President Abraham Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the summer of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln asked the members of his cabinet to sign their names to the back of a document without looking at its contents. Later that fall, Lincoln called together those men and revealed to them that the document was a statement that Lincoln and the signatories would, upon defeat in the reelection campaign, work with the president-elect to make one last push to win the Civil War before the latter’s inauguration. Lincoln’s so-called “blind memorandum,” as described in the diary of his private secretary John Hay, demonstrates Lincoln’s fear that the war would cost him reelection against a candidate who would be unable to halt the nation’s disintegration.

Summary Overview

During the summer of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln asked the members of his cabinet to sign their names to the back of a document without looking at its contents. Later that fall, Lincoln called together those men and revealed to them that the document was a statement that Lincoln and the signatories would, upon defeat in the reelection campaign, work with the president-elect to make one last push to win the Civil War before the latter’s inauguration. Lincoln’s so-called “blind memorandum,” as described in the diary of his private secretary John Hay, demonstrates Lincoln’s fear that the war would cost him reelection against a candidate who would be unable to halt the nation’s disintegration.

Defining Moment

The duration and brutality of the Civil War stretched the fabric of the United States to a near breaking point. Frequent mistakes on the part of the Union Army emboldened the Confederacy against its well-financed opponent. President Lincoln saw eleven American states leave the Union within his first few months in office. Lincoln and his administration needed to present to the American people that the cause of defeating this rebellion was a worthy one, even if military action would cost American lives. He also needed to enlist others to his cause.

Lincoln’s responses to the war were not always popular or fully effective. One of his first acts, for example, was the suspension of habeas corpus (the right to be brought before court as protection against illegal imprisonment) for those detained under suspicion of aiding the enemy. The president also bolstered the military by raising an additional 75,000 troops to combat the growing rebellion. Furthermore, he imposed on the seceding states’ major ports a blockade, which extended along the Atlantic coastline from Virginia to Texas, in an effort to strangle the Confederacy’s economy. Lincoln had to go to Congress several times for support, claiming that his efforts were legal and constitutional. Meanwhile, the Confederacy did not yield. In fact, the first major battle of the war–the First Battle of Bull Run–saw the Rebels forcing the undertrained Union Army into retreat. Lincoln, in 1862, fired one of his most popular generals, George McClellan, for showing too much caution in engaging the enemy.

The Civil War dominated Lincoln’s first term, with the president fully committed to defeating the resilient Confederacy. The war, exhausting America’s resources and public morale, affected Lincoln’s public standing. A growing number of Peace Democrats presented a challenge to Lincoln’s Republican presidency by the time his first term was approaching an end. The Democrats, Lincoln feared, were going to nominate as their candidate the former General George McClellan.

The possibility that McClellan, who was a very popular military leader despite his perceived failures in combat, could be the Democrats’ nominee–and the public’s growing weariness from the war’s continuation–had major implications for Lincoln. He feared that a McClellan victory would mean that the Union would stop the war effort without defeating the Confederacy. In other words, it was believed that if McClellan defeated Lincoln at the polls, the secessionist states would be allowed to remain outside of the Union. With the Confederacy victorious in this regard, other states could secede, and the Union would disintegrate almost completely. During the summer before the 1864 election, Lincoln began to plan for this scenario in the event that McClellan’s election did indeed occur.

Author Biography

John Milton Hay was born on October 8, 1838, in Salem, Indiana. He was the third son of prominent physician Dr. Charles Hay and Helen Leonard Hay. His family moved to Warsaw, Illinois, when he was three years of age, and he remained in that community for most of his childhood. As was frequently the case on the frontier, Hay’s parents were responsible for much of his early education, teaching him Latin and Greek in addition to other subjects. When Hay reached the age of thirteen, his father sent him to study at a private academy in Pittsfield, Illinois. In 1852, Hay was accepted to Illinois State College (what is now known as Concordia College). In 1855, he entered Brown University in Rhode Island, where he studied law as well as literature and poetry. He graduated with a master’s degree from that institution in 1858, returning to Springfield, Illinois to study and work in law for his uncle, Milton Hay. While working there, Hay became friendly with the lawyer next door, Abraham Lincoln.

