In February 1861, shortly before his first inauguration as president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln met with a delegation of New Yorkers who were concerned with the effect that war with the South might have on the commerce of New York. William E. Dodge, a prominent New York merchant (his sculpture still stands in Bryant Park), asked the question on everyone's mind. Here's the exchange, as recorded by Lucius E. Chittenden of Vermont (online here).
As soon as his opportunity [Dodge] raised his voice enough to be heard by all present, and, addressing Mr. Lincoln, declared that the whole country in great anxiety was awaiting his inaugural address, and then added: "It is for you, sir, to say whether the whole nation shall be plunged into bankruptcy; whether the grass shall grow in the streets of our commercial cities."
"Then I say it shall not," [Lincoln] answered, with a merry twinkle of his eye. "If it depends upon me, the grass will not grow anywhere except in the fields and the meadows."
"Then you will yield to the just demands of the South. You will leave her to control her own institutions. You will admit slave states into the Union on the same conditions as free states. You will not go to war on account of slavery!"
A sad but stern expression over Mr. Lincoln's face. "I do not know that I understand your meaning, Mr. Dodge," he said, without raising his voice, "Nor do I know what my acts or my opinions may be in the future, beyond this. If I shall ever come to the great office of President of the United States, I shall take an oath. I shall swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, of all the United States, and that I will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. This is a great and solemn duty. With the support of the people and the assistance of the Almighty I shall undertake to perform it. I have full faith that I shall perform it. It is not the Constitution as I would like to have it, but as it is, that is to be defended. The Constitution will not be preserved and defended until it is enforced and obeyed in every part of every one of the United States. It must be so respected, obeyed, enforced, and defended, let the grass grow where it may."
Not a word or a whisper broke the silence...Mr. Dodge attempted no reply.
Lincoln was assassinated on 4/15/1865, just 6 days after Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. In "O Captain! My Captain!" Walt Whitman contrasts the joy of having the Civil War finally brought to an end with the death of the president. (To read it in its proper formatting, click here.)