Research Exercise: Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862

Well, today’s the 150th anniversary of this oft-quoted letter.

Read the entire letter.  Then tell me what we should make of it.

Executive Mansion, Washington, August 22, 1862

Hon. Horace Greely:

Dear Sir

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

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 the 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 do not 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 errors; 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 every where could be free.




8 thoughts on “Research Exercise: Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862

  1. TF Smith August 22, 2012 / 10:03 pm

    Lincoln was a pragmatist, who in 1862 and, I would suggest throughout the war, had a better sense of the connection between military and political strategies, war goals, and the state of American opinion on the emancipation issue than Horace Greeley?

    Too facile?

  2. Brad August 22, 2012 / 11:48 pm

    This was part of Lincoln’s groundwork for the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation which was intended to show that he would do whatever was within his power to do to save the Union, i.e., win the War. He was a clever strategist but a brilliant President at selling his program. According to Douglas Wilson, author of Lincoln’s Sword, Lincoln would write out ideas well in advance of when he needed them and put them away for future reference. To Wilson, this letter or the thoughts behind it was an example of that.

    As an aside, the letter is also a clever put down of Greeley without rubbing his nose in it. Greeley’s vanity provided with the perfect opportunity.

  3. wgdavis August 23, 2012 / 12:34 am

    A clear message to the Confederate government: come back now and all will be as it was. And at this point he was placing the restoration of the Union above slavery. He was also outlining his official position as president under the Constitution and in the final paragraph separating his personal self from his official self, which has an undercurrent of a vague threat that the official position might change — there was a time limit to it.

    On another level, it is a message to the Union that not so-gently nudges them toward the emaancipation proclamation.

    Wasn’t Greeley a great setup man? I suspect the exchange was pre-arranged.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 23, 2012 / 12:35 am

      I doubt that. Greeley was fairly critical of Lincoln’s approach.

  4. Bob Huddleston August 23, 2012 / 1:34 pm

    Don’t forget that by the time Horace wrote the letter, the EP was already written and waiting on Lincoln’s desk for the perfect opportunity to be issued!

  5. Caldwell September 11, 2012 / 6:47 pm

    “… If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,…”

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Captures Lincoln’s pro-slavery and white supremacist views perfectly.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 12, 2012 / 12:11 pm

      Actually, all this does is demonstrate your inability to read an entire document, leaving you to distort its meaning. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this was deliberate or simply sloppy and inept.

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