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Civil War Trust

"I Would Save the Union"

Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, and the Emancipation Proclamation
Newseum Education Department

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Abraham Lincoln’s public speaking skills were renowned throughout his political career. As president of a fractured country, he relied primarily on speeches and private letters to respond to his many critics, until the summer of 1862, when a prominent editor published a biting attack on Lincoln’s handling of the issue of slavery in a widely read newspaper. Lincoln chose to respond not with a public address, but with a letter to the newspaper — the first and only newspaper editorial written by a sitting president.

Lincoln first experienced the power of the press early in his career. His debates against Democrat Stephen Douglas in their race to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate grabbed national headlines. Lincoln ultimately lost that election, but the national coverage of the debates cemented his reputation as a formidable opponent of slavery on a national scale. Two years later, in 1860, with the nation on the verge of Civil War, Lincoln successfully ran for president.

As President Lincoln worked toward balancing the goals of preserving the Union and ending slavery, he turned to the press to explain the challenges he faced and defend his methods. The issue came to a head in a striking and unusual exchange of “open letters” between the abolitionist and publisher Horace Greeley and the ever-pragmatic Lincoln.

In August 1862, Greeley, a Lincoln supporter who doubted the president’s resolve to free the slaves, published an editorial in his newspaper, The New York Tribune, in the form of an open letter to the president. The editorial, which appeared on Page 4 of the paper, was titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” because Greeley felt he was speaking on behalf of the 20 million Northern citizens loyal to the Union. Greeley accused Lincoln of being “strangely and disastrously remiss” in his efforts to end slavery and criticized the president’s lukewarm support of the Confiscation Acts, congressional measures that gave Union troops the power to free slaves under certain conditions. The letter’s tone was direct, scolding and at times disdainful.

At the time, Lincoln was closing in on an end to slavery. He’d met quietly with his Cabinet members and shared with them a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. He needed to secure the support of the border states before taking action, and he knew the timing of emancipation would be vital. Lincoln was waiting for a Northern victory to set the stage for his announcement, but in the meantime, Greeley’s attack demanded a response.

twentythumbHorace Greeley's editorial appeared in the August 20 edition of the New York Tribune.  Click on the image to see the full article.

lincolnresponsePresident Lincoln's response appeared in the August 25 edition of the Tribune.  Click on the image to see the full article.

Lincoln replied in an open letter to Greeley. In the letter, Lincoln emphasized his primary goal: “I would save the Union. … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. … What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.” In this masterful message, Lincoln reaffirmed his support for abolition without apologizing for the pace of change, while also subtly preparing pro-slavery Union loyalists for the announcement to come.

Greeley printed Lincoln’s response — and his own response to Lincoln’s letter — in the Tribune. “Nothing was further from my thought than to impeach in any manner the sincerity or intensity of your devotion to the saving of the Union,” Greeley wrote. “That you may promptly and practically realize that Slavery is to be vanquished only by Liberty — is the fervent and anxious prayer.”

Less than a month later, on the heels of a Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.

The Newseum recently added the Aug. 20 and Aug. 25, 1862, editions of The New York Tribune, featuring Greeley’s original letter and Lincoln’s response, to its collection of more than 30,000 historic newspapers. You can find full-size downloadable images of these primary sources along with guided reading prompts on the Newseum’s online resource for educators, Digital Classroom (free login required).

For more on the Civil War and the press, explore the Digital Classroom primary source collection “Blood and Ink: Front Pages From the Civil War.” This collection includes more than 30 historic front pages from the Newseum collection spanning the length of the war, from the birth of the Confederacy to the death of President Lincoln. Front pages from Northern and Southern newspapers show both Union and Confederate viewpoints while illuminating the challenges faced by reporters on the battlefield and the new technologies that revolutionized war reporting. Visit the Newseum to see these newspapers firsthand and experience the Civil War the way Americans in the 1860s did — through front pages.

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