Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Abraham Lincoln; Henry Louis Gates Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

49

AL to Horace Greeley:
CW, 5:388–389

The following open letter printed in Greeley's New York Tribune on August 25, 1862, is the best known and most succinct summary of Lincoln's approach toward slavery and the Civil War. Impatient with the course of the war and the administration's apparent reluctance to do anything about the institution of slavery, Greeley challenged the president to act. On August 20 under the title “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” he published a long list of grievances accusing Lincoln of failing to enforce the laws that Congress had passed. He drew special attention to the Second Confiscation Act, which authorized the president to institute an aggressive policy of emancipation and recruit African Americans into the army—which the administration adamantly refused to consider. Greeley charged that the president labored under the influence of fossilized politicians from the border states who compelled him to be timid when the national crisis demanded boldness. He denounced Lincoln for failing to instruct his generals to accept runaway slaves into their lines; instead Union troops often murdered them. The time had long since passed, Greeley explained, for the president to follow the congressional lead and attack the South where it would most hurt: the institution of slavery. In his temperate and well-considered reply to the fiery editor, Lincoln made clear that his priority was simple and precise: preservation of the Union. His personal feelings about the institution of slavery and African Americans, he explained, occupied no part of his thinking. While privately he considered steps toward enacting emancipation as a war measure, publicly he proclaimed his single desire to do anything to end the war and restore the Union—and if the Union could be restored by preserving slavery in the South, he would gladly do it. His use of the Democratic Party's popular rallying cry of “the Union as it was” represented a transparent attempt to disarm his conservative political rivals, which simultaneously convinced black leaders that Lincoln could not be trusted.

-242-

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