August 22, 1862 – Lincoln replies to Horace Greeley
President Lincoln writes a carefully worded letter in response
to Horace Greeley’s abolitionist editorial, and hints at a change
in his policy concerning slavery.
From the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed the war’s
goal to be the reunion of the nation. He said little about slavery
for fear of alienating key constituencies such as the Border States
of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and, to a lesser extent, Delaware.
Each of these states allowed slavery but had not seceded from
the Union. Lincoln was also concerned about Northern Democrats,
who generally opposed fighting the war to free the slaves but
whose support Lincoln needed.
Tugging him in the other direction were abolitionists such as
Frederick Douglass and Horace Greeley. In his editorial, "The
Prayer of Twenty Millions," Greeley assailed Lincoln for
his soft treatment of slaveholders and for his unwillingness to
enforce the Confiscation Acts, which called for the property,
including slaves, of Confederates to be taken when their homes
were captured by Union forces. Abolitionists saw the acts as a
wedge to drive into the institution of slavery.
Lincoln had been toying with the idea of emancipation for some
time. He discussed it with his cabinet but decided that some military
success was needed to give the measure credibility. In his response
to Greeley’s editorial, Lincoln hinted at a change. In a rare
public response to criticism, he articulated his policy by stating,
"If I could save the Union without freeing 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." Although this sounded noncommittal,
Lincoln closed by stating, "I intend no modification of my
oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."
By hinting that ending slavery may become a goal of the war,
Lincoln was preparing the public for the change in policy that
would come one month later with the Emancipation Proclamation.