Robert Dale Owen's Letter to President Lincoln

Seen here is Francis B. Carpenter's famous painting of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1862, the United States were separated by civil war, being fought in part over the issue of slavery. In a letter Robert Dale Owen urged President Abraham Lincoln toward the abolition of slavery. Owen's letter was placed in the hands of the President on September 19, 1862 by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

Three days later, President Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. There is no record of the President's comments on Owen's letter, but, as Richard Leopold writes in his biography of Owen, Secretary Chase was certain that the letter could not fail to impress the President. "You will hardly ever," wrote Chase to Owen, "accomplish a greater work than this letter." Owen responded, "I shall think of it with as much pleasure as of any act of my life ..."

TO THE PRESIDENT of the United States.

In days when the public safety is imminently threatened, and the fate of a nation may hang upon a single act, we owe frank speech, above all other men, to him who is highest in authority. I shall speak to you as man to man.

Harsh opinions have been formed of you; even honest men doubting the probity of your intentions. I do not share their doubts. I believe you to be upright, singlehearted in your desire to rescue the country in the hour of her utmost need without after-thought of the personal consequences to yourself.

If, amid the multitude of contending counsel, you have hesitated and doubted; if, when a great measure suggested itself, you have shrunk from the vast responsibility, afraid to go forward lest you should go wrong, what wonder? How few, since the foundation of the world, have found themselves in a position environed with public perils so numerous, oppressed with responsibilities so high and solemn, as yourself!

No man ever escaped from such--so reads the lesson of history--without a bold heart and a high faith. Wisdom, prudence, forethought, these are essential. But not second to these that noble courage which adventures the right, and leaves the consequences to God.

Men ever follow willingly a daring leader: most willingly of all, in great emergencies. Boldness and decision command, often even in evil, the respect and concurrence of mankind. How much more in good!

There is a measure needing courage to adopt and enforce it, which I believe to be of virtue sufficient to redeem the nation in this its darkest hour: one only; I know of no other to which we may rationally trust for relief from impending dangers without and within.

The dangers which threaten us are twofold: First, from the Confederate forces, composed of men whose earnest convictions and reckless bravery it is idle to deny. Secondly, from ourselves, compelled to make use of a military power of proportions so gigantic that no nation ever permitted the existence of such without more or less risk to the people who employed it. If we think lightly of this latter danger, we slight the teachings of all past time.

As to the first: Have you not had your moments of doubt whether we are to succeed at all?--whether the Union, once so glorious, will ever be reunited?--whether peace, which we used to enjoy with as little gratitude as we do the sunlight or the air we breathe, will ever again settle down over our distracted country?

If I have doubts of all this, it is only because I do not know what your action will be. We have at our disposal the means of certain success; but I cannot tell whether, while there is yet time, you will decide to employ them.

Our enemies, like the Grecian hero, have one vulnerable point. You have not touched it yet. What should have been their element of weakness has been suffered to remain an element of strength.

They have nearly a million of able-bodied men of fit age for war or for labor. Holding these men in bondage, and employing them to till the soil, they are enabled to send to the battle-field almost their entire white male adult population, yet preserve their commisariat sufficiently supplied.

It has always been a great wrong that these men and their families should be held in bondage. We of the North have hitherto acquiesced in it, lest, in the endeavor to redress it in violation of the Constitution, greater evils might ensue.

But the time has come when it is constitutional to redress it. The rebellion has made it so. Property in man, always morally unjust, has become nationally dangerous. Property that endangers the safety of a nation should not be suffered to remain in the hands of its citizens. A chief magistrate who permits it so to remain becomes responsible for the consequences. For he has the right, under the law and the Constitution, to take private property, with just compensation offered, for public use, whenever it is apparent that any public exigency demands such appropriation.

Forgive what may seem cut speech if I say that, in my judgment, a President with a just sense of duty has no option in such a case.

In the due exercise of your official power, in strictest accordance with law and the Constitution, you can deprive the enemy of that which, above all else, has given, and still gives him, aid and comfort. You can declare emancipated his slaves, the suppliers of his commiseriat. Gradually, you can deprive him of these; and for every hundred thousand productive laborers he loses, you may have a hundred thousand soldiers. With their aid you can reach the rest. What then remains for him? He must thin his ranks to cultivate his plantations. He must labor for his own food, or must perish for the lack of it.

The people are forbidden to give aid and comfort to rebels. What of a government that has the power to cut off from aid and comfort all the rebels of the South and fails to exercise it?

We ought to do that which is right, even if the recompense be distant and uncertain; but we add folly to injustice if we neglect a great act of beneficience that is to be rewarded, even now, by our own preservation.

