proposition to amend the Constitution of the United States. Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, (two thirds of both Houses concurring.) That the following article be proposed to the legislatures of the several States as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States which, when ratified by three-fourths of said legislatures, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as a part of the said Constitution namely:

Article XIII
Sec. 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Sec. 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Photograph, Portrait of Frederick Douglass by S. Root (1880)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Frederick Douglass consoles Mary Todd Lincoln, 1865

Full of sadness, the following document brings together two people who in their different ways suffered most profoundly with Lincoln's death. Here Frederick Douglass writes to thank Mary Lincoln for the gift of one of Lincoln's walking sticks as a memento of the great man. To the grieving widow he remembers Lincoln for "not merely [for] the kind consideration in which I have reason to know that the president was pleased to hold me personally, but as an indication of his humane interest in the welfare of my whole race."

Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln (1865-08-17)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Mrs. Abraham Lincoln:

Dear Madam: Allow me to thank you, as I certainly do thank you most sincerely for your thoughtful kindness in making me the owner of a cane which was formerly the property and the favorite walking staff of your late lamented husband the honored and venerated President of the United States.

I assure you, that this inestimable memento of his Excellency will be retained in my possession while I live - an object of sacred interest - a token not merely of the kind consideration in which...

...I have reason to know that [inserted: the] President was pleased to hold me personally, but [struck: of] as an indication of [struck: the] [inserted: his] humane [illegiblie strikeout] interest [in the] welfare of my whole race.

With every proper sentiment of Respect and Esteem

I am, Dear Madam, your Obed[ien]t Serv[an]t.

Frederick Douglass.

President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom. January 1st, 1863 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) (ca. 1863) by Blythe, David Gilmore (1815-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Frederick Douglass's Tribute to Lincoln, 1880

Fifteen years after Lincoln's death, Douglass remembers his as "one of the noblest wisest and best men I have ever knew." This stirring tribute to Lincoln was later published in Osborn H. Oldroyd's The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles.

Frederick Douglass's tribute to Lincoln (1880) by Frederick DouglassThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

A great man: Tender of heart, strong of nerve, of boundless patience and broadest sympathies, with no motive apart from his country. He could receive counsel from a child and give counsel to a sage. The simple could approached him with ease, and the learned approached him with deference. Take him for all in all Abraham Lincoln was one of the noblest wisest and best men I ever knew.

Fredk. Douglass


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