Lincoln wanted to buy South's slaves to end war
University shares its Lincoln letters online
Transcriptions, lesson plans and graduate essays
updated 12:19 p.m. MT, Sun., March. 2, 2008
ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Barely a year into the Civil War,
President Abraham Lincoln suggested buying slaves for
$400 apiece under a "gradual emancipation" plan that
would bring peace at less cost than several months of
The proposal was outlined in one of 72 letters penned
by Lincoln that ended up in the University of
Rochester's archives. The correspondence was digitally
scanned and posted online along with easier-to-read
Accompanying them are 215 letters sent to Lincoln by
dozens of fellow political and military leaders. They
include letters from Vice President Andrew Johnson and
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who both succeeded Lincoln in
the presidency in the 12 years after his assassination
In a letter to Illinois Sen. James A. McDougall dated
March 14, 1862, Lincoln laid out the estimated cost to
the nation's coffers of his "emancipation with
Paying slave-holders $400 for each of the 1,798 slaves
in Delaware listed in the 1860 Census, he wrote, would
come to $719,200 at a time when the war was soaking up
$2 million a day.
Buying the freedom of an estimated 432,622 slaves in
Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Washington,
D.C., would cost $173,048,800 nearly equal to the
estimated $174 million needed to wage war for 87 days,
Lincoln suggested that each of the states, in return
for payment, might set something like a 20-year
deadline for abolishing slavery.
The payout "would not be half as onerous as would be
an equal sum, raised now, for the indefinite
prosecution of the war," he told McDougall.
The idea never took root. Six months later, Lincoln
issued the first of two executive orders known as the
Emancipation Proclamation that declared an end to
slavery. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was
ratified after the collapse of the confederacy, ending
two centuries of bondage in North America.
"To be given a document that plunks you right into a
situation that Lincoln was facing, it's very
compelling," said Brian Fleming, a University of
Rochester librarian who is heading the online project,
which debuted Feb. 18 Presidents Day.
Lincon official had letters
The Lincoln letters addressing the war, slavery and
other affairs of state, are part of a collection of
papers once belonging to his Secretary of State,
William H. Seward Sr.
They were bequeathed by Seward's grandson, William
Henry Seward III, who lived in Auburn, 70 miles east
of Rochester, and arrived at the University of
Rochester between 1949 and 1987.
The digitally scanned letters appear on the school
library's Web site along with transcriptions,
contextual essays written by graduate students and
lesson plans designed to help teachers.
The archives are at www.library.rochester.edu/rbk/lincoln