Yet again. Can you look forward to the future of our country and imagine any state of things in which, with slavery still existing, we should be assured of permanent peace? I cannot. We can constitutionally extirpate slavery at this time. But if we fail to do this, then unless we intend hereafter to violate the Constitution, we shall have a fugitive slave law in operation whenever the war is over. Shall the North have sacrificed a hundred thousand lives and two thousand millions of treasure to come to that at last? Not even a guaranty of peace purchased at so enormous a cost? After voluntary exertions on the part of our people to which the history of the world furnishes no parallel, is the old root of bitterness still to remain in the ground, to sprout and bear fruit in the future as it has borne fruit in the past?

The questions are addressed to you. For upon you and upon your action more than upon any other one thing does the answer depend. You have, at this time, more power than any constitutional monarch in the world. The English government always acts according to the policy approved by the constitutional advisors of the Crown. You would violate usage only if you should act without the advice, or even contrary to the opinions, of your constitutional advisers. I do not mean that you could continue to do this with propriety or even with safety; I merely assert that the power is, in point of fact, in your hands. And for such a power, what a responsibility to God and man!

It is within your power at this very moment not only to consumate an act of enlightened statesmanship, but, as the instrument of the Almighty, to restore to freedom a race of men. If you are tempted by an imperishable name it is within your reach. We may look through ancient and modern history, yet scarce find a sovereign to whom God offered the privilege of bestowing on humanity a boon so vast.

Such an offer comes to no human being twice. It is made to you to-day. How long it will remain open--whether in three months or in one month from now it will still be at your option to accept it--God, who reads the hearts of men, alone knows.

And this brings me to speak of another class of dangers--those which may arise here in the North, among ourselves.

Do you read the daily newspaper press, that wonderful and instructive modern index of the passing opinions of the times? If so, have you not recently seen there signs that startled you?--advice, audaciously given in certain quarters, that it is time the army should take the power into its own hands and demand the dismissal from your cabinet of the best men in it? Have you no facts in your own experience going to prove that such audacity has not shown its head without power and numbers that render it formidable? I do not fear it; not now, if it is strangled at its birth. But he tempts Providence who suffers that spirit of anarchy to grow and gather strength before striking a blow for its destruction.

You cannot be ignorant of the design of these men. He that runs may read it. They see that we are drifting toward emancipation. They see that the demand from the masses of our people for this great measure is becoming, day by day, more importunate. They know that a majority of your cabinet favor it. They feel assured, as to yourself, that if the option remain with you, it is but a question of time and of form when and how a proclamation of emancipation will be issued. They perceive but one power that has any chance successfully to arrest this stream and coerce your action. Openly they appeal to it. Openly they declare that cabinet ministers must be imposed upon you by military dictation. No other course is left them to effect their great object, namely, to perpetuate among us that slavery which the nation, with a determination which increases from day to day, is resolved to uproot.

One blow may be dealt by you against these men that will crush forever their treasonable cabals. It is the same that lays the foundation of peace, and assures, beyond possible peradventure, the downfall of the rebellion. They know their danger. They read EMANCIPATION in all the signs of the times. It is to them the handwriting on the wall, foreshadowing their political fate. What wonder that they resort to desperate means to arrest its advent?

Shall they be allowed time, by insidious argument, to entice the unwary into the ranks of sedition? By prompt action alone can you prevent it. It is idle to await unanimity. Men acquiesce in a thousand things, once righteously and boldly done, to which, if proposed to them in advance, they might find endless objections.

Do you hesitate? Will you delay the blow? See to it, that when at last your resolution is taken, the power may not already have passed away from you hands.

The twenty-third of September approaches--the date when the sixty-day notice you have given to the rebels will expire--expire without other reply to your warning than the invasion of Maryland and a menace to Pennsylvania. Is it to rest there? Patiently we have waited the time. Is nothing to follow? Are our enemies to boast that we speak brave words--and there an end of it?

What a day, if you but will it, may that twenty-third of September become! The very turning point in the nation's fate! A day to the rebels of despair, to every loyal heart of exultant rejoicing! A day of which the anniversary will be celebrated with jubilee while the American Union endures! A day to be remembered not on our land alone, but wherever humanity mourns over the wrongs of the slave, or rejoices in his liberation!

You are the first President to whom the opportunity was ever offered constitutionally to inaugurate such a day. If you fail us now, you may be the last. Lift then the weight from the heart of this people. Let them breathe free once more. Extirpate the blighting curse, a living threat throughout long years past, that has smitten at last with desolation a land to which God had granted everything but wisdom and justice. Give back to the nation its hope and faith in a future of peace and undisturbed properity. Fulfill--you can far more than fulfill-- the brightest anticipations of those who, in the name of human freedom, and in the face of threats that have ripened into terrible realities since, fought that battle which placed you where you now stand.

ROBERT DALE OWEN, New York, Sept. 17, 1862.

This is one of three letters published in

Robert Dale Owen, The Policy of Emancipation: In Three Letters to The Secretary of War, the President of the United States, and The Secretary of the Treasury, J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1863.

Excerpt from The Emancipation Proclamation
[New Year's Day, 1863,
after a preliminary issue dated September 22, 1862]:

I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States ... are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

... And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgement of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States of America

Robert Dale Owen
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