The Civil War – Greeley v. Lincoln as the war starts

By C.J. Johnson

The Press and politicians have been at odds since the earliest days of our country. Disagreements, name-calling, and even mud-slinging are not new to this relationship.

On August 19, 1862, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune published, as an editorial column – an open letter to Abraham Lincoln, entitled “The Prayer of the Twenty Millions.” This lengthy commentary chastised the President, demanding action enforcing the two Confiscation Acts, which involved Southern slaves who sought freedom in the North or with Union forces. Greeley also implied that the President and his administration lacked backbone – by not taking action.

President Lincoln began formulating his plan for emancipating Southern slaves earlier in 1862. Mid-summer, he presented a draft to his cabinet. However, he had not made his plans public at that point. He had realized, “it was a military necessity, absolutely essential for the salvation of the nation, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued,” as he told some Cabinet members.

Greeley’s editorial began with, “DEAR SIR: I do not intrude to tell you – for you must know already – that a great proportion of those who triumphed in your election, and of all who desire the unqualified suppression of the Rebellion now desolating our country, are sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing, with regard to the slaves of the Rebels. I write only to set succinctly and unmistakably before you what we require, what we think we have a right to expect, and of what we complain.”

Greeley listed nine demands. “I. We require of you, as the first servant of the Republic, charged especially and preeminently with this duty, that you EXECUTE THE LAWS…

II. We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight Slavery with Liberty… III. We think you are unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States. Knowing well that the heartily, unconditionally loyal portion of the White citizens of those States do not expect nor desire that Slavery shall be upheld to the prejudice of the Union…

IV. We think timid counsels in such a crisis calculated to prove perilous, and probably disastrous. It is the duty of a Government so wantonly, wickedly assailed by Rebellion as ours has been to oppose force to force in a defiant, dauntless spirit….

V. We complain that the Union cause has suffered, and is now suffering immensely, from mistaken deference to Rebel Slavery. Had you, Sir, in your inaugural Address, unmistakably given notice that, in case the Rebellion already commenced were persisted in, and your efforts to preserve the Union and enforce the laws should be resisted by armed force, you would recognize no loyal person as rightfully held in Slavery by a traitor, we believe the Rebellion would therein have received a staggering if not fatal blow…

VI. We complain that the Confiscation Act which you approved is habitually disregarded by your Generals, and that no word of rebuke for them from you has yet reached the public ear….that the officers of your Armies have habitually repelled rather than invited approach of slaves…

VII. Let me call your attention to the recent tragedy in New Orleans, whereof the facts are obtained entirely through Pro-Slavery channels. A considerable body of resolute, able-bodied men, held in Slavery by two Rebel sugar-planters…left plantations thirty miles distant and made their way to [New Orleans]…which they knew to be the indisputed possession of the Union forces…they met with hostility, captivity, and murder…

VIII. On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile—that the Rebellion, if crushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor….

IX. I close as I began with the statement that what an immense majority of the Loyal Millions of your countrymen require of you…we ask you to render it due obedience by publicly requiring all your subordinates to recognize and obey it [Confiscation Act]…”

The following day, the President responded with what has been called “one of Lincoln’s most famous letters.” Lincoln already had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation at his desk, when he replied to Greeley’s column, stressing the preservation of the Union. This response is considered to be “a classic statement of Lincoln’s constitutional responsibilities,” according to Abraham Lincoln Online.

Lincoln closed his brief response by saying, “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 every where could be free.”