Horace Greeley Challenges Lincoln to Free the South’s Slaves
During the summer of 1862, with the Civil War raging and things not going well for the Union, President Lincoln wrestled with the thought of weakening the Confederacy by freeing the South’s slaves. It was a momentous step, one he was hesitant to take. His goal in waging the war was preserving the Union, not ending slavery.
Abolitionists pressured Lincoln to take bold action. One of the most prominent was Horace Greeley, editor of the North’s most influential newspaper, the New York Tribune. On August 24, Greeley continued his correspondence with Lincoln by writing a letter urging the president to free the South’s slaves. Less than a month later, on September 22, Lincoln issued an executive order 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.
Greeley’s letter to Lincoln was reprinted in the Sept. 3, 1862, issue of the Crisis (Columbus, Ohio):
Horace Greeley Writes Another Letter to President Lincoln
Although I did not anticipate nor seek any reply to my former letter unless through your official acts, I thank you for having accorded one, since it enables me to say explicitly that nothing was further from my thought than to impeach in any manner the sincerity or the intensity of your devotion to the saving of the Union. I never doubted, and have no friend who doubts, that you desire, before and above all else, to reestablish the now derided authority and vindicate the territorial integrity of the Republic. I intended to raise only this question: Do you propose to do this by recognizing, obeying, and enforcing the laws, or by ignoring, disregarding and in effect, defying them?
I stand upon the law of the land. The humblest has a clear right to invoke its protection and support against even the highest. That law – in strict accordance with the law of nations, of nature, and of God – declares that every traitor now engaged in the infernal work of destroying our country has forfeited thereby all claim or color of right lawfully to hold human beings in slavery. I ask of you a clear and public recognition that this law is to be obeyed wherever the national authority is respected. I cite to you instances wherein men fleeing from bondage to traitors to the protection of our flag, have been assaulted, wounded and murdered by soldiers of the Union – unpunished and unrebuked by your General Commanding – to prove that it is your duty to take action in the premises, action that will cause the law to be proclaimed and obeyed wherever your authority or that of the Union is recognized as paramount. The rebellion is strengthened, the national cause is imperiled, by every hour’s delay to strike treason this staggering blow.
When Fremont proclaimed Freedom to the slaves of rebels, you constrained him to modify his proclamation into rigid accordance with the terms of the existing law. It was your clear right to do so. I now ask of you conformity to the principle so sternly enforced on him. I ask you to instruct your Generals and Commodores that no loyal person – certainly none willing to render service to the National cause – is henceforth to be regarded as the slave of any traitor. While no rightful Government was ever before assailed by so wanton and wicked a rebellion as that of the slaveholders against our National life, I am sure none ever before hesitated at so simple and primary an act of self-defense as to relieve those who would serve and save it from chattel servitude to those who are wading through seas of blood to subvert and destroy it. Future generations will with difficulty realize that there could have been hesitation on this point. Sixty years of general and boundless subserviency to the Slave Power do not adequately explain it.
Mr. President, I beseech you to open your eyes to the fact that all the devotees of Slavery everywhere – just as much in Maryland as in Mississippi, in Washington as in Richmond – are today your enemies, and the implacable foes of every effort to reestablish the National authority by the discomfiture of its assailants. Their President is not Abraham Lincoln, but Jefferson Davis. You may draft them to serve in the war; but they will only fight under the rebel flag. There is not in New York today a man who really believes in Slavery, loves it, and desires its perpetuation, who heartily desires the crushing out of the rebellion. He would much rather save the Republic by buying up and pensioning off its assailants. His “Union as it was” is a Union of which you were not President, and no one who truly wished freedom to all ever could be.
If these are truths, Mr. President, they are surely of the gravest importance. You cannot safely approach the great and good end you so intently meditate by shutting your eyes to them. Your deadly foe is not blinded by any mist in which your eyes may be enveloped. He walks straight to his goal, knowing well his weak point, and most unwillingly betraying his fear that you too may see and take advantage of it. God grant that his apprehension may prove prophetic.
That you may not unseasonably perceive the vital truths as they will shine forth on the pages of History – that they may be read by our children irradiated by the glory of our National salvation, not rendered lurid by the blood-red glow of National conflagration and ruin – that you may promptly and practically realize that Slavery is to be vanquished only by Liberty – is the fervent and anxious prayer of yours truly,
New York, August 24, 1862
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