OTD in History… August 20 & 22, 1862, Horace Greeley calls on President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the slaves and Lincoln responds
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, August 20, 1862, newspaper editor and abolitionist, Horace Greeley writes an open letter editorial to President Abraham Lincoln “The Prayer for Twenty Millions” in his paper the New York Tribune urging him to free the slaves in Union territory. Greeley was a reformer that created his paper in 1841 to give a voice to the “temperance, westward expansion, and the labor movement,” and abolitionism to which he was most passionate about. Greeley was instrumental in establishing the Republican Party in 1854, with preventing the spread of slavery a key issue. Both Greeley and freed slave Frederick Douglass had been urging President Lincoln to change his policy and take a stand on slavery. Greeley hoped with the Civil War, Lincoln would emancipate the slaves but the president was reluctant to alienate the border states Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware who did not secede from the Union. Even after he would emancipate the slaves, Lincoln did not include abolishing slavery in those states. Unbeknownst to Greeley, Lincoln already informed his cabinet nearly a month before on July 22, his plans to emancipate the slaves in the rebel Confederate states.
Greeley used his editorial to criticize President Lincoln. Greeley believed that without ending slavery the Union army would never end the rebellion from the Southern states. Greeley argued, “All attempts to put down the Rebellion, and at the same time uphold its inciting cause, are preposterous and futile.” Continuing Greeley expressed, “Every hour of deference to Slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union.” Greeley chastised Lincoln for not enforcing the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which allowed the Union Army to seize rebel property including slaves, which they could have freed. Greeley indicated, “That act gives freedom to the slaves of Rebels coming within our lines, or whom those lines may at any time inclose — we ask you to render it due to obedience by publicly requiring all your subordinates to recognize and obey it.”
On August 22, 1862, Lincoln made his intentions in the Civil War and towards slavery clear and responded to a challenge over freeing the slaves by New York Tribune editor and critic Horace Greeley. In an open letter published in the National Intelligencer Lincoln expressed, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Continuing Lincoln explained, “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.” Lincoln, however, gave a slight indication as to his plans towards slavery with the conclusion to his response. Lincoln expressed, “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” In the months, leading up to his announcement Lincoln slowly prepared the Union for his radical policy a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he would introduce just a month later on September 22.
For Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation was the next step after a series of Confiscation Acts aimed at the property of the rebellious states. On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the first bill the Confiscation Act of 1861, after the House passed it 60–48 and in the Senate passed it 24–11. The bill allowed the Union to confiscate any slave laboring the Confederate Army as “contraband of war.” On July 17, 1862, just days before Lincoln made his decision on emancipating the slaves known, he signed the Confiscation Act of 1862, the motto-according historian James McPherson in his book Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era was “Take their property.” Union General Ulysses S. Grant confided about taking the slaves, writing, “it weakens the enemy to take them from them.” (McPherson, 502)
By early July, Lincoln believed in “forcible abolition of slavery” and as McPherson notes, “begun to draft a proclamation of emancipation.” (McPherson, 503) Still Lincoln had to contend with the Border States, they were opposed to his plan to for “compensated emancipation.” The President had their Congressman at the White House on July 12, trying to convince them of “The unprecedentedly stern facts of our case,” and for gradual emancipation. Two-thirds of the Representatives signed the Border-State Manifesto rejecting the proposal because it “radical [a] change in our social system”; it was “interference” “by the government with a state matter.” And as McPherson indicates, “it would cost too much (a curious objection from men whose states would benefit from a tax that would fall mainly on the free states); and finally, instead of shortening the conflict by depriving the Confederacy of hope for border-state support, it would lengthen the war and jeopardize victory by driving many unionist slaveholders into rebellion.” (McPherson, 503)
The Border States’ decision led Lincoln to support the Radical Republicans’ idea of emancipation. On July 13, Lincoln told Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles of his intention for the Emancipation Proclamation. Welles recounted that Lincoln said it was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.” Lincoln did not see the Border States as the issue, but “the blow must fall first and foremost on [the rebels]. . . . Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted. . . . We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example, and strike at the heart of the rebellion.” Lincoln faced the greatest opposition from General George B. McClellan, who staunchly was against the move.
On July 22, President Abraham Lincoln announces to his advisors and cabinet his intentions to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, to free the slaves in the rebellious states but agrees to do so only and when the Union has a decisive victory in the Civil War. At this point, the Confederate states were winning battles and Britain and France were on the verge of recognizing them as a country and already supplying them with warships. Lincoln did not look to free the slaves for their sake but for the future of the Union, he needed to weaken the Confederacy. Lincoln emancipation proclamation’s draft declared “All persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.”
