The Farmer and the Viper

October 26, 1862/2012
Volume 3, Issue 43 (107 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

In the Face of Political Opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln Holds Firm

On October 28, 1862, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a forceful antislavery advocate and foreign affairs expert, wrote John Bright, a member of Parliament and a prominent supporter of the Union cause in Great Britain. Sumner was responding to a question Bright had posed earlier regarding the extent of support for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the North.

Senator Charles Sumner, courtesy Boston Public Library

Senator Charles Sumner, courtesy Boston Public Library

“The Presdt. is in earnest. He has no thought of any backward step. Of this be assured. Since I last wrote you I have been in Washington, where I saw him daily, & became acquainted precisely with his position at that time. There is nobody in the cabinet who is for “backing-down.” It is not talked of or thought of.

The Presdt. was brought slowly to the Proclamation. It was written six weeks before it was put forth, & delayed, waiting for a victory; & the battle of Antietam was so regarded. I protested against the delay, & wished it to be put forth-the sooner the better-without any reference to our military condition. In the cabinet it was at first opposed strenuously by [Secretary of State William H.] Seward, [former Senator from New York and once the leading candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination] who, from the beginning has failed to see this war in its true character, & whose contrivances & anticipation have been those merely of a politician, who did not see the elemental forces engaged. But he countersigned the Proclamation, which was written by the Presdt himself, as you may infer from the style.

John Bright

John Bright

The old Democracy (more than half of which is now in armed Rebellion) are rallying against the Proclamation. At this moment our chief if not only danger is from the division which they may create at the North. The recent elections have shewn losses for the Administration; but these may be explained by the larger proportion of Republicans who have gone to the war. I regret these losses; but I do not think it possible that we can be without a determined working majority in the House, who will not hearken to any proposition, except the absolute submission of the rebels.

The hesitation of the Administration to adopt the policy of Emancipation led democrats to feel that the President was against it & they have gradually rallied. I think a more determined policy months ago would have prevented them from shewing their heads. The President himself has played the part of the farmer in the fable who warmed the frozen snake at his fire.”  [In an alternative version of an Aesop fable, a farmer brings a viper home and warms it by the fire. But when it threatens his wife and children, he kills it.]

Aesop's fable of the countryman and the viper illustrated by Ernest Griset, 1870s

Aesop’s fable of the countryman and the viper illustrated by Ernest Griset, 1870s

– Submitted by Dwight Pitcaithley, New Mexico State University


Stephen W. Sears, ed. The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived it. (New York: The Library of America, 2012), 606-607.


The Farmer and the Viper, Wikipedia

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1862

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