Abraham Lincoln’s Firm Answer to Greeley’s Scolding Letter
On Aug. 19, 1862, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote a letter lecturing Abraham Lincoln that he should free the South’s slaves. The president was quick to reply. Just three days after receiving Greeley’s letter, Lincoln wrote a clear, firm response stating emphatically to Greeley that he was waging the Civil War to preserve the Union, not end slavery. Though Lincoln stipulated that he personally wished all men could be free, slavery was not his wartime priority.
It is interesting to note, that less than a month after answering Greeley, Lincoln issued an executive order on September 22 that led to the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that all slaves in Confederate states would be freed unless those states returned to Union control by the first day of 1863.
Lincoln’s letter to Greeley, with its bold declaration that ending slavery was not his highest priority, was of keen interest to the Confederacy, of course. One of the South’s leading newspapers, The Daily Picayune (New Orleans), published Lincoln’s letter on Sept. 9, 1862:
President Lincoln Answers Horace Greeley
Some time ago the editor of the Tribune published in that paper a long letter to the President of the United States, telling him what the people (i.e., the Abolitionists) expect and demand of him to do, in the way of carrying out the requisitions of the Confiscation Act. The following is the reply of the President:
Washington, August 22, 1862
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 it. If there be in it any inference which I believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here argue against it. If there be perceptible 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 destroy slavery. If I could save the Union with the freeing of 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, 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.
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