Lincoln justified having the presidential power to free the slaves as “a fit and necessary military measure.” As Burrus M. Carnahan in his book Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War writes, “The consequences of Lincoln’s decision to rely on the law of war as a source of executive power are still with us.” (Carnahan, 13–14) Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair opposed the idea out of concern it would cost the Republicans the Congress in the midterm elections. Secretary of State Seward approved but wanted Lincoln to delay the announcement until a Union “military success,” or it would appear “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help . . . our last shriek, on the retreat.” Lincoln decided to wait and put away his draft of the proclamation in a drawer. (McPherson, 505)
The president only intended to free the slaves in the 10 states that seceded the Union and joined the Confederacy, it was an ultimatum if they do not return to the Union, and their prized slaves would be free, 3.5 to 4 million of them. If the southern states refused to abide, the slaves would leave the South and join the Union army, both adding to their army and be depriving the South of their labor force. In the final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln purposely excluded freeing the slaves within the Union, especially within the Border States (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri). Lincoln needed the Border States to stay in the Union, and could not offend them, there slavery only ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. Lincoln also excluded any Southern territory under Union control including Tennessee, Lower Louisiana, and West Virginia.
In August, Lincoln made the case for his delayed proclamation. The slavery issue was at the forefront, Abolitionists were annoyed at Lincoln for not making a decisive move, he had support from some War Democrats, a few becoming Republicans but he faced a more formidable obstacle with Peace Democrats or Copperheads. In Congress, the division was stark; there were four slavery votes as McPherson recounts, “The war article prohibiting the return of fugitives, emancipation in the District of Columbia, prohibition of slavery in the territories, and the confiscation act.” The chasm was near unanimous, 96 percent of Democrats opposed the bills, while 99 percent of Republicans voted in favor. Lincoln relied on Democrats votes when elected president but to pass his legislation he needed to maintain the Republican majority in Congress.
Northern Democrats and Midwest Whigs feared emancipation, and the anti-black sentiment was high in the summer of 1862. To squelch their concerns, Lincoln supported colonization for blacks. On August 14, 1862, Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House and the press to make a statement on the position of black if they would be freed and colonization. Lincoln called slavery “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” but he said, “Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.” Lincoln seemed certain that there would be no equality between the races, saying, “There is an unwillingness
on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain among us. . . . I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would.” (McPherson, 508) Lincoln’s solution was to create a colony for the freed slaves in Central America and in 1863; there was a failed effort to colonize an island near Haiti.
Harold Holzer in promoting his book Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory explained the reasons behind the colonization efforts. Holzer said Lincoln “did things in this run-up that are perplexing, sometimes unattractive, sometimes scary — to prepare the country for what in his mind would be a revolutionary moment.” Holzer indicated the reason for Lincoln hosting the black leaders and made his speech in front of the press, “He wanted this message out. What’s important to keep in mind is that he had written the Emancipation Proclamation. It was languishing in a drawer or burning a hole in his pocket. He knew he was going to do this, but he wanted Northern Americans who were dubious about marching toward racial equality to be assured that he was not doing this for the black race. He was doing this for the Union, to reunite the country, to defeat the rebellion, and he had no concern about blacks, their feelings, their resonance. He does have his finger in the wind.”
By September, Lincoln would have the military success necessary. The South was having military victories in the East but it was taking a toll, neither did Europe decide to recognize the Confederacy. In desperation General Robert E. Lee took his Army of Northern Virginia to Maryland, hoping for a decisive offensive victory where the Confederacy would acquire the border state. On September 17, Lee met McClellan’s Army of the Potomac at Antietam Creek for one of the bloodiest battles of the war. McClellan was able to push back Lee’s army, although not a major victory, it was enough for Lincoln to move forward on the Emancipation Proclamation.
Finally, on September 22, President Lincoln again gathered his cabinet telling them “I think the time has come, I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked.” (McPherson, 557) Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, warning the Confederate states if the rebellion did not end by January 1, 1863, all their slaves would “be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Signing it on New Year’s Day, Lincoln recognized the historical impact, as Holzer recounts, “Then he looked at the signature — Abraham Lincoln — very proudly and said, ‘There, that will do,’ He had said right before that, if my name ever goes into history it will be for this act. He sensed immediately that he had become one of the immortals.”
Lincoln understood a Constitutional amendment would be necessary to outlaw slavery permanently. Union generals, however, were able to benefit and as they captured Confederate land, they could free and put the former slaves to good use in the war. As Carl E. Kramer writing in Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century points outs, “Most important, the proclamation made abolition a formal war aim, giving the Union the moral advantage not only at home but in the court of world opinion. In short, the war’s purpose was transformed from restoring the Union as it had been to creating a new nation without slavery. Emancipation was one of many social and economic changes that helped transform American society as civil war became total war.” (Findling and Thackeray, 130–31)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Carnahan, Burrus M. Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century. Westport (Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).
Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Holzer, Harold. Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.