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President Lincoln replies to Horace Greeley


President Abraham Lincoln writes a carefully worded letter in response to an abolitionist editorial by Horace Greeley, the editor of the influential New York Tribune, and hints at a change in his policy concerning slavery.

From the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed the war’s goal to be the reunion of the nation. He said little about slavery for fear of alienating key constituencies such as the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and, to a lesser extent, Delaware. Each of these states allowed slavery but had not seceded from the Union. Lincoln was also concerned about Northern Democrats, who generally opposed fighting the war to free the enslaved people but whose support Lincoln needed.

Tugging him in the other direction were abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Horace Greeley. In his editorial, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Greeley assailed Lincoln for his soft treatment of slaveholders and for his unwillingness to enforce the Confiscation Acts, which called for the property, including enslaved people, of Confederates to be taken when their homes were captured by Union forces. Abolitionists saw the acts as a wedge to drive into the institution of slavery.

Lincoln had been toying with the idea of emancipation for some time. He discussed it with his cabinet but decided that some military success was needed to give the measure credibility. In his response to Greeley’s editorial, Lincoln hinted at a change. In a rare public response to criticism, he articulated his policy by stating, “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.” Although this sounded noncommittal, Lincoln closed by stating, “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

By hinting that ending slavery might become a goal of the war, Lincoln was preparing the public for the change in policy that would come one month later with the Emancipation Proclamation.


President Lincoln replies to Horace Greeley - HISTORY

Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley
Digital History ID 393

Author: Abraham Lincoln
Date:1862

In August 1862, Lincoln stated: "If I could save the union without freeing any slaves 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." In fact, by that time, immense pressure was building to end slavery and Lincoln had privately concluded that he could save the Union only by issuing an emancipation proclamation, which he had already drafted.

The pressure came from a handful of field commanders, Republicans in Congress, abolitionists, and slaves themselves. In May 1861, General Benjamin Butler (1818-1893), who had been a lawyer and a politician before the war, had declared slaves who escaped to Union lines "contraband of war," not returnable to their masters. In August, Major General John C. Frémont, commander of Union forces in Missouri, had issued an order freeing the slaves of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri. Lincoln, incensed by Frémont's assumption of authority and fearful that the measure would "alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us," revoked the order, but allowed Union generals discretion in providing refuge to fugitive slaves.

Congress, too, adopted a series of antislavery measures. In August 1861, it passed a Confiscation Act, authorizing the seizure of all property, including slaves, used for Confederate military purposes. Then in the Spring and Summer of 1862, Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and the territories prohibited Union officers from returning fugitive slaves allowed the President to enlist African Americans in the army and called for the seizure of the Confederate property.

The border states' intransigence on the issue of slave emancipation also pushed the President in a more active direction. In the spring of 1862, Lincoln persuaded Congress to pass a resolution offering financial compensation to states that abolished slavery voluntarily. Three times, Lincoln met with border state members of Congress to discuss the offer, and even discussed the possibility of emancipation over a 30-year period. In July, however, the Congressmen rejected Lincoln's offer.

This letter, marked "Private," was written six months before his final decision to issue the emancipation proclamation.

If I were to suggest anything it would be that as the North are already for the measure, we should urge it persuasively and not menacingly, upon the South. I am a little uneasy about the abolishment of slavery in this District, not but I would be glad to see it abolished, but as the time and manner of doing it. If some one or more of the border-states would move fast, I should greater prefer it[.].

I would like the bill to have. three main features--gradual--compensation--and vote of the people.


Description

On August 20, 1862, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, published an open letter to President Abraham Lincoln under the heading "The Prayer of Twenty Millions." In it, he accused Lincoln of not faithfully executing recent laws passed by Congress that included emancipation provisions, most notably the Second Confiscation Act passed only a month earlier. Overall, he challenged Lincoln to be less compromising to the border states and their desire to protect slavery and called on him to acknowledge that the destruction of slavery was the key to winning the war. Lincoln responded with his own open letter two days later, plainly stating that his chief objective was to save the Union and all decisions made regarding slavery were made in pursuit of that goal.


