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1863 September 26: A Letter from Edward Everett

September 30, 2013

The Polk County Press printed this letter in their September 26, 1863, issue.  Like President Abraham Lincoln, who also wrote a letter to James C. Conkling in place of speaking at a mass meeting in Springfield, Illinois, on September 3, 1863, Edward Everett¹ was likewise unable to attend the meeting and instead sent the following letter.  Everett’s letter received little attention compared to Lincoln’s.

There are several words in here that are spelled slightly differently than we would spell them today.  They were probably acceptable spellings at the time but we still used [sic] to let you know that it was not a mistake on our part in transcribing the letter.

A Letter from Edward Everett.


BOSTON, Aug. 24, 1863.

James C. Conkling, Esq., Chairman, &c. :

MY DEAR SIR.—I received, a few days ago, your letter of the 12th, inviting me to attend the Grand Mass Meeting of the unconditional Union men of the State of Illinois, to be held on the 2d [sic: it was held on the 3rd] of September, in Springfield.

It will not be in my power to attend the meeting, but its objects, as explained by you, have my cordial sympathy.

The election soon to be held will be of more than usual importance.—They will throw light on the great question, how far it is possible for a free Government, constituted in its legislative and executive branches by popular choice, to prosecute with vigor a war of considerable duration, and which entails heavy burdens on the community.  As a representative Government is mainly carried on by party organization, the great interests of the community,  both in peace and war, are too apt to become the arena in which the opposite parties strive for the mastery.  Questions, in themselves of secondary importance to the general welfare, are often contested with vehemence and passion, and that by men of ability and patriotism, working themselves up to the belief that they are contending for matters of vital importance.  Within my experience the policies of the country have successively turned from four or five questions, regarded at the time as of the greatest moment, but now utterly obsolete and forgotten.

These unprofitable contests, while they last, are a source of great embarrassment to this Administration of the General Government for the time being, which finds itself thwarted in all its measures, however patriotic and beneficial their tendency by indiscriminate opposition, aiming only at an electioneering triumph.  This is a very serious evil even in time of peace, greatly enhancing the difficulties and burdens of public life, and highly detrimental of the public interest.

In time of war the evil becomes one of tremendous magnitude.  The questions that then present themselves are naturally more important than ordinary political issues in time of peace, while every blow struck at the measures of the Government, though designed only to affect a change of administration, really affords aid and comfort to the enemy.

This will be the case when the opposition to the Government measures is sincerely dictated by honest difference of opinion.  Nay, it will ever be the case when the opposition is directed against measures palpably mistaken either on grounds of principle of policy.  No administration is free from error, and if party spirit is allowed to prevail, its errors will be severely criticised [sic], usually exaggerated, and often fiercely denounced, till the attention of the country, instead of being fixed on the great and [unreadable] question on which all good patriots are agreed, is turned to side issues of minor, or often factitious importance.  In this way the administration of the Government is weakened and embarrassed, and the vigorous prosecution of the war, which every patriotic citizen admits to be the paramount object is in some degree paralized [sic].

I have doubted the policy of some measures of the Administration, and strongly disapproved others ;  but regarding the persons in power for the time being as the constitutional agents of the people for carrying on the Government—considering the war, which has been forced upon us by the ambitious demagogues of the South, as a question of national life or death—that to have the doctrine of secession established at the mouth of the rebel cannon is simply to consign the country to a future of eternal border war, and to lay its dishonored fragments at the feet of foreign powers—I cannot but think it unpatriotic to attempt, for the sake of a party triumph, to make political capital out of the difficulties, or, if you please, the errors, unavoidably incident to the conduct of a war of such gigantic dimensions.

It is a pretty safe test, in cases of this kind, to ask how the views and measures of a party are regarded by the common enemy.  Applying this test in the present case, nothing is more certain than that the triumph, at the approaching election, of any party organized and operating for the prostration of the Administration, would be regarded with unmingled satisfaction by the leaders of the rebellion and their sympathyzers [sic] abroad.  Indeed, their last hope is in our divisions.

Candor requires me to add, that, if it is the duty of good citizens to abstain from factious opposition, it is, in time of war, not less the duty of an Administration, as well in civil as military and naval affairs, to assume a position wholly nidependent [sic] of party.  I am afraid it is impossible in time of peace, to carry on representative government except on a party basis.

During the existence of war, especially of a war which taxes to the utmost, the energies and resources of the country, party support, in proportion as it is relied upon, is an element not of strength but of weakness.

If all good men and good patriots in the loyal States, whether in office or out of office—sacrificing when necessary, a little pride of personal feeling and of party association, would cordially unite for the attainments of the objects which they all approve viz :  The vigorous prosecution and successful termination of the war, the next New Year’s day would witness the prostration of the rebellion and its leaders ;  the return of peace and the restoration of the Union.

With the best wishes that the meeting at Springfield may promote these ends, I remain, dear sir, very respectfully,

Your friend and fellow-citizen,


Edward Everett

Edward Everett, 1863 (cropped), from the Library of Congress

1.  Edward Everett (1794-1865) was an American politician, minister, educator, diplomat, and orator from Massachusetts. A Whig politically, Everett served as a U.S. Representative (1825-1835) from Massachusetts, the 15th governor of Massachusetts (1836-1840), U.S. ambassador to Great Britain (1841-1845), U.S. Secretary of State (1852-1853), and a U.S. Senator (1853-1854) from Massachusetts. He also taught at Harvard University and served as its president (1846-1849).

Everett was one of the great American orators of the Civil War era. He was the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863—where he spoke for over two hours—immediately before President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous, two-minute Gettysburg Address.

The image is cropped from a full-length, seated, drawing of Everett in the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

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