Lincoln Defends the Draft, Overestimates the Confederate Cause

August 7, 1863 (Friday)

Abraham Lincoln was, by this point in the war, immune to accusers railing against what they perceived as the dashing of their civil liberties. Early on, Lincoln had suspended the write of habeas corpus in Maryland, arresting and imprisoning many without trial. If a few (or many more than a few) newspapers were shut down along with them, so be it. Even the freeing of slaves, believed many, went against their Constitutional rights to be owners and dealers of human beings.

NYC Draft Riots
NYC Draft Riots

No single act, however, was more wide spread than the draft. By the summer of 1863, if any adult male had not already enlisted, it was fairly doubtful he ever would. Just as there were many reasons why men fought, there were just as many given for why they did not. Some, like the Amish, Quakers and Shakers were pacifists. Others were simply not interested in killing and dying to either save the Union or free the slaves (or both). Some did not wish to leave home and family, and still others supported the Southern cause while dwelling in the North.

In March of 1863, Lincoln signed the Conscription Act, which declared that “all able-bodies male citizens of the United States, and persons of foreign birth who shall have declared on oath their intention to become citizens under and in pursuance of the laws thereof, between the ages of twenty and forty-five years, except as hereinafter excepted, are hereby declared to constitute the national forces, and shall be liable to perform military duty in the service of the United States when called out by the President for that purpose.”

When it went into effect in July, it caused riots in New York and other major Northern cities. These riots pulled Union troops away from the front so that they could quell the resistance. They riots also brought to Lincoln’s door the fact that those who did not already join the Army, really did not want to join the Army. They were not lazy shirkers, they were actually opposed to enlisting.

Fearing that Lincoln may have missed this point, New York’s Governor Horatio Seymour wrote to the President, telling him all about the riots in New York and questioning the Constitutionality of a draft. This was, after all, the first time the United States had enacted a Federal draft (though the Confederate States – the so called bastion of states right – enacted it a year before). What Governor Seymour most wanted was for Lincoln to suspend the draft.

In his response, written upon this day, President Lincoln spells out exactly why he believed the draft was necessary, even if it wasn’t exactly Constitutional. “I can not consent to suspend the draft in New-York, as you request,” began Lincoln, “because, among other reasons, time is too important.”

This was the theme of the entire letter – of his entire philosophy. It was the very reason he seemed to care little whether or not it was Constitutional. When asked if he would abide by the Supreme Court, should they rule it unconstitutional, Lincoln wrote that he would indeed. “In fact,” he replied, “I should be willing to facilitate the obtaining of it [the Supreme Court’s decision].”

One way to escape the draft...
One way to escape the draft…

The problem was, of course, time. “I can not consent to lose the time while it is being obtained,” he insisted. This was due wholly to the Confederate draft: “We are contending with an enemy who, as I understand, drives every able bodied man he can reach, into his ranks, very much as a butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter-pen.”

With the Rebels, asserted the President, “no time is wasted, no argument is used.” This wasn’t, however, exactly true. The Confederate draft, while “federal” allowed for many exceptions and arguments. It allowed, for example, an exemption of anyone owning twenty or more slaves. Also, it made allowance for religion pacifists, something Lincoln’s draft was not quite ready to do.

Based upon the idea that the Rebels wasted no time and gave no quarter to arguments, he believed (at least in writing) that the Southern draft produced “an army which will soon turn upon our now victorious soldiers already in the field, if they shall not be sustained by recruits, as they should be.”

Unless there was a draft, he believed, the bursting Confederate armies would soon outnumber the Union troops in the field.

To be clear, Lincoln reiterated. The Southern draft “produces an army with a rapidity not to be matched on our side, if we first waste time to re-experiment with the volunteer system, already deemed by congress, and palpably, in fact, so far exhausted, as to be inadequate; and then more time, to obtain a court decision, as to whether a law is constitutional, which requires a part of those not now in the service, to go to the aid of those who are already in it; and still more time, to determine with absolute certainty, that we get those, who are to go, in the precisely legal proportion, to those who are not to go.”

In short, Lincoln needed more men than the Constitution might allow him to have. Without men, he might very well lose the war.


This was, of course, a very serious thing. If the war was lost, the Southern states would form their own nation. If the war was lost, the slaves (at least the ones they couldn’t keep from revolting and escaping) would be indefinitely kept in bondage. To Lincoln, this was too important of a thing to be left up to the bureaucracy of Government.

Lincoln was not fighting a war to preserve the Constitution, but to preserve the Union and, by this point in the war, to free the slaves. Two days previous to writing Governor Seymour, Lincoln composed a letter to General Nathaniel Banks. In it, among other things, he stated his evolving feelings on slavery: “For my own part I think I shall not, in any event, retract the emancipation proclamation; nor, as executive, ever return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.”

It was quite possible that the United States Constitution allowed for both slavery and the freedom not to be drafted into the Army. Lincoln did not wish to contest either point in the Supreme Court, but rather wanted to fight the war by any means necessary.

Perhaps, Lincoln’s words from his Inaugural Address best explain his position: “The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776.”1

  1. Sources: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 6, p369-370. []
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Lincoln Defends the Draft, Overestimates the Confederate Cause by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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