Abraham Lincoln Explains His War Aims

In this open letter to Horace Greeley, President Lincoln maintained that the central cause of the Civil War was to keep the country united and not to free the slaves. Greeley was a reformer, abolitionist, and editor of the New York Tribune, an influential newspaper in the North. Days earlier Greeley had written an editorial criticizing Lincoln for not enforcing the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862. These acts declared that slaves in Confederate territories were contraband (confiscated property) of war and that any slaves who ran into Union lines should not be returned to their rebel owners. A month later, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing that if the Confederacy did not stop fighting and rejoin the union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in Confederate states would be freed.

Hon. Horace Greeley Executive Mansion
Dear Sir Washington, August 22, 1862

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

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&hellip.

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 everywhere could be free. Yours,


Musingwithclio

Horace Greeley’s “The Prayer of the Twenty Millions”

August 19, 1862–the complete text:

President of the United States

DEAR SIR: I do not intrude to tell you– for you must know already– that a great proportion of those who triumphed in you election, and of all who desire the unqualified suppression of the Rebellion now desolating our country, are sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels. I write only to set succinctly and unmistakably before you what we require, what we think we have a right to expect, and of what we complain.

I. We require of you, as the first servant of the Republic, charged especially and preeminently with this duty, that you EXECUTE THE LAWS. Most emphatically do we demand that such laws as have been recently enacted, which therefore may fairly be presumed to embody the present will and to be dictated by the present needs of the Republic, and which, after due consideration have received your personal sanction, shall by you be carried into full effect, and that you publicly and decisively instruct your subordinates that such laws exist, that they are binding on all functionaries and citizens, and that they are to be obeyed to the letter.

II. 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 Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight Slavery with Liberty. They prescribe that men loyal to the Union, and willing to shed their blood in her behalf, shall no longer be held, with the Nations consent, in bondage to persistent, malignant traitors, who for twenty years have been plotting and for sixteen months have been fighting to divide and destroy our country. Why these traitors should be treated with tenderness by you, to the prejudice of the dearest rights of loyal men, We cannot conceive.

III. We think you are unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States. Knowing well that the heartily, unconditionally loyal portion of the White citizens of those States do not expect nor desire chat Slavery shall be upheld to the prejudice of the Union–(for the truth of which we appeal not only to every Republican residing in those States, but to such eminent loyalists as H. Winter Davis, Parson Brownlow, the Union Central Committee of Baltimore, and to The Nashville Union)–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, while the Free-Labor portions of Tennessee and of Texas, though writhing under the bloody heel of Treason, are unconquerably loyal to the Union. So emphatically is this the case, that a most intelligent Union banker of Baltimore recently avowed his confident belief that a majority of the present Legislature of Maryland, though elected as and still professing to be Unionists, are at heart desirous of the triumph of the Jeff. Davis conspiracy and when asked how they could be won back to loyalty, replied “only by the complete Abolition of Slavery.” 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. Had you from the first refused to recognize in those States, as here, any other than unconditional loyalty–that which stands for the Union, whatever may become of Slavery, those States would have been, and would be, far more helpful and less troublesome to the defenders of the Union than they have been, or now are.

IV. We think timid counsels in such a crisis calculated to prove perilous, and probably disastrous. It is the duty of a Government so wantonly, wickedly assailed by Rebellion as ours has been to oppose force to force in a defiant, dauntless spirit. It cannot afford to temporize with traitors nor with semi-traitors. It must not bribe them to behave themselves, nor make cheat fair promises in the hope of disarming their causeless hostility. Representing a brave and high-spirited people, it can afford to forfeit anything else better than its own self-respect, or their admiring confidence. For our Government even to seek, after war has been made on it, to dispel the affected apprehensions of armed traitors that their cherished privileges may be assailed by it, is to invite insult and encourage hopes of its own downfall. The rush to arms of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, is the true answer at once to the Rebel raids of John Morgan and the traitorous sophistries of Beriah Magoffin.

