Exchange of Letters Between Horace Greeley and Abraham Lincoln Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Conditions were less than ideal for President Abraham Lincoln in the late summer of 1862. The Union army was not having great success putting down the Southern rebellion, and the mood of the Northern people was quickly growing sour. Lincoln knew that one of the reasons for his election as president was his anti-slavery perspective, but he did not intend for his stance on abolishing slavery to destroy the Union itself. New York Tribune editor

Horace Greeley criticized Lincoln for not waging an abolitionist war through his open letter titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Lincoln responded with a letter of his own, highlighting his priority for preserving the Union over his benevolent mission to free slaves.

The exchange between Lincoln and Greeley unfolded directly before the public. For the Americans who elected Lincoln, this public discussion was of utmost importance. Northerners were acutely aware of this correspondence, as Greeley had chosen the avenue of a New York-based newspaper editorial to voice his complaint with the president’s policy on war and slavery. President Lincoln seemed unclear in terms of his personal feelings about slavery. Republicans grew weary waiting for Lincoln to take action against slavery, while Democrats and border state supporters of slavery hoped he never would. One month after Greeley’s letter, following the “bloodiest single day” of the Civil War at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln began his work penning the “Emancipation Proclamation.” Although the letter to Greeley was a timely response to public criticism, Lincoln’s goal for emancipating Southern slaves eventually came to fruition.

Summary Overview

Conditions were less than ideal for President Abraham Lincoln in the late summer of 1862. The Union army was not having great success putting down the Southern rebellion, and the mood of the Northern people was quickly growing sour. Lincoln knew that one of the reasons for his election as president was his anti-slavery perspective, but he did not intend for his stance on abolishing slavery to destroy the Union itself. New York Tribune editor

Horace Greeley criticized Lincoln for not waging an abolitionist war through his open letter titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Lincoln responded with a letter of his own, highlighting his priority for preserving the Union over his benevolent mission to free slaves.

The exchange between Lincoln and Greeley unfolded directly before the public. For the Americans who elected Lincoln, this public discussion was of utmost importance. Northerners were acutely aware of this correspondence, as Greeley had chosen the avenue of a New York-based newspaper editorial to voice his complaint with the president’s policy on war and slavery. President Lincoln seemed unclear in terms of his personal feelings about slavery. Republicans grew weary waiting for Lincoln to take action against slavery, while Democrats and border state supporters of slavery hoped he never would. One month after Greeley’s letter, following the “bloodiest single day” of the Civil War at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln began his work penning the “Emancipation Proclamation.” Although the letter to Greeley was a timely response to public criticism, Lincoln’s goal for emancipating Southern slaves eventually came to fruition.

Defining Moment

The pressure that Greeley put on Lincoln accented what seemed to be an incongruity in Lincoln’s policy toward Southern slaves. While he won the election on the premise of emancipation by way of the Republican Party, Lincoln, thought Greeley, must go beyond existing antislavery laws, including the First Confiscation Act; Lincoln had actually supported and enforced these laws. Lincoln had to make a decision whether to defend himself at length against Greeley’s attack or to completely ignore the accusations of negligence.

This was a defining moment for Lincoln’s presidency and his management of the war. Although still relatively early in the narrative of the Civil War, the late summer of 1862 was a high time for the Confederate army. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia formulated plans to move north into the border state of Maryland. At the same time that the hot rhetoric of suppressing the rebellion took place in the New York press, soldiers prepared for fighting near Antietam Creek. Lincoln, filling the roles of both consummate politician and commander-in-chief, found it necessary to evaluate and react to both situations.

Author Biography

President Abraham Lincoln remains one of history’s most written-about subjects, with countless interpretations and reinterpretations of his life. He was 28 years old when he moved to Springfield, Illinois and had already served two terms in the legislature. His childhood exploits as a rail-splitter are literally the material of legend. He became a self-taught attorney and rose through the ranks of Illinois society, eventually making a foray into state politics. He served several terms as a Whig representative in the Illinois Legislature. Yet, the aspect of Lincoln’s biography that is most important to the circumstance of the exchange with Horace Greeley is his political background.

