Letter written by President Lincoln seeks governors' support on legalizing slavery.
By Daniel Patrick Sheehan Of The Morning Call
Seven score and five years ago, Abraham Lincoln wrote to all the nation's governors, seeking support for a 13th amendment to the Constitution — one that would enshrine slavery as the law of the land.
That's right: The president remembered for abolishing slavery was willing to preserve that institution if doing so would preserve the union.
It didn't work, as the half-million dead of the Civil War prove. And most of the 1861 letters didn't survive. Until Tuesday, only three were known to exist. Then a Lincoln researcher from Illinois stopped by the Lehigh County Historical Society in Allentown to review its Lincoln-related holdings and found a fourth letter, addressed to ''His Excellency the Governor of the State of Florida.''
''It's a very cool document,'' said the researcher, 39-year-old John Lupton, sounding a bit more like an excited skateboarder than a sober scholar as news photographers snapped their shutters over the yellowed page bearing Lincoln's loopy signature.
The document, dated March 16, 1861 — less than a month before war broke out — was hiding in plain sight among the society's 3 million documents.
Society Director Joseph Garrera, himself a Lincoln scholar, knew the archives contained a letter signed by the 16th president, but wasn't overly excited about it. Lincoln documents, he said, ''are a dime a dozen,'' held in museum collections all over the country. Besides, no one on staff was sure if the document was the real thing. And Garrera, who came on the job only a few months ago, had more pressing matters.
On Tuesday, Lupton and his colleague, Erika Nunamaker, were at Moravian College in Bethlehem, scanning its Lincoln holdings onto a computer as part of a project to put all of the president's documents on the Internet.
They asked school officials if they knew of any other local institutions that might have Lincoln memorabilia, and were directed to the historical society at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Center.
There, Lupton and Garrera had a reunion of sorts — they know each other from the Lincoln studies field — and took a close look at the letter, which had been donated to the society years ago. They plugged its details into a computer database and realized at once it was a major find.
Not only is the letter one of just four on the topic, it is the only one addressed to the governor of a Southern state. Make that a former state — Florida had seceded two months earlier.
The letter was part of the ratification process for the amendment, which Congress had adopted during the term of Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan.
Pushing the amendment ''was kind of a carrot to the Southern states,'' said Lupton, associate director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. ''But even by that point, it was too late. By that time, the Southern states felt Lincoln's election was an affront.''
Garrera said the letter shows Lincoln to be ''a pragmatist and a realist. He always hated slavery, but did not believe he could end it in his presidency.''
Once the union fell apart, Lincoln changed course, drafting the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that declared freedom for slaves in Confederate territory. After the war, in 1865, 27 of the 36 states ratified the 13th Amendment — the version that abolished slavery.
Garrera, who called Lincoln ''the central figure in American history,'' said he will consult with the society's board of directors to determine the best way to display the document. The society also is trying to figure out exactly who donated the letter.
''That really is an amazing find,'' he said.