In 1861, the same year that Hay was admitted to the Illinois bar, Lincoln assumed office as president, having been elected the previous year. Lincoln selected John Nicolay as his private secretary. Nicolay, one of Hay’s childhood friends, recommended that Lincoln choose Hay as the president’s assistant private secretary. Hay would remain in this position for the entirety of Lincoln’s term. Along with Nicolay, Hay would later write a ten-volume biography of Lincoln.

After the Civil War’s end, Hay remained with Lincoln’s administration, taking the position of assistant adjutant-general of the Army. Hay then served during the presidency of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, holding diplomatic posts throughout Europe. He retired from his diplomatic positions in 1870 to focus on his writing activities. During his break from public service, Hay married Clara Stone in 1874.

Hay returned to the government in 1896, accepting the position of ambassador to Great Britain under President William McKinley. He would later be appointed secretary of state, tasked with completing treaty negotiations with Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. He would also be a prominent figure in the so-called “open door” policy of promoting trade with China (despite the 1900 Boxer Rebellion) as well as in negotiations with Canada over the Alaskan border. Hay remained secretary of state with President Theodore Roosevelt after McKinley’s assassination in September 1901. Among his accomplishments during this period was the successful negotiation of the Panama Canal treaty in November 1903 (Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty), granting the United States the right to build the canal.

Although Hay’s health steadily deteriorated, he remained secretary of state during the Roosevelt administration. While vacationing at his summer home in Newbury, New Hampshire, Hay died of a heart-related illness on July 1, 1905.

Document Analysis

From a Union perspective, the Civil War was, until its very end, marked by embarrassing losses and Pyrrhic victories. Although by the end of the summer of 1864, the Union Army was showing signs of greater success, especially in the northern Confederate states, the war had slogged onward for four years, with the American people awaiting its end with growing impatience.

In Virginia, for example, the Overland Campaign operated by General Ulysses S. Grant had cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, and yet it had not produced a decisive defeat of the Confederates. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces, fighting in Georgia, had by this time reached the city limits of Atlanta but could not yet take the city. The war was proceeding at a snail’s pace, taking lives and draining the country’s financial resources with few tangible results.

President Abraham Lincoln had been committed from the beginning of his presidency to bringing about a swift and decisive end to the Civil War. His preferred course of action was to simply declare the Confederacy and its actions against the Union illegal. Lincoln was often defiant in his actions–his Emancipation Proclamation (which took effect on January 1, 1863), for example, was seen as a direct challenge to the slave-dependent economy of the Confederacy and as disruptive even in the North. Although many of his policies and proclamations emboldened his enemies, Lincoln remained unapologetic for such initiatives throughout the war.

Despite his often maverick style, Lincoln understood the need for support from his own government and, most importantly, from the people. He made frequent attempts to convince the American people of the importance of continuing the fight–one notable example was during his brief Gettysburg Address, given several months after that pivotal 1863 battle–even if the war continued for an extended period of time. As time and the brutality of war wore on, however, the people’s faith had become shaken. Lincoln’s apparent failure to live up to the lofty goal of defeating the Confederacy in quick fashion brought out Lincoln’s political rivals as his reelection campaign loomed in 1864.

Lincoln’s primary adversary was manifest in the so-called Peace Democrats, who were also known as Copperheads. This group, led by former congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, seized upon Lincoln’s perceived failings as a military commander and upon the war’s length. The group inserted into the Democratic Party’s 1864 platform a plank calling for an immediate end to the war and a negotiated reunion with the Confederate states. Adding insult to the injury of the Democrats’ open defiance of Lincoln’s authority during the war was their apparent choice for a party nominee: former General George McClellan. Although Lincoln had on two occasions removed McClellan from his command (for showing reluctance to fully engage the enemy), this man was very popular among his troops, an indication of the charisma that would almost certainly be called upon as the Democrats’ nominee.

