Updated: Apr 13, 2021
By David J. Kent
Saturday, April 10, 2021
Abraham Lincoln’s response to Horace Greeley’s “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” editorial contains perhaps one of the most recognized—and misrepresented—passages in history. Long-time Lincoln Group of DC member Caroline Welling Van Deusen’s great-grandfather was instrumental in its publication. Caroline says she is not a historian but has taken on the role of family archivist for her ancestors. And what ancestry she has! One great-great-grandmother, a “close friend of the Lincolns, witnessed Lincoln’s death.” She was Elizabeth Dixon, who after being summoned by Robert Lincoln the night of April 14, 1865, stood vigil with Mrs. Lincoln at the Petersen House as her husband faded away in the next room.
Even closer was Caroline’s great-grandfather, Dr. James Clarke Welling, editor of the National Intelligencer. The story begins on August 20, 1862 when Horace Greeley, Republican Party leader and editor of the New York Tribune, published his editorial. Greeley’s public letter called for Lincoln to immediately declare emancipation for all enslaved people in Union-held territory. Not to be outdone, Lincoln saw the opportunity to present his position on emancipation, knowing his completed Emancipation Proclamation was sitting in his desk waiting for a military victory to announce it. Rather than send the letter to Greeley, Lincoln sent his response to Welling’s Intelligencer for publication two days later.
Hon. Horace Greeley:
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.
Lincoln’s letter didn’t go untouched. John Nicolay notes the audacity of James Welling when the young editor requested a last-minute modification. Welling “wanted to make a change to the text so…suggested its omission,” says Nicolay. “President Lincoln good-naturedly complied.”
For Caroline, researching her family history and the Greeley letter in particular has become a family passion in memory of her great-grandfather and “to honor the contributions made during his lifetime to journalism, education, and community.” She recently finished a project that honors both her great-grandfather James Welling and Lincoln. More information on the project can be found at https://thegreeleyletter.com/.
Reflecting on Lincoln’s understanding of the importance of “public sentiment,” Caroline notes that “public sentiment was what Lincoln was interested in when he wrote his famous letter to Horace Greeley…wasn’t it?” Indeed, it was. Lincoln was preparing the nation for his Emancipation Proclamation that would free some of the enslaved, as he alluded in his letter, but only in those states in rebellion where he believed he had the authority under constitutional war powers to take action.
And for Lincoln Group member Caroline Welling Van Deusen, she can thank her ancestors for playing such a huge role in Lincoln history.