Lincoln Smacks Down Horace Greeley

One of my all-time favorite Civil War letters is Abraham Lincoln’s August 22, 1862 missive responding to Horace Greeley’s open letter to him, dated August 19, 1862. Greeley, of course, was editor of the influential newspaper, The New York Tribune. Entitled “The Prayer of the Twenty Millions,” Greeley took Lincoln to task for a what the editor saw as the President’s timid approach to emancipation. Greeley wanted Lincoln to enforce aggressively the Confiscation Acts, and more generally make war on slavery, which he saw as the root cause of the war. If you wish to read the full text of Greeley’s letter, please <click here>.

Horace Greeley was one of the most influential media personalities of the 1860s, and his paper generally editorially backed the administration, so Abraham Lincoln had to respond and quickly. Greeley’s letter appeared in the Tribune on August 20 and Lincoln’s reply was released two days later. It was an act of shoring up his political base, some of which were increasingly discontented at what they saw of Lincoln’s lack of forthright action against slavery.

Brooks Simpson, over at Crossroads, asks what we should make of Lincoln’s August 22 response? An excellent question. In answering it, the first thing to remember was what Lincoln knew at that moment that Greeley did not, and what he had decided to do but had not yet announced. By the time of his response to Horace Greeley’s open-letter, Lincoln had been sitting on the Emancipation Proclamation for at least a month. He had shared it privately with his cabinet, but was following William Seward’s advice not to announce it publicly until the Union had won a significant battlefield victory, so it would not appear to be a desperate move of a cause on the verge of final defeat. In essence then, Lincoln had already decided, more-or-less to do exactly what Greeley wanted him to do, but he could not share it because for the policy to be successful it had to be launched from a position of strength, not weakness.

So Lincoln’s August 22 letter to Greeley is a masterful political letter, on the one hand seemingly respectfully candid to the reader, while on the other hand committing Lincoln to no definite course of action. It also tells something about what was Lincoln’s paramount goal in the war. Here is the full text of Lincoln’s reply.

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 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 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. 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 error; 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 everywhere could be free.

The letter reveals Lincoln, yet again, to be a pragmatist. He sincerely hated slavery and wanted it ended, but for Lincoln ending slavery was secondary to the preservation of the Union. He indicated clearly he would follow whatever policy in regard to slavery that would work in favor of Union’s preservation and he did. So at the start of his presidency, Lincoln was sincerely adamant in contending he did not wish to interfere with slavery where it already existed, in the hopes of keeping still loyal slave states from seceding and hopefully to coax back the seceded slave states. When that failed, he struck out against slavery which he recognized was the cause of the war, but in a way he hoped would not drive out of the Union the four slave states that had still not seceded. This meant not forcing those states to emancipate their slaves, but encouraging them to do so with a plan in which the federal government would finance compensation and slaves would be freed gradually and encouraged to emigrate outside the United States (to avoid the race war Lincoln, like many other white people North and South, feared would follow emancipation). Finding no takers for his plan of gradual compensated emancipation, Lincoln by August 1862 had given up on that idea and privately embraced the idea of freeing the slaves in the areas of the country then in rebellion. But, of course, being a pragmatist he would qualify that act. To encourage Unionist sentiment, slaves in the loyal border states and areas of the Confederacy would not be freed. The rebellious states would be given a chance to renew their allegiance to the Union before Lincoln used his military powers to order the freedom of their slaves.

So Abraham Lincoln was not going allow himself to be boxed in by an editorialist like Horace Greeley. Indeed, although his letter to Greeley is basically polite, there is just the slightest hint of irritation and exasperation in its tone. Lincoln had to explain himself for the sake of shoring up his increasingly discontented base in the late summer of 1862, but he was not going to let a New York journalist tell him how he should do his job. That is why I love this letter: it is one of the great political smackdown letters of American history.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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