Lincoln’s “Little People”
Most of you have no doubt heard that Sotheby’s has auctioned a letter by Abraham Lincoln for $3.4 million. The letter in question was written on April 5, 1864 in response to a request by a group of students for Lincoln to free the slaves. He addressed the letter to their teacher, Mrs. Horace Mann:
Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are
so full of just and generous sympathy and that, while I have not the
power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has,
and that, as it seems, He wills to do it.
I don’t know about you, but I am struck by Lincoln’s sensitivity to their request and I love that reference to the students as "little people". First, he takes their request seriously by acknowledging their emotional convictions, but at the same time manages to point to his own limits as president. In other words, Lincoln is saying that it is unfortunate that the issue of slavery cannot be decided based on "generous sympathy" alone. In addition, Mann’s students learn that their president is not all-powerful, but constrained by the Constitution. The reference to God’s will perhaps would have sounded familiar if their teacher had introduced Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the classroom.