While Lincoln’s reputation solidly defined him as an “emancipation” advocate, it was his promotion of free labor ideology that made him particularly popular in the then “west.” Free labor ideology held fast to the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal that when a man owns his personal land he can be a more virtuous citizen. This stood firmly in opposition to the slave labor ideology of the American South up to and during the Civil War. Lincoln’s stance as a Whig, largely favoring domestic and internal improvements, put his personal politics in a popular position among his fellow westerners. Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas, the bastion of “popular sovereignty,” were well-known and very public. By the time Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election he was no longer serving as a Whig, but rather as an exemplar of the emerging Republican Party, whose platform had merged the old line Whigs with a renewed emphasis from the abolitionist camp. Combining a desire for internal infrastructure and an end to insidious, costly slave labor propelled the Republican Party to national prominence with President Lincoln.

As President, Lincoln disappointed many in his first year on the job, including Horace Greeley. Where Lincoln’s vision for the war always considered the possibility of reconciliation and reunion, many others wanted a harsh and immediate response to the southern Confederacy. This tension around Lincoln’s approach to the issue of emancipation and managing the nation became an issue of national prominence through his correspondence with Greeley.

Horace Greeley was the editor of the New York Tribune, an influential national newspaper. His open letter to Lincoln was an intentionally inflammatory commentary geared toward the president’s policy on the subject of slavery. Greeley called into question the role of the president regarding the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Greeley’s politics, as evidenced in the letter and elsewhere, were far from apologetic in their support of the Republican Party and immediate emancipation of the slaves. Because of his political persuasion, Lincoln’s public position on slavery seemed weak. The incendiary remarks from the editorial provoked a response from the president, revealing both Greeley’s political clout and Lincoln’s concern for setting the record straight on the matter.

Document Analysis

Horace Greeley’s editorial and President Lincoln’s letter in response were two elements of one public conversation rather than two separate documents. Both wrote with an intentional focus on making political statements as well as expressing personal visions for American society. Greeley sought to provoke a public response from President Lincoln. The president, on the other hand, replied in a way that would placate the most radical abolitionists without upsetting the people of the Union who did not agree with the Republican Party’s rather progressive stance on abolishing slavery. In short, Greeley forced Lincoln into a precarious political position, which the president then used to generate one of the most quoted (and misinterpreted) passages of his tenure in office.

Horace Greeley’s literary style in his editorial followed the conventions of nineteenth-century press commentary. He wrote with a perspective that was clear from beginning to end, focusing on the unsuccessful job of the president. In his rhetoric, Greeley accented what he perceived to be several injustices regarding the slaves in the nation as well as the traitors in the South. He wanted Lincoln to approach the rebellion with vigor; there should be no question, he argued, that Southerners were traitors and should be treated as such. Lincoln’s political acumen, however contested, considered the possibility of reconciliation from the very beginning of the conflict. The President carefully considered the ramifications of his actions against slavery because he had a persistent eye toward potential postwar reconciliation. Lincoln’s political awareness prevented him from following into the kind of vitriolic political gamesmanship that made the 1850s so terribly divisive.

Greeley criticized Lincoln primarily on three counts. First, he wanted Lincoln to be more actively abolitionist in the pursuit of the war. Second, he expressed a desire for Southerners to be treated as traitors. Third, Greeley hoped Lincoln would allow African Americans to help in the prosecution of the war, if not as soldiers then at least in other ways. These collective ideas were a direct affront to Lincoln’s approach to the war overall. Lincoln, staid statesman that he was, had to respond with control and restraint while carefully addressing these concerns, which were certainly on the minds of more than just Horace Greeley.

Lincoln’s letter in reply became famous primarily because of its openness to interpretation. Many have taken the document out of context, particularly the most famous line. Lincoln writes, “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.” This initial comment seems as though Lincoln cares little for the freedom of slaves, which seems to go directly against his stance as a Republican. What Lincoln expressed in this document was his forthright intention to save the Union first and foremost. He did not want a fight for the emancipation of slaves to ultimately destroy the Union, which would defeat the purpose in the first place. However, he punctuated his letter with the heartfelt comment, even crafting it with the modifier “oft-expressed” that all men “could be free.” Free labor ideology, as Lincoln and others attested, was not fundamentally about race or class, but about all men having equal access to the work of his own hands. The emancipation of African Americans served that eventual end of the freedom of all people.

