Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Memorandum on Probable Failure"

“You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten,” Lincoln said, “but I do and unless some great change takes place badly beaten.”

Things were not going well. Ulysses S. Grant was labeled a “Butcher,” there was opposition to the draft, both radical and conservative elements of the Republican Party were warring with the president, and Democrats wanted peace. There was an election, a presidential election. And Lincoln did not think he was going to win.

Lincoln wrote the following note to himself:

Executive Mansion

Washington, 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

The presdient folded the piece of paper and sealed it shut. Without revealing its contents, he asked each member of the cabinet to sign his name to the document.

Of course, things changed. William Tecumseh Sherman achieved a significant victory. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” he announced on September 4. Lincoln was indeed reelected.

After the election, the president shared the contents of the note with his cabinet. Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, made a note of the meeting in his diary:

“At the meeting of the Cabinet today, the President took out a paper from his desk and said, ‘Gentlemen, do you remember last summer when I asked you all to sign your names to the back of a paper of which I did not show you the inside? This is it. Now, Mr Hay, see if you can get this open without tearing it?' He had pasted it up in so singular style that it required some cutting to get it open. He then read [the memorandum on probable failure].

``The President said, `You will remember that this was written at a time (6 days before the Chicago nominating Convention) when as yet we had no adversary, and seemed to have no friends. I then solemnly resolved on the course of action indicated above. I resolved, in case of the election of General McClellan, being certain that he would be the candidate, that I would see him and talk matters over with him. I would say, ``General, the election has demonstrated that you are stronger, have more influence with the American people than I. Now let us together, you with your influence and I with all the executive power of the Government, try to save the country. You raise as many troops as you possibly can for this final trial, and I will devote all my energies to assisting and finishing the war.''

``Seward said, `And the General would answer you ``Yes, Yes;'' and the next day when you saw him again and pressed these views upon him, he would say, ``Yes, Yes;'' & so on forever, and would have done nothing at all.’

`` `At least,' added Lincoln, `I should have done my duty and have stood clear before my own conscience.' . . . .''

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