By August of 1864, Lincoln had become highly pessimistic about his chances for reelection. He also knew that, if McClellan did become the nominee and eventually won the election, the country would undergo a major shift in its course–away from defeating the Confederate effort and toward a policy of reconciliation that, in Lincoln’s opinion, would leave the Union fractured for years to come.

In light of his fears, Lincoln held a meeting with the members of his cabinet on August 23. He took from his desk a piece of paper and, without sharing its contents, asked each member to sign his name to the back of the folded document. Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of the Treasury William Fessenden, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Interior John Usher, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair all signed their names to Lincoln’s paper, which Lincoln then returned to his drawer.

A week later, McClellan indeed became the Democratic nominee, carrying the increasingly popular Peace Democrats’ call for the end of the war on his shoulders. In light of Lincoln’s perceived unpopularity and the Union Army’s apparent inability to score a decisive victory on the battlefield, it seemed as though Lincoln’s fears would be validated in the upcoming election.

As fate would have it, however, two days after McClellan’s nomination, General Sherman sent good news from Georgia to Lincoln. All roads and rails into and out of Atlanta were now under Union control, and the Confederate forces in the city were evacuating. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” Sherman reported. News of Sherman’s victory quickly spread through the media, and the American voters started to unify behind their President again. Lincoln’s campaign saw a surge for the remainder of the campaign.

According to the journal of Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay, on November 11, 1864, Lincoln’s election victory was confirmed during a meeting between the president and his cabinet. Hay reports in the account that, on that morning, fellow presidential private secretary John Nicolay had sent a dispatch to Lincoln with an illustration of Lincoln’s success in Illinois. There, the Republicans, who were expected to lose mightily to the Democrats (and who were under constant attack by the state media), won handily–an overwhelming majority of the congressional seats in that state went Republican, while the Democrats only won four. Lincoln had not only accomplished a landslide victory in his own campaign–he and his party had won an overwhelming majority in a state that had been hostile to the president.

Hay wrote in his diary that an unusual event took place following the report from Illinois. The president reached into his desk and pulled out a folded piece of paper that he had pasted closed. For those cabinet members present, he recalled the events of the previous summer, wherein the president had asked them to affix their names to a mysterious document. At the November 11 meeting, all of the members who had signed their names–with the exception of Blair, who had since been fired from his post–were present. Lincoln asked Hay to carefully open the letter. After Hay cut open the note, Lincoln read its contents.

Hay’s role in this meeting was critical, for neither the meeting nor the document itself were to be made public, at least in the immediate term. Lincoln had penned the memorandum on the same day he presented it for the cabinet members’ signatures. In the message, Lincoln wrote that it had become increasingly clear to him that his administration would not see a second term. In light of this fact, he would make it his duty to cooperate with the president-elect while continuing to fight the war until Lincoln’s successor was inaugurated. The new president, according to Lincoln, would likely be elected on the promise of immediately ending the war and negotiating reconciliation with the Confederate states. Lincoln was vehemently opposed to such a policy; in the memo, Lincoln wrote that the new president, if adopting such a position, would not be able to save the Union. It was incumbent upon Lincoln to attempt to end the war by continuing the fight he had started in 1861–hoping that the Union would succeed before the new administration came to power.

Hay states in his diary that Lincoln told his cabinet that this memorandum would not represent an acceptance of defeat or an expression of despair. Rather, there was a sense of purpose manifest in Lincoln’s action. Indeed, Hay argues that the memo would serve as a course of action for Lincoln and his administration. Although written at a time “when as yet we had no adversary,” Lincoln was operating under the presumption that the adversary in question would be McClellan. Regardless of who the Democratic nominee would be, however, Lincoln states in his memo that his administration “seemed to have no friends,” an indication of the public’s growing impatience with the war and the resulting opposing political forces–including those from Lincoln’s own party–that had surfaced during the campaign.

