Abraham Lincoln Suggests Suffrage for Some Louisiana Blacks: The "Very Intelligent" and Union Veterans

March 13, 1864

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Abraham Lincoln Suggests Suffrage for Some Louisiana Blacks: The "Very Intelligent" and Union Veterans
Autograph Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 448

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      Background

      Louisiana, in defeat, was almost as much trouble for Lincoln as Louisiana in rebellion. Confederate sympathy there was strong, Federal support weak, and as much as Lincoln wanted to see the state be the first brought back into the Union, it could not be at the cost, as Louisianans would have it, of perpetuating slavery. Making matters worse, the abolitionist - and potentially anti-Lincoln - wing of the Republican Party wanted suffrage extended to Louisiana’s newly-freed slaves. Lincoln’s candidate for Governor of Louisiana, Michael Hahn, opposed that very thing; and with a national election in play, Lincoln hardly wanted to hazard a firm stand on the issue. Yet Lincoln, as this letter makes clear, surely had begun to link restoration to emancipation. “To keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom” he tactfully proposed, it probably would be helpful if the franchise were extended to “some of the colored people… as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.”
       
      Just the day before, in fact, Lincoln had received a delegation from New Orleans’ able, educated, and free Black community. They had brought a petition bearing a thousand signatures, asking to be registered as voters. Lincoln, regretfully, declined their request: circumstances, at the moment, worked against them. His paramount consideration, he told the delegation, was the restoration of the Union, and he would do nothing to hinder that consummation, or omit anything that would accomplish it. He did nothing, he said, upon moral grounds – only upon political necessities. If accession to their request would bring Louisiana back into the Union, he would accede; if not, no. But writing to Hahn the next day, Lincoln gently but firmly pushed for Black suffrage – and surprisingly without making any distinction between the free-born and the freed…
       
      Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in - as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. But this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone.
       
      Here, too, Lincoln congratulated Hahn “on having fixed your name in history as the first-free-state Governor of Louisiana.” Had he known, or cared, he might have noted another historic aspect of Hahn’s election: Hahn was the first Jew elected a Governor in American history.

      Hahn, receiving this letter, astutely recognized Lincoln’s intent, and at the Convention in April, went beyond his own views regarding an extension of suffrage. With great difficulty, he pushed through a provision authorizing the legislature to enfranchise non-whites on the basis that Lincoln suggested: military service and intellectual fitness. Lincoln was grateful, and ever solicitous of the Governor, as evidenced by his letter (see Lincoln to Hahn, July 21, 1864) in which Lincoln ordered pardons – but only if that was what Hahn wanted.


      Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), marked “Private,” 1 page, quarto, Executive Mansion, Washington, March 13, 1864. To Governor Michael Hahn of Louisiana.
      Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.
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      Executive Mansion,
      Washington, March 13, 1864.

      Private

      Hon. Michael Hahn

      My dear Sir:

      I congratulate you on having fixed your name in history as the first free-state Governor of Louisiana. Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in - as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. But this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone.

      Yours truly 

      A. Lincoln.