V. We complain that the Union cause has suffered, and is now suffering immensely, from mistaken deference to Rebel Slavery. Had you, Sir, in your Inaugural Address, unmistakably given notice that, in case the Rebellion already commenced were persisted in, and your efforts to preserve the Union and enforce the laws should be resisted by armed force, you would recognize no loyal person as rightfully held in Slavery by a traitor, we believe the Rebellion would therein have received a staggering if not fatal blow. At that moment, according to the returns of the most recent elections, the Unionists were a large majority of the voters of the Slave States. But they were composed in good part of the aged, the feeble, the wealthy, the timid–the young, the reckless, the aspiring, the adventurous, had already been largely lured by the gamblers and negro-traders, the politicians by trade and the conspirators by instinct, into the toils of Treason. Had you then proclaimed that Rebellion would strike the shackles from the slaves of every traitor, the wealthy and the cautious would have been supplied with a powerful inducement to remain loyal. As it was, every coward in the South soon became a traitor from fear for Loyalty was perilous, while Treason seemed comparatively safe. Hence the boasted unanimity of the South–a unanimity based on Rebel terrorism and the fact that immunity and safety were found on that side, danger and probable death on ours. The Rebels from the first have been eager to confiscate, imprison, scourge and kill: we have fought wolves with the devices of sheep. The result is just what might have been expected. Tens of thousands are fighting in the Rebel ranks to-day whose, original bias and natural leanings would have led them into ours.

VI. We complain that the Confiscation Act which you approved is habitually disregarded by your Generals, and that no word of rebuke for them from you has yet reached the public ear. Fremont’s Proclamation and Hunter’s Order favoring Emancipation were promptly annulled by you while Halleck’s No. 3, forbidding fugitives from Slavery to Rebels to come within his lines– an order as unmilitary as inhuman, and which received the hearty approbation of every traitor in America– with scores of like tendency, have never provoked even your own remonstrance. We complain that the officers of your Armies have habitually repelled rather than invited approach of slaves who would have gladly taken the risks of escaping from their Rebel masters to our camps, bringing intelligence often of inestimable value to the Union cause. We complain that those who have thus escaped to us, avowing a willingness to do for us whatever might be required, have been brutally and madly repulsed, and often surrendered to be scourged, maimed and tortured by the ruffian traitors, who pretend to own them. We complain that a large proportion of our regular Army Officers, with many of the Volunteers, evince far more solicitude to uphold Slavery than to put down the Rebellion. And finally, we complain that you, Mr. President, elected as a Republican, knowing well what an abomination Slavery is, and how emphatically it is the core and essence of this atrocious Rebellion, seem never to interfere with these atrocities, and never give adirection to your Military subordinates, which does not appear to have been conceived in the interest of Slavery rather than of Freedom.

VII. Let me call your attention to the recent tragedy in New Orleans, whereof the facts are obtained entirely through Pro-Slavery channels. A considerable body of resolute, able-bodied men, held in Slavery by two Rebel sugar-planters in defiance of the Confiscation Act which you have approved, left plantations thirty miles distant and made their way to the great mart of the South-West, which they knew to be the indisputed possession of the Union forces. They made their way safely and quietly through thirty miles of Rebel territory, expecting to find freedom under the protection of our flag. Whether they had or had not heard of the passage of the Confiscation Act, they reasoned logically that we could not kill them for deserting the service of their lifelong oppressors, who had through treason become our implacable enemies. They came to us for liberty and protection, for which they were willing render their best service: they met with hostility, captivity, and murder. The barking of the base curs of Slavery in this quarter deceives no one–not even themselves. They say, indeed, that the negroes had no right to appear in New Orleans armed (with their implements of daily labor in the cane-field) but no one doubts that they would gladly have laid these down if assured that they should be free. They were set upon and maimed, captured and killed, because they sought the benefit of that act of Congress which they may not specifically have heard of, but which was none the less the law of the land which they had a clear right to the benefit of–which it was somebody’s duty to publish far and wide, in order that so many as possible should be impelled to desist from serving Rebels and the Rebellion and come over to the side of the Union, They sought their liberty in strict accordance with the law of the land–they were butchered or re-enslaved for so doing by the help of Union soldiers enlisted to fight against slaveholding Treason. It was somebody’s fault that they were so murdered–if others shall hereafter stuffer in like manner, in default of explicit and public directions to your generals that they are to recognize and obey the Confiscation Act, the world will lay the blame on you. Whether you will choose to hear it through future History and ‘at the bar of God, I will not judge. I can only hope.

