President Abraham Lincoln writes a carefully worded letter in response to an abolitionist editorial by Horace Greeley, the editor of the influential New York Tribune, and hints at a change in his policy concerning slavery.
From the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed the war’s goal to be the reunion of the nation. He said little about slavery for fear of alienating key constituencies such as the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and, to a lesser extent, Delaware. Each of these states allowed slavery but had not seceded from the Union. Lincoln was also concerned about Northern Democrats, who generally opposed fighting the war to free the enslaved people but whose support Lincoln needed.
Tugging him in the other direction were abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Horace Greeley. In his editorial, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Greeley assailed Lincoln for his soft treatment of slaveholders and for his unwillingness to enforce the Confiscation Acts, which called for the property, including enslaved people, of Confederates to be taken when their homes were captured by Union forces. Abolitionists saw the acts as a wedge to drive into the institution of slavery.
Lincoln had been toying with the idea of emancipation for some time. He discussed it with his cabinet but decided that some military success was needed to give the measure credibility. In his response to Greeley’s editorial, Lincoln hinted at a change. In a rare public response to criticism, he articulated his policy by stating, “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.” Although this sounded noncommittal, Lincoln closed by stating, “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”
By hinting that ending slavery might become a goal of the war, Lincoln was preparing the public for the change in policy that would come one month later with the Emancipation Proclamation.