The president read the 2,200-word “Prayer of the Twenty Millions.” Horace Greeley had never been a particularly patient man, but now he was beside himself.
Greeley told the president that his strategy was a failure. Lincoln pledged to save the Union, but the rebellion had now been going on for a year and a half. Northerners were “sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels.” Greeley pleaded with the president to confront the cause of secession: “[T]he Rebellion, if crushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor.” The New York Tribune carried the public rebuke.
On this date, 145 years ago, Lincoln replied to Greeley’s letter.
“As to the policy I ‘seem to be pursuing’ as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt,” the president began.
Using just 245 words, the president reiterated his position:
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 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 don't 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 error; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
As the president wrote his reply to Greeley, the Emancipation Proclamation was sitting in his desk drawer. He had not issued it yet; he was waiting for the right moment.
While Greeley claimed Northerners would embrace such a measure, Lincoln knew otherwise. Thousands had volunteered to “save the Union,” not to free slaves. By “radicalizing” the war-aims, Lincoln knew he risked alienating many loyal Union men.
The president’s reply to Greeley walked the country through his thought-process. “Saving the Union” was still the number one priority. “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union,” Lincoln explained.
Emancipation was coming, but it would have to wait until Union forces achieved a victory.