VIII. 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–that the Rebellion, if crushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor–that Army officers who remain to this day devoted to Slavery can at best be but half-way loyal to the Union–and that every hour of deference to Slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union, I appeal to the testimony of your Ambassadors in Europe. It is freely at your service, not at mine. Ask them to tell you candidly whether the seeming subserviency of your policy to the slaveholding, slavery-upholding interest, is not the perplexity, the despair of statesmen of all parties, and be admonished by the general answer.

IX. I close as I began with the statement that what an immense majority of the Loyal Millions of your countrymen require of you is a frank, declared, unqualified, ungrudging execution of the laws of the land, more especially of the Confiscation Act. That Act gives freedom to the slaves of Rebels coming within our lines, or whom those lines may at any time inclose–we ask you to render it due obedience by publicly requiring all your subordinates to recognize and obey it. The rebels are everywhere using the late anti-negro riots in the North, as they have long used your officers’ treatment of Negroes in the South, to convince the slaves that they have nothing to hope from a Union success-that we mean in that case to sell them into a bitter bondage to defray the cost of war. Let them impress this as a truth on the great mass of their ignorant and credulous bondsmen, and the Union will never be restored-never. We cannot conquer Ten Millions of People united in solid phalanx against us, powerfully aided by the Northern sympathizers and European allies. We must have scouts, guides, spies, cooks, teamsters, diggers and choppers from the Blacks of the South, whether we allow them to fight for us or not, or we shall be baffled and repelled. 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 Group Member Traces Pedigree to Greeley Letter

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.

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

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. sic

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.


Letter to Horace Greeley (August 22, 1862)

Context:Horace Greeley published an angry open “letter” to President Lincoln in the pages of his newspaper, the New York Tribune, on August 20, 1862. Greeley was upset that Lincoln had not yet begun enforcing the “emancipating provisions” of the new Second Confiscation Act (July 17, 1862). Lincoln responded in the pages of a rival newspaper with his own “letter” to Greeley that sternly laid out the president’s policy regarding slavery. Lincoln claimed his “paramount object” in the war was to “save the Union” and not “freeing all the slaves.” Yet by that point, Lincoln had already decided (in secret) that the only way he could “save the Union” was to issue an emancipation proclamation following the next major battlefield victory. (By Matthew Pinsker)

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“Written at a time when the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation had already been completed, Lincoln’s letter to Greeley later seemed puzzling, if not deceptive. But the President did not intend it to be so. He was giving assurance to the large majority of the Northern people who did not want to see the war transformed into a crusade for abolition—and at the same time he was alerting antislavery men that he was contemplating further moves against the peculiar institution. In Lincoln’s mind there was no necessary disjunction between a war for the Union and a war to end slavery. Like most Republicans, he had long held the belief that if slavery could be contained it would inevitably die a war that kept the slave states within the Union would, therefore, bring about the ultimate extinction of slavery. For this reason, saving the Union was his ‘paramount object.’ But readers aware that Lincoln always chose his words carefully should have recognized that ‘paramount’ meant ‘foremost’ or ‘principle’—not ‘sole.'”

—David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 368-369

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Hon. Horace Greely: Executive Mansion,
Dear Sir Washington, August 22, 1862.