The tension in this exchange was most evident between Greeley’s idealism and Lincoln’s pragmatism. Horace Greeley had an admittedly different role as a newspaper editor than as the president, but he still put forth an unrealistic ideal in his perspective on the issue of slavery. Greeley’s comments cut deeply into Lincoln’s strategy of preserving the Union over emancipating slaves. Greeley obviously hoped that emancipation would happen more quickly than it did, however, Lincoln’s desire to preserve the nation trumped his desire to free slaves. Therefore, Greeley’s idealistic perspective clouded his vision for the larger mission of the war overall as Lincoln perceived it. Greeley harped on the singular perspective of the necessity of making the war about freeing slaves and finishing the job. He posited that to leave slavery unresolved would spark another war “within a year” if it were left “in full vigor.” He finished his letter with a powerful indictment on both the president and his political party, “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.” These comments highlighted the necessity of black labor for Union victory and sound almost prophetic given the actual historical evidence of black service in the war. Nevertheless, this idealistic vision was not something that Lincoln could then indulge the nation. It took a few more months of turmoil and the formal Emancipation Proclamation to put the president in a position to take such a drastic and important step to arm the freedmen for battle.

Lincoln’s plan for emancipation was not concrete, but as of his reply to Greeley he still hoped to be able to accomplish it peacefully. He did not intend to instigate the war, but it emerged based on his election. By the time Lincoln took office, rebels already occupied several forts throughout the American South. The standoff at Fort Sumter was merely the fruition of policies and actions that had taken place for many months prior. Lincoln’s plan was fundamentally pragmatic, and initially he attempted to hold the Union together. He wanted to preserve the Union first and foremost so that there would be a free country for the freedmen to occupy. If he followed Greeley’s haughty and idealistic advice, he would have been left with a nation completely destroyed from the inside out. His decision to focus on winning the war seemed reductionist in Greeley’s eyes, but was the perfect solution for Lincoln. He did not want to alienate the pro-slavery advocates in the Border States because doing so would potentially ruin his chances for winning the war.

Not only did Lincoln and Greeley have different jobs, but they also had different purposes for writing their letters. It was evident immediately in the writing style and length of both documents. Greeley wrote to sell papers and drum up political support for his cause. Lincoln wrote to respond, respectfully and succinctly to Greeley’s criticism. Greeley’s exhaustive argument was standard for nineteenth-century newspapers, spending several paragraphs developing an argument to make his readers fill with frustration toward the president. Lincoln, on the other hand, merely defended his own well-founded actions to prosecute and win the war. He did not develop his argument at length, rather briefly explained his longstanding position on the institution of slavery and his justification for conducting the war as he saw fit in the immediate circumstance. His writing was clear, concise, and to the point. This short passage was often debated in the years since its penning, with many wondering about Lincoln’s dedication to emancipation and commitment to black Americans.

Essential Themes

The discussion about emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century remained contested well into the post–Civil War era. The discussions that defined the Reconstruction Amendments were just as controversial as these between Lincoln and Greeley. What existed in the Lincoln-Greeley exchange was truly a conversation of agreement that differed on the condition of form and expediency. Greeley misunderstood the necessity of Lincoln’s plan to attempt to preserve the Union. Likewise, Lincoln could ill afford to heed to the will of a newspaper editor. Both declared their message and plans, while traveling in the same trajectory merely at different speeds.

Liberation for slaves in the rebellious Southern states came in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but those in the valuable and contested Border States waited until the 13th Amendment in 1865. Nevertheless, the fruit of the Lincoln-Greeley exchange was important in forming the final resolution of the Civil War. It was President Lincoln’s controversial comments in his reply to Greeley that influenced many conversations among historians to define Lincoln’s legacy. The uncertainty of Lincoln’s commitment to end slavery was difficult for African Americans to comprehend, but nevertheless his eventual actions toward emancipation, whether as a war aim or as a gesture of benevolence, cemented his legacy as The Great Emancipator for generations of Americans and scholars. Recently historians have utilized this correspondence with Greeley as a context for reevaluating Lincoln, but it was his practical angle in attempting to save the Union that defined his comments here.

Lincoln had already decided to issue an emancipation proclamation when he wrote this letter, and was waiting for a Union victory to give it impetus and credibility: his letter was intended to prepare the public for that proclamation, by stating that what he did about slavery–which would turn out to be freeing some and leaving others alone, in the proclamation, he did because it would help preserve the Union. He knew that this cause united the Northern people, while emancipation divided them–hence his assertion that what he did about slavery, was done in the cause of Union.

Bibliography
  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: Norton , 2011. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Douglas, Stephen A. and Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. New York: Dover , 2004. Print.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. Print.
  • Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008. Print.
  • Snay, Mitchell. Horace Greeley and the Politics of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield, 2011. Print.
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