If Lincoln’s August 23 fear had become reality, he told Hay and the others in November, it was important to reach out to McClellan in a spirit of respect for the president-elect. Lincoln would have acknowledged to McClellan that the latter was “stronger,” with “more influence with the American people” than Lincoln during the campaign. However, Lincoln would still have been the president of the United States, with the ability to continue his policies until the day when McClellan officially took office. In light of these two facts, Lincoln told his cabinet, an opportunity became manifest. Lincoln, according to the memo, would have looked to use McClellan’s popularity and influence to raise more troops, while using his own presidential powers to finish the war in the manner he had set forth in 1861.

Lincoln’s involvement of his cabinet in the “blind memorandum,” as the document came to be known, served two purposes. The first was to unify his cabinet, even in the face of defeat. Had the administration simply accepted defeat to the Democrats and dispersed, the nation would have suffered as a consequence. Lincoln needed his cabinet officials to be just as engaged in continuing the war effort to its end as their president was. The second purpose was to ensure that Lincoln would stay on course, even with the time constraints of the coming inauguration closing in on him. Lincoln relied on the counsel of these men as he continued to fight for the integrity of the Union.

Hay’s account of Lincoln’s presentation does not include a great deal of commentary from the men seated in the room during the November meeting. Hay only cites the response of one of Lincoln’s senior-most cabinet officials, Secretary of State William Seward. Seward appeared highly dubious that McClellan would be willing to work with Lincoln in such a manner. Rather, Seward argued that McClellan would simply say “Yes, Yes,” paying Lincoln little more than lip service. Even if Lincoln continued to push for McClellan to aid him, Seward said, Lincoln would get no commitment–McClellan “would have done nothing at all.”

Lincoln’s response to Seward’s warning was one of limited hope. Even if McClellan refused to assist Lincoln, the president’s conscience would be clear. Lincoln knew there was a risk to reaching out to his political adversary, but the risks of inaction–the eventual disintegration of the Union–made one last attempt to fight and win the war worth taking that risk.

In his journal, Hay does not cite any responses from the other cabinet officials. As mentioned above, the blind memorandum and the meeting were not made public. In fact, the August meeting was also not publicized. The only account of the memorandum and the two proceedings was kept by Hay. Later, several of the men in that meeting asked Hay for copies of the letter as keepsakes from the war era. Hay begrudgingly agreed. One of those officials, Gideon Welles, was writing a memoir and wanted to use the document as part of his research. He first published his account of the blind memorandum in the Atlantic Monthly in 1878. In the account, Welles describes the memo as evidence of Lincoln’s despair and depression over the likelihood that he was facing defeat. He reflects on Lincoln’s demeanor in August, saying that, in his opinion, Lincoln had never been more depressed than during that period. Hay did not appreciate the Atlantic Monthly article; as possessor of the original memorandum, he regretted having given out copies of it. He was also in the midst of preparing his own account of Lincoln’s presidency, along with fellow former secretary John Nicolay. Hay and Nicolay would detail the events surrounding the blind memorandum in the ninth of ten volumes about Abraham Lincoln, published in 1890.

Lincoln’s blind memorandum has been analyzed considerably since it reached the public domain. Many scholars agree with Welles’s assessment–that it was an expression of Lincoln’s depression at the seemingly unwinnable situation with which he was faced. However, for the author of the Emancipation Proclamation–a bold statement made against seemingly insurmountable opposition–to react to this situation in such a private manner would seem out of character, even if Lincoln was experiencing such despair. With this departure in mind, scholars have analyzed Lincoln’s action rather than his words. In other words, the fact that Lincoln kept his next course of action confined to his cabinet may also be seen as an attempt to solidify the support of his political allies while simply reflecting upon the situation at hand. By offering his perspective on the implications of the election, Lincoln, through the blind memorandum, could have been ensuring the loyalty and support of his closest advisors as they took the next step after defeat.