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,


OTD in History… August 20 & 22, 1862, Horace Greeley calls on President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the slaves and Lincoln responds

On this day in history, August 20, 1862, newspaper editor and abolitionist, Horace Greeley wri t es an open letter editorial to President Abraham Lincoln “The Prayer for Twenty Millions” in his paper the New York Tribune urging him to free the slaves in Union territory. Greeley was a reformer that created his paper in 1841 to give a voice to the “temperance, westward expansion, and the labor movement,” and abolitionism to which he was most passionate about. Greeley was instrumental in establishing the Republican Party in 1854, with preventing the spread of slavery a key issue. Both Greeley and freed slave Frederick Douglass had been urging President Lincoln to change his policy and take a stand on slavery. Greeley hoped with the Civil War, Lincoln would emancipate the slaves but the president was reluctant to alienate the border states Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware who did not secede from the Union. Even after he would emancipate the slaves, Lincoln did not include abolishing slavery in those states. Unbeknownst to Greeley, Lincoln already informed his cabinet nearly a month before on July 22, his plans to emancipate the slaves in the rebel Confederate states.

Greeley used his editorial to criticize President Lincoln. Greeley believed that without ending slavery the Union army would never end the rebellion from the Southern states. Greeley argued, “All attempts to put down the Rebellion, and at the same time uphold its inciting cause, are preposterous and futile.” Continuing Greeley expressed, “Every hour of deference to Slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union.” Greeley chastised Lincoln for not enforcing the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which allowed the Union Army to seize rebel property including slaves, which they could have freed. Greeley indicated, “That act gives freedom to the slaves of Rebels coming within our lines, or whom those lines may at any time inclose — we ask you to render it due to obedience by publicly requiring all your subordinates to recognize and obey it.”

On August 22, 1862, Lincoln made his intentions in the Civil War and towards slavery clear and responded to a challenge over freeing the slaves by New York Tribune editor and critic Horace Greeley. In an open letter published in the National Intelligencer Lincoln expressed, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Continuing Lincoln explained, “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.” Lincoln, however, gave a slight indication as to his plans towards slavery with the conclusion to his response. Lincoln expressed, “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” In the months, leading up to his announcement Lincoln slowly prepared the Union for his radical policy a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he would introduce just a month later on September 22.

For Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation was the next step after a series of Confiscation Acts aimed at the property of the rebellious states. On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the first bill the Confiscation Act of 1861, after the House passed it 60–48 and in the Senate passed it 24–11. The bill allowed the Union to confiscate any slave laboring the Confederate Army as “contraband of war.” On July 17, 1862, just days before Lincoln made his decision on emancipating the slaves known, he signed the Confiscation Act of 1862, the motto-according historian James McPherson in his book Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era was “Take their property.” Union General Ulysses S. Grant confided about taking the slaves, writing, “it weakens the enemy to take them from them.” (McPherson, 502)

By early July, Lincoln believed in “forcible abolition of slavery” and as McPherson notes, “begun to draft a proclamation of emancipation.” (McPherson, 503) Still Lincoln had to contend with the Border States, they were opposed to his plan to for “compensated emancipation.” The President had their Congressman at the White House on July 12, trying to convince them of “The unprecedentedly stern facts of our case,” and for gradual emancipation. Two-thirds of the Representatives signed the Border-State Manifesto rejecting the proposal because it “radical [a] change in our social system” it was “interference” “by the government with a state matter.” And as McPherson indicates, “it would cost too much (a curious objection from men whose states would benefit from a tax that would fall mainly on the free states) and finally, instead of shortening the conflict by depriving the Confederacy of hope for border-state support, it would lengthen the war and jeopardize victory by driving many unionist slaveholders into rebellion.” (McPherson, 503)

The Border States’ decision led Lincoln to support the Radical Republicans’ idea of emancipation. On July 13, Lincoln told Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles of his intention for the Emancipation Proclamation. Welles recounted that Lincoln said it was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.” Lincoln did not see the Border States as the issue, but “the blow must fall first and foremost on [the rebels]. . . . Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted. . . . We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example, and strike at the heart of the rebellion.” Lincoln faced the greatest opposition from General George B. McClellan, who staunchly was against the move.

