If ever there was a book written that
offers pure reading enjoyment in addition to making an important
contribution to Lincoln scholarship, it would have to be Harold
Holzer's 1993 Dear Mr. President: Letters to the President.
Just as we all relish a furtive peek at someone else's personal
correspondence, there is something delightful and fascinating
in being made privy to what was intended to be private communication
between an elected presidency and his constituents.
Now, due to popular demand and critical acclaim, Holzer has brought forth another volume of correspondence to the President. The Lincoln Mailbag: America Writes to the President, 1861-1865 provides more letters to the chief executive. This second installment of writings was very much a product of Holzer's first volume, as many individuals and institutions brought unknown correspondence to Holzer's attention after the first book was published. Using many of these unknown letters, in addition to searching previously ignored archives and another cull through the Robert Todd Lincoln papers in the Library of Congress, the compiler treats his readers to another entertaining and informative book.
As in his first volume, Holzer places each letter into its historical context by reporting how or whether Lincoln responded, and when the text is available, prints the reply. In most cases, however, either no response was made, or the President's private secretaries directed the message to other executive branch departments. The number of letters that actually reached Lincoln's desk was minuscule, as the volume of the daily correspondence was such that he simply could not tend to each letter personally. Thus the secretary in charge of the mail held considerable power in terms of allowing access to the President.
And yet, as Holzer points out, this fact does not diminish the importance of the mail that was "screened out" and kept from Lincoln's personal attention. While it was acknowledged by the private secretaries that a great deal of the mail was immediately relegated to the rubbish, correspondence that made legitimate claims or was of any importance was acted upon. But rather than being brought to the attention of the President, a majority of the letters were often routed to other executive department officials. Despite this, it must be recognized that each letter was directed to the president; the correspondent actually intended for the chief executive to read and act upon their communication. With this in mind, Holzer gives voice to a class of correspondence that was routinely kept from the President: those from African Americans. Lincoln's personal secretaries regularly culled out letters from African Americans, the majority of which dealt with Black troops serving in the Union armed forces, and directed them to the War Department's Bureau of Colored Troops.
Many of the letters concerning men in the military, written by or on behalf of both races, sought Lincoln's intervention in "hardship cases." They either requested that a particular soldier be discharged in order to provide for a destitute family back home, or they were seeking leniency for a recruit who was in some sort of trouble. A careful reading of Holzer's notes on each letter will show that a white soldier was much more likely to have his favor granted than a Black soldier. However, this may be attributed to the fact that a letter from or about a white soldier was more likely to reach the President's desk, while those from a Black soldier routinely bypassed Lincoln, and the request therein was acted upon by the bureaucracy rather than the notoriously soft-hearted chief executive.
A preponderance of the other letters contained in The Lincoln Mailbag are those asking for something: a patronage office, an autograph or lock of hair to be sold at a sanitary fair, or perhaps a special favor or dispensation for a long-time supporter. Others offer gifts to the president: a scarf to keep his neck warm, tickets to Grover's Theater to see Shakespearean plays, and even a barrel of hams. The most curious presentation made was a long-lost, and rather intimate undelivered letter from President Lincoln to his wife, Mary. It came from a soldier in the field, who obtained it as a souvenir of his Commander-in-Chief. The soldier came to realize that the letter ought to be returned to its sender (148-149).
But not all of the letters found in this book were seeking or offering gifts. Others were from those who merely wanted to reach out to a troubled President doing his best to deal with an uncontrollable national crisis. Among the more poignant letters that fall into this category came from the Charity School in the Five Points House of Industry, New York. The Charity School was an orphanage Lincoln visited on his journey to Washington for his 1861 inaugural. The students wrote Lincoln, remembering his words of encouragement to them, and rather prophetically, to congratulate him on his life history, noting his "honesty and trustworthiness." They end their tribute by saying,
We pray God, the All-Wise Governor of the universe to have you in His care and guidance, to enlighten you by His wisdom, and to further honor you as His instrument in liberating a race, and in leading your countrymen through present troubles, to righteousness, peace, and prosperity. May He ever own and bless you and yours. (107)
Kind and emotional words indeed from those so young and beginning their own lives in turmoil as orphans.
Taken as a whole, The Lincoln Mailbag: America Writes to the President, 1861-1865 presents yet another outstanding selection of Lincoln's mail. Some of it mundane and ordinary, most of it remarkable and extraordinary. Together they represent the business of the citizens of the nation appealing to their leader. Harold Holzer is to be congratulated for offering up yet another privileged peek at Lincoln's mail.