Friday, March 7, 2008

A $5 Million Letter for Auction?

Lincoln to Mrs. Horace Mann, April 5, 1864

As I was getting out of the car this morning, I caught the end of an interesting news report. Sotheby’s will offer a very special letter for auction next month. It was written in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln and dealt with slavery. The reporter said the winning bid is expected to reach as high as $5,000,000. That was all I heard.


As I trudged through the snow, I wondered which letter this could be.

It had to be a major letter, something like Lincoln’s letter to A. G. Hodges, which includes the famous passages:

``I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”


“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

As it turns out, my best guess was off the mark. The letter that is being offered for auction is not the Hodges letter, but a much more obscure one.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts had given Lincoln a petition, signed by 195 school children from his state, which called on the president to free every slave child in the country.

On April 5, 1864, Lincoln replied to the woman who organized the petition. His reply is the letter now being offered for auction. It appears in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (7:287). Here is the letter in full, along with the annotations:

To Mrs. Horace Mann [1]

Mrs. Horace Mann, Executive Mansion,

Madam, Washington, April 5, 1864.

The petition of persons under eighteen, praying that I would free all slave children, and the heading of which petition it appears you wrote, was handed me a few days since by Senator Sumner. Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it. Yours truly



[1] ADfS, DLC-RTL; ALS-F, ISLA. See Lincoln to Sumner, infra. The ``Petition of the Children of the United States; that the President will free all slave children'' bears one hundred ninety-five signatures (DLC-RTL). In reply to Lincoln's letter, forwarded by Senator Sumner, Mrs. Mann wrote: ``It was wholly without my knowledge that my name was sent to you in connection with the petition of persons under eighteen in Concord . . . but I cannot regret it, since it has given me this precious note from your hand. . . . We intend immediately to scatter fac-similes of your sweet words to the children like apple blossoms all over the country---and we look with more hope than ever for the day when perfect justice shall be decreed, which shall make every able bodied colored man spring to the defence of the nation which it is plain the white man alone cannot save. . . .'' (Ibid.).

In deference to Mrs. Mann's desire to remain anonymous, the facsimiles, which were widely distributed, show instead of ``Mrs. Horace Mann'' ``Mrs.---(of Concord Mass.).''

Ironically, Lincoln's reply to Mrs. Mann was written just a day after the more widely known Hodges letter.

Is the letter worth $5,000,000? I'm just not sure. I suppose we will have to wait until April 3 to find out.

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