On July 22, President Abraham Lincoln announces to his advisors and cabinet his intentions to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, to free the slaves in the rebellious states but agrees to do so only and when the Union has a decisive victory in the Civil War. At this point, the Confederate states were winning battles and Britain and France were on the verge of recognizing them as a country and already supplying them with warships. Lincoln did not look to free the slaves for their sake but for the future of the Union, he needed to weaken the Confederacy. Lincoln emancipation proclamation’s draft declared “All persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.”

Lincoln justified having the presidential power to free the slaves as “a fit and necessary military measure.” As Burrus M. Carnahan in his book Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War writes, “The consequences of Lincoln’s decision to rely on the law of war as a source of executive power are still with us.” (Carnahan, 13–14) Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair opposed the idea out of concern it would cost the Republicans the Congress in the midterm elections. Secretary of State Seward approved but wanted Lincoln to delay the announcement until a Union “military success,” or it would appear “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help . . . our last shriek, on the retreat.” Lincoln decided to wait and put away his draft of the proclamation in a drawer. (McPherson, 505)

The president only intended to free the slaves in the 10 states that seceded the Union and joined the Confederacy, it was an ultimatum if they do not return to the Union, and their prized slaves would be free, 3.5 to 4 million of them. If the southern states refused to abide, the slaves would leave the South and join the Union army, both adding to their army and be depriving the South of their labor force. In the final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln purposely excluded freeing the slaves within the Union, especially within the Border States (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri). Lincoln needed the Border States to stay in the Union, and could not offend them, there slavery only ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. Lincoln also excluded any Southern territory under Union control including Tennessee, Lower Louisiana, and West Virginia.

In August, Lincoln made the case for his delayed proclamation. The slavery issue was at the forefront, Abolitionists were annoyed at Lincoln for not making a decisive move, he had support from some War Democrats, a few becoming Republicans but he faced a more formidable obstacle with Peace Democrats or Copperheads. In Congress, the division was stark there were four slavery votes as McPherson recounts, “The war article prohibiting the return of fugitives, emancipation in the District of Columbia, prohibition of slavery in the territories, and the confiscation act.” The chasm was near unanimous, 96 percent of Democrats opposed the bills, while 99 percent of Republicans voted in favor. Lincoln relied on Democrats votes when elected president but to pass his legislation he needed to maintain the Republican majority in Congress.

Northern Democrats and Midwest Whigs feared emancipation, and the anti-black sentiment was high in the summer of 1862. To squelch their concerns, Lincoln supported colonization for blacks. On August 14, 1862, Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House and the press to make a statement on the position of black if they would be freed and colonization. Lincoln called slavery “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” but he said, “Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.” Lincoln seemed certain that there would be no equality between the races, saying, “There is an unwillingness

on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain among us. . . . I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would.” (McPherson, 508) Lincoln’s solution was to create a colony for the freed slaves in Central America and in 1863 there was a failed effort to colonize an island near Haiti.

Harold Holzer in promoting his book Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory explained the reasons behind the colonization efforts. Holzer said Lincoln “did things in this run-up that are perplexing, sometimes unattractive, sometimes scary — to prepare the country for what in his mind would be a revolutionary moment.” Holzer indicated the reason for Lincoln hosting the black leaders and made his speech in front of the press, “He wanted this message out. What’s important to keep in mind is that he had written the Emancipation Proclamation. It was languishing in a drawer or burning a hole in his pocket. He knew he was going to do this, but he wanted Northern Americans who were dubious about marching toward racial equality to be assured that he was not doing this for the black race. He was doing this for the Union, to reunite the country, to defeat the rebellion, and he had no concern about blacks, their feelings, their resonance. He does have his finger in the wind.”

By September, Lincoln would have the military success necessary. The South was having military victories in the East but it was taking a toll, neither did Europe decide to recognize the Confederacy. In desperation General Robert E. Lee took his Army of Northern Virginia to Maryland, hoping for a decisive offensive victory where the Confederacy would acquire the border state. On September 17, Lee met McClellan’s Army of the Potomac at Antietam Creek for one of the bloodiest battles of the war. McClellan was able to push back Lee’s army, although not a major victory, it was enough for Lincoln to move forward on the Emancipation Proclamation.

