‘Whenever I Hear Any One Arguing for Slavery, I Feel a Strong Impulse to See it Tried on Him Personally’

March 17, 1865 (Friday)

 The last known photograph of President Lincoln alive. Taken on the balcony at the White House, March 6, 1865.
The last known photograph of President Lincoln alive. Taken on the balcony at the White House, March 6, 1865.

On this date President Lincoln delivered one of his more famous speeches. There were two copies of this message – one from the New York Herald, and another, written shortly thereafter, signed personally by Lincoln. The first was spoken to the 140th Indiana Regiment, which captured a Confederate flag at Fort Anderson. But it was before Lincoln had heard that the Confederate bill to allow slaves to fight in the Southern armies had passed. The second took this into account.

I have taken the liberty of splicing the two drafts together to make a third. It’s usually a bad idea to do this, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway. Below is this new draft. The portions that come from the second, signed draft are in italics.

FELLOW CITIZENS—It will be but a very few words that I shall undertake to say. I was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana and lived in Illinois. And now I am here, where it is my business to care equally for the good people of all the States.

I am glad to see an Indiana regiment on this day able to present the captured flag to the Governor of Indiana. And yet I would not wish to compliment Indiana above other states, remembering that all have done so well.

There are but few aspects of this great war on which I have not already expressed my views by speaking or writing. But there is one—the recent attempt of our erring brethren, as they are sometimes called—to employ the negro to fight for them. I have neither written nor made a speech on that subject, because that was their business, not mine; and if I had a wish upon the subject I had not the power to introduce it, or make it effective.

The great question with them has been; ‘will the negro fight for them?’ They ought to know better than we; and, doubtless, do know better than we.

I may incidentally remark, however, that having, in my life, heard many arguments,—or strings of words meant to pass for arguments,—intended to show that the negro ought to be a slave, that if he shall now really fight to keep himself a slave, it will be a far better argument why he should remain a slave than I have ever before heard. He who will fight for that ought to be a slave.

They have concluded at last to take one out of four of the slaves, and put them in the army; if one out of four will, for his own freedom, fight to keep the other three in slavery, he ought to be a slave for his selfish meanness.

I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. I am in favor of giving an opportunity to such white men to try it on for themselves.

I will say one thing in regard to the negro being employed to fight for them. I do know he cannot fight and stay at home and make bread too—and as one is about as important as the other to them, I don’t care which they do. This being known and remembered we can have but little concern whether they become soldiers or not. I am rather in favor of the measure; and would at any time if I could, have loaned them a vote to carry it.

We must now see the bottom of the enemy’s resources. They will stand out as long as they can, and if the negro will fight for them, they must allow him to fight. They have drawn upon their last branch of resources. And we can now see the bottom. I am glad to see the end so near at hand. I have said now more than I intended, and will therefore bid you goodby.1

  1. Both versions can be found in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 8. Also here. []


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2 thoughts on “‘Whenever I Hear Any One Arguing for Slavery, I Feel a Strong Impulse to See it Tried on Him Personally’

  1. What a clever and I assume ‘tongue in cheek’ speech. I have never read it before. The last picture of the President was very moving. To think in a very short time he would be assassinated. What would reconstruction look like with him as President?

    1. Speaking of Lincoln’s assassination, making this speech foiled John Wilkes Booth’s first plot against the President. Booth had gathered a number of co-conspirators to kidnap Lincoln on the way back from a play at a military hospital — but Lincoln’s plans changed and he attended this event with the 140th Indiana at the National Hotel instead.

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