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Countdown to Emancipation - The Greeley Letter

By David J. Kent

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. A month prior, Lincoln issued a public letter replying to Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Tribune, who had two days before published his own lengthy discourse colloquially referred to as "A Prayer for Twenty Millions."

Lincoln published his reply in a rival newspaper. Greeley had largely been supportive of the Union effort, but the eccentric editor had a habit of irritating even his supporters. Possibly hearing that Lincoln had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation (it was written in July and merely waiting for a military victory before its release), Greeley decided he may as well position himself to be seen as pushing the President into action. In his "Prayer," Greeley attacked Lincoln for failing to execute recent laws with emancipation provisions, including the Second Confiscation Act that had been enacted only a few weeks prior.

Having already done the hard work of working out the details of his Proclamation, Lincoln saw an opportunity to prepare the nation for what would be a radical change in social structure. The letter is often misinterpreted as a sign Lincoln cared not for ending slavery, only in saving the Union. In truth, Lincoln was planning to do both - save the Union and make the Union worth saving by ending two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil. And he would do so in strict accordance with the constraints of his constitutional authority. The full letter - along with other actions we will be discussing on this blog soon - makes this clear.

Hon. Horace Greeley:

Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

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 do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours, A. Lincoln.

The final sentence is critical. It shows that Lincoln believed strongly that slavery had to end. He knew his presidential power was limited. And yet he was determined to prepare the nation for his Emancipation Proclamation that would free some of the enslaved, but only in those states in rebellion where he believed he had the authority under constitutional war powers to take action. He would use persuasion to encourage the end of slavery in states that maintained allegiance to the Union. All of this was contingent on winning the Civil War, which any universal edict of emancipation would likely have made impossible.

The Greeley letter, while often misrepresented, is considered one of Lincoln's greatest written pieces. It demonstrates his willingness to explain his decisions with a clarity accessible to all. Second to the Gettysburg Address, it may be the most quoted (and misquoted) letter in our nation's history.

P.S. The Greeley letter has a special place in the Lincoln Group of DC. Last year we posted an article about the family connection of one of our members, Caroline Welling Van Deusen. Her great-grandfather James Clarke Welling was editor of that "rival newspaper" where Lincoln had his Greeley response published, the National Intelligencer.


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