The newspaper editor had been writing Lincoln for almost two years. Just after the election, he warned him of the possibility of assassination, “Even your life is not safe, and it is your simple duty to be very careful of exposing it.” Seven months later, just after the disastrous Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, he bluntly told the president, “You are not considered a great man.”
Horace Greeley had never been shy about sharing his opinions. A New England reformer at heart, he came to New York City at age twenty. Within a decade, he started the New York Tribune and became a celebrity. Using his columns like a preacher uses the pulpit, Greeley preached an ever-evolving anti-slavery gospel. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “the right spiritual father of this region,” who “does [everyone’s] thinking & theory for them, for two dollars a year.” By 1862, more than 200,000 Americans subscribed to the New York Tribune.
On August 20, 1862, Horace Greeley published a 2,200 word open-letter to President Lincoln titled, “The Prayer of the Twenty Millions.” Claiming he spoke for the American people, Greeley told the president they did not approve of the way he was conducting the war. Particularly, the people were “sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels.”
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--that Army officers who remain to this day devoted to Slavery can at best be but half-way loyal to the Union--and that every hour of deference to Slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union, I appeal to the testimony of your Ambassadors in Europe. It is freely at your service, not at mine. Ask them to tell you candidly whether the seeming subserviency of your policy to the slaveholding, slavery-upholding interest, is not the perplexity, the despair of statesmen of all parties, and be admonished by the general answer.
Greeley called on the president to listen to the prayers of twenty million Northerners who wanted to see both the rebellion and slavery crushed. The president needed to begin by executing the laws of the land, particularly the Confiscation Act. “That Act gives freedom to the slaves of Rebels coming within our lines,” Greeley wrote.
We cannot conquer Ten Millions of People united in solid phalanx against us, powerfully aided by the Northern sympathizers and European allies. We must have scouts, guides, spies, cooks, teamsters, diggers and choppers from the Blacks of the South, whether we allow them to fight for us or not, or we shall be baffled and repelled. As one of the millions who would gladly have avoided this struggle at any sacrifice but that Principle and Honor, but who now feel that the triumph of the Union is dispensable not only to the existence of our country to the well being of mankind, I entreat you to render a hearty and unequivocal obedience to the law of the land.
The president read the letter in the morning’s New York Tribune. He knew Greeley and the American people expected a reply.