A Postscript to Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum

Lincoln's Blind Memo
Image of the original memo courtesy the Library of Congress

One of best-known stories about Lincoln concerns his so-called “blind memorandum.” On the morning of August 23, Lincoln took a sheet of paper from his desk and scribbled a note to himself, his cabinet, and (ultimately) the nation:

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.  — A. Lincoln

The story is usually told in the context of Lincoln’s worries about his reelection prospects in the fall of 1864. Less known is that the story has an amusing little postscript. 

John Hay

On Friday, November 11, 1864, days after defeating Gen. George B. McClellan in the election, Lincoln sat down for his morning cabinet meeting. Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, captured the event that evening in his diary.

“Gentleman,” Lincoln said to the cabinet, “do you remember last summer I asked you all to sign your name to the back of a paper of which I did not show you the inside?” The president took the paper from his desk. “This is it.”

He then passed the paper to Hay. “Mr. Hay,” he said, “see if you can get this open without tearing it!” Hay recorded the dialogue with the exclamation point, which suggests to me that Lincoln was expansively amused, perhaps even chuckling. The benefit of hindsight made it easier to be amused by his earlier worries.

Hay noted that Lincoln had “pasted it up in so singular style that it required some cutting to get it open.”

Lincoln read the note to his assembled advisers. After finishing, and setting the note side, he reflected on what he’d written. “You will remember that this was written at a time . . . when as yet we had no adversary, and seemed to have no friends,” Lincoln said. “I then solemnly resolved on the course of action indicated above. I resolved, in the case of the election of General McClellan being certain that he would be the Candidate, that would see him and talk matters over with him. I would say, ‘General, the election has demonstrated that you are stronger, have more influence with the American people that I. Now let us together, you with your influence and I with all the executive power of the Government, try to save the country. You raise as many troops as you possibly can for this final trial, and I will devote all my energies to assisting and finishing the war.”

And this is the part that cracks me up: William Seward’s response to Lincoln’s reasonable plans for McClellan.

“And the General would answer you, ‘Yes, Yes,’” Seward said; “and the next day when you saw him again & pressed those views upon him he would say ‘Yes—yes’ & so on forever and would have done nothing at all.”

They certainly knew McClellan’s stripes by that point!

Lincoln concluded the exchange—at least as Hay recorded it—with a sincere coda: “At least, I should have done my duty,” he said, “and have stood clear in my own conscience.”


Hay’s account of the meeting comes from Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (1997), Southern Illinois Press, pp.247-8.

More on the story of the Blind Memorandum can be found at the Library of Congress.

5 Responses to A Postscript to Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum

  1. Awesome! Last year I sat through an hour lecture on the document and theories on why Lincoln had everybody sign the outside. (I am amused to imagine it might have been a penmanship competition.) But I’d not heard about Seward’s comment – that’s classic CW humor!

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!