Lincoln Reiterates His Silence

Saturday, December 15, 1860

“You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted,” wrote Lincoln to North Carolina Representative, John Adams Gilmer in response to his letter dated December 10th.

Gilmer was a former member of the Whig Party (same as Lincoln) and was now part of the Opposition Party (basically a renaming of the Whig Party). He wrote Lincoln asking him to make a public statement. Lincoln had taken to silence. Aside from a few newspaper articles about him, hardly a public word was spoken since his returning from Chicago.

In his reply to Gilmer, Lincoln stated that he did not really wish to talk about anything, even privately (the letter was marked “Strictly Confidential”). However, he now chose to give some response in fear that some “might misconstrue my silence.”

As in previous letters, he reminded Gilmer that everything he had to say about pretty much everything has already been said. “It is all in print and easy of access. May I be pardoned if I ask whether even you have ever attempted to procure the reading of the Republican platform, or my speeches, by the Southern people? If not, what reason have I to expect that any additional production of mine would meet a better fate?”

Lincoln seemed to chastise Gilmer for the supposed desire “that I shall shift the ground upon which I have been elected.” Doing so, thought Lincoln, “would make me appear as if I repented for the crime of having been elected, and was anxious to apologize and beg forgiveness.”

Rather than leaving it at that, Lincoln gave the page numbers from his Joint Debates against Stephen Douglas (pages 18, 19, 74, 75, 88, 89, & 267), asking Gilmer to “carefully read” them.

Also, as in past letters and speeches, Lincoln reiterated that he did not want (and probably couldn’t) change any state laws for or against slavery. “In one word, I never have been, am not now, and probably never shall be, in a mood of harassing the people, either North or South.”

Lincoln makes a show of support for the Fugitive Slave Law and says that “If any of them [individual state’s laws] are in conflict with the fugitive slave clause, or any other part of the constitution, I certainly should be glad of their repeal…” However, he did not find that it would be justifiable for a President to “to recommend the repeal of a statute of Vermont, or South Carolina.”

Though this letter was marked as confidential, it was reprinted within a month in the Missouri Democrat and Cincinnati Daily Commercial. Lincoln’s silence, broken with a handful of letters explaining his silence, did little to pacify a nation being split in two.1

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Though Lincoln could do nothing, P.T. Barnum thought that he had the cure-all for whatever ailed America. In this day’s New York Times, he ran a small ad, stating:

THE CRISIS AND SECESSION – Nobody would think there was trouble in the “American Camp,” if they would look in at Barnum’s Museum, either afternoon or evening, and see the smiling, happy faces, and hear the merry laughter of old and young, over the great showman’s novelties and amusements. The great performances this afternoon and evening, with the rare novelties at all hours, will be sure to attract great crowds.2



  1. All quotes from Abraham Lincoln’s letter to John A. Gilmer, December 15, 1860. []
  2. New York Times, December 15, 1860. []
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