Finally, on September 22, President Lincoln again gathered his cabinet telling them “I think the time has come, I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked.” (McPherson, 557) Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, warning the Confederate states if the rebellion did not end by January 1, 1863, all their slaves would “be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Signing it on New Year’s Day, Lincoln recognized the historical impact, as Holzer recounts, “Then he looked at the signature — Abraham Lincoln — very proudly and said, ‘There, that will do,’ He had said right before that, if my name ever goes into history it will be for this act. He sensed immediately that he had become one of the immortals.”

Lincoln understood a Constitutional amendment would be necessary to outlaw slavery permanently. Union generals, however, were able to benefit and as they captured Confederate land, they could free and put the former slaves to good use in the war. As Carl E. Kramer writing in Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century points outs, “Most important, the proclamation made abolition a formal war aim, giving the Union the moral advantage not only at home but in the court of world opinion. In short, the war’s purpose was transformed from restoring the Union as it had been to creating a new nation without slavery. Emancipation was one of many social and economic changes that helped transform American society as civil war became total war.” (Findling and Thackeray, 130–31)

Carnahan, Burrus M. Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.

Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century. Westport (Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Holzer, Harold. Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Lincoln and Slavery: Wish vs. Duty in the Greeley Letter

How many of us have heard this quote from Abraham Lincoln, “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.” And yet, how seldom do we hear or read that quote in the context of the entire letter published in the New York Tribune in 1862? And how often is that quote from Lincoln misinterpreted as the words of a politician who does not care either way about slavery? Before passing judgment, one might at least read the entire letter to try to understand the man. The quote comes from President Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley, dated August 22, 1862, reprinted below for reference. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we use different parts of this letter throughout the site to illuminate Lincoln’s ideas and evolving policies and distinguish between Lincoln’s personal convictions and executive powers.

Hon. Horace Greeley.
August 22, 1862
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 [sic] 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

From the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln

Unlike our 19th century counterparts, we are able to see Lincoln’s words with the benefit of historical perspective. Those reading Lincoln’s letter in the New York Tribune in 1862, did not know that by that point, Lincoln had already written the preliminary emancipation proclamation and was preparing to release it. Read in its entirety, the letter provides a summary of Lincoln’s policies to that point in time, reflects his leadership style, and reminds us that Lincoln saw a clear distinction between personal wishes and “official duty,” which one should keep in mind whenever reading Lincoln’s speeches. All elected officials are expected to make the distinction between duty and hope, though it cannot be denied that sometimes they overlap in memorable fashion, as they did for Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation.


Tag Archives: Horace Greeley

By Erin Carlson Mast

How many of us have heard this quote from Abraham Lincoln, “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.” And yet, how seldom do we hear or read that quote in the context of the entire letter published in the New York Tribune in 1862? And how often is that quote from Lincoln misinterpreted as the words of a politician who does not care either way about slavery? Before passing judgment, one might at least read the entire letter to try to understand the man.

The quote comes from President Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley, dated August 22, 1862, reprinted below for reference. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we use different parts of this letter throughout the site to illuminate Lincoln’s ideas and evolving policies and distinguish between Lincoln’s personal convictions and executive powers.

Hon. Horace Greeley.
August 22, 1862
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 [sic] 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

From the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln

Unlike our 19th century counterparts, we are able to see Lincoln’s words with the benefit of historical perspective. Those reading Lincoln’s letter in the New York Tribune in 1862, did not know that by that point, Lincoln had already written the preliminary emancipation proclamation and was preparing to release it. Read in its entirety, the letter provides a summary of Lincoln’s policies to that point in time, reflects his leadership style, and reminds us that Lincoln saw a clear distinction between personal wishes and “official duty,” which one should keep in mind whenever reading Lincoln’s speeches. All elected officials are expected to make the distinction between duty and hope, though it cannot be denied that sometimes they overlap in memorable fashion, as they did for Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation.


Watch the video: President Abraham Lincolns Letter to Horace Greeley, 1862, Hear and Read his Views on Slavery (January 2022).