Essential Themes

In August 1864, President Abraham Lincoln’s first term was coming to a close, and it was becoming clear to many that the Civil War, which continued to rage without an end in sight, would impact Lincoln’s pursuit of a second term. The Union Army and Navy continued to pound on key targets in the South (especially in Virginia and Atlanta, Georgia), but the Confederacy showed great resilience and adaptability. Lincoln, appreciating the Confederate states’ zeal and dedication, continued his campaign to force the South to surrender before entering into any negotiations.

A large number of Peace Democrats, however, believed that the war should have been brought to a quick end by halting military operations and opening negotiations with the Confederate states. This policy was inserted into the Democratic Party’s platform during the 1864 presidential campaign. The popularity of the Democrats’ position on the war was enhanced by the person likely to win the party’s nomination: Lincoln’s former military commander, General George McClellan.

The growing popularity of McClellan and public discontent with the war led Lincoln to believe that the Democrats could have a strong chance of winning the election. Such a victory would, in Lincoln’s opinion, result in the continued disintegration of the Union. Lincoln believed that his only remaining option if McClellan won was to continue to fight the war in coordination with the president-elect; he hoped that the war could be brought to an end before the Peace Democrats took office.

Lincoln’s sense that the election could be lost, and that his efforts to defend the Union might be undone as a result, led the president to plan his next course of action. The secrecy of his blind memorandum was an unusual approach; the president, without any public knowledge, asked his cabinet members to sign an as-yet unseen document, the contents of which he would not reveal until after the election. Given his previous grandiose and defiant proclamations during the war–including the raising of 75,000 additional troops to combat the Confederacy, the suspension of habeas corpus, the imposition of a blockade along the entire Atlantic seaboard, and his seminal Emancipation Proclamation–the confidentiality of this memorandum gained the interest of Lincoln scholars for years to come. Lincoln’s approach has suggested to some a mood of despair at the time the paper was written, although few accounts of Lincoln’s demeanor during that initial meeting have been made available.

To John Hay, the seeming desperation of the memo is understandable, given the circumstances. Still, Hay suggests in his journal entry documenting the November meeting that the more important aspect of the document was the course of action Lincoln devised. That he would not reveal the contents of the memo until the election’s positive outcome was confirmed is reflective of Lincoln’s faith in the loyalty of his cabinet during what might have been one of the administration’s darkest hours.

Bibliography
  • “Abraham Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum and the 1864 Election.” Iron Brigader. Iron Brigader, 12 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • “Biographies of the Secretaries of State: John Hay.” US Department of State–Office of the Historian. United States Department of State, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • Hay, John. “The Mormon Prophet’s Tragedy.” Atlantic Monthly Dec. 1869: 669–78. Utah Lighthouse Ministry. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • “John Milton Hay.” The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War. Library of Congress, 22 June 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • McPherson, James M. “Lincoln, Abraham.” American National Biography Online. American Council of Learned Societies, Feb. 2000. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • Miller, Randall M., ed. Lincoln and Leadership: Military, Political, and Religious Decision Making. New York: Fordham UP, 2012. Print.
  • Mitchell, Martha. “Hay, John.” Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Providence: Brown University Library, 1993. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Flood, Charles Bracelen. 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History. New York: Simon, 2009. Print.
  • Hay, John. Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay. Ed. Michael Burlingame and John R. T. Ettlinger. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997. Print.
  • Johnson, David Alan. Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864. Amherst: Prometheus, 2012. Print.
  • Nicolay, John G., and John Hay. “Chapter XI. The Chicago Surrender.” Abraham Lincoln: A History. Vol. 9. New York: Century, 1890. 244–62. Print.
  • Waugh, John C. Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency. New York: De Capo, 2001. Print.
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