Horace Greeley, publisher of the highly influential New York Tribune, was an ally of President Abraham Lincoln and his war policies. Greeley had used his political connections to help Lincoln win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, so when he offered suggestions, Lincoln was generally responsive. In fact, Lincoln kept a special pigeonhole in his desk just for letters from Greeley.
When Generals John C. Fremont and David Hunter issued orders emancipating slaves in their military districts, Greeley had supported Lincoln’s orders revoking them. But since then, Greeley had come to believe that the president needed to take a stronger stand against slavery as a means to win the war. On August 20, he voiced these new views in an editorial in his Tribune titled “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…” He continued:
“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. The president 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 releasing the letter to the public: “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. Even so, Lincoln’s letter shrewdly put those opposing slavery in the same camp as those who wanted to preserve it, and that camp was opposed to Lincoln’s, which sought the preservation of the Union above all else.
Lincoln’s response was not published in the Tribune, but it was made public in the Washington Daily National Intelligencer instead. Greeley published a response on the 24th in which he praised himself for coaxing a public response out of the president. He wrote that Lincoln should focus on “recognizing, obeying, and enforcing the laws,” and “As to Old Abe’s letter, I consider it a sign of progress.”
- Crocker III, H. W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.