The Prayer of Twenty Millions

August 20, 1862 – Horace Greeley published an editorial in his influential New York Tribune that challenged President Abraham Lincoln to enforce the newly enacted laws against slavery to preserve the Union. This prompted a rare public response from the president.

Horace Greeley | Image Credit:
Horace Greeley | Image Credit:

The Sioux uprising, combined with recent Confederate victories and rumors of slave emancipation, harmed the Lincoln administration’s popularity in the North. One of Lincoln’s most prominent critics was Greeley, who wrote an open letter on August 19 and published it the next day in his newspaper under the title “The Prayer of Twenty Millions.”

Claiming to represent the sentiments of his readers, Greeley alleged that many who had voted for Lincoln were “sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels.” He wrote:

“We require of you, as the first servant of the Republic, charged especially and preeminently with this duty, that you EXECUTE THE LAWS… We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new (Second) Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight Slavery with Liberty.”

Greeley accused Lincoln of being “unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States… We ask you to consider that Slavery is everywhere the inciting cause and sustaining base of treason: the most slaveholding sections of Maryland and Delaware being this day, though under the Union flag, in full sympathy with the Rebellion. It seems to us the most obvious truth, that whatever strengthens or fortifies Slavery in the Border States strengthens also Treason, and drives home the wedge intended to divide the Union.”

Greeley declared, “We complain that the Union cause has suffered… from mistaken deference to Rebel slavery… On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile…” He concluded:

“As one of the millions who would gladly have avoided this struggle at any sacrifice but that Principle and Honor, but who now feel that the triumph of the Union is dispensable not only to the existence of our country to the well being of mankind, I entreat you to render a hearty and unequivocal obedience to the law of the land.”

Lincoln, bothered by Greeley’s accusations, took the time two days later to publicly respond to Greeley’s letter. Lincoln reiterated the goal he had explained in his 1861 inaugural address:

“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’ If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I don’t believe it would help to save the Union.”

Lincoln had written another line but chose to omit it before publishing the rebuttal: “Broken eggs can never be mended, and the longer the breaking proceeds the more will be broken.”

By this time, Lincoln had already decided to issue an emancipation proclamation, and he hoped that this moderate letter would lay the groundwork for what he knew would be a controversial, unpopular, and unconstitutional decree. On the other hand, abolitionists unaware of Lincoln’s plan condemned this response as too conciliatory toward slavery.


References;; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 6-7; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7781; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 470-71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 252-54; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 509-10; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 600; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 150

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