Today in History: Lincoln replies to Horace Greeley’s editorial, paves way for Emancipation Proclamation

August 22nd, 2013

On August 22, 1862 Abraham Lincoln sent a response to abolitionist Horace Greeley’s editorial in the New York Tribune, outlining his political and personal position on slavery. Greeley’s “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” argued that Lincoln lacked direction and resolve on the issue of slavery.

In his editorial, Greeley urged Lincoln to free the slaves by strictly enforcing the 1861 Confiscation Act, which authorized the Union to confiscate any Confederate property, including slaves. Greeley argued that Lincoln could “fight slavery with liberty” by enforcing the act.

Two days later, President Lincoln explained his policy aims, noting that the preservation of the Union was his primary objective, though the abolition of slavery was his personal desire:

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.

One month later, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the ten states still in rebellion against the Union when it took into effect in 1863.

For more on Lincoln’s position on slavery and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and review our “Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day” ebook.

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