Civil War and Reconstruction
Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Erastus Corning and Others (1863)
About This Text
Author: Abraham Lincoln
Composed: 1863 CE
In this letter, Lincoln responds to a group of Democrats who criticized his administration’s policy of suspending habeas corpus and other civil liberties. The group, led by New York businessman Erastus Corning, specifically petitioned Lincoln to reverse the arrest of Clement Vallandigham, who was tried and imprisoned by a military tribunal for speeches deemed sympathetic to the Confederacy. Corning’s group held that this and other actions were unconstitutional violations of rights to free speech, assembly, and fair trials. Lincoln replied by offering a defense of the constitutionality of his policy. He argued that such a policy was necessary for public safety and that it was the fairest approach possible in the context of insurrection. Lincoln famously asked: “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?” The letter was intended for the public, and some estimates suggest that 10 million Americans (one in three citizens) read it.