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Lincoln and Greeley

Much of the mischief of the world is the work of people who mean well. Not the least of the annoyances thrust on Lincoln came from people who ought to have known better. The fact that such mischief-makers are complacent, as if they were doing what was brilliant, and useful, adds to the vexation.

One of the most prominent citizens of the United States at the time of the civil war was Horace Greeley. He was a man of ardent convictions, of unimpeachable honesty, and an editorial writer of the first rank. He did a vast amount of good. He also did a vast amount of mischief which may be considered to offset a part of the good he accomplished.

His intellectual ability made it impossible for him to be anywhere a nonentity. He was always prominent. His paper, the New York Tribune, was in many respects the ablest newspaper of the day. Large numbers of intelligent republicans took the utterances of the Tribune as gospel truth.

It is not safe for any man to have an excess of influence. It is not surprising that the wide influence which Greeley acquired made him egotistic. He apparently came to believe that he had a mortgage on the republican party, and through that upon the country. His editorial became dictatorial. He looked upon Lincoln as a protege of his own who required direction. This he was willing to give,–mildly but firmly. All this was true of many other good men and good republicans. But it was emphatically true of Greeley.

If there is anything worse than a military man who plumes himself upon his statesmanship, it is the civilian who affects to understand military matters better than the generals, the war department, and the commander-in-chief. This was Greeley. He placed his military policy in the form of a war-cry,–"On to Richmond!"–at the head of his editorial page, and with a pen of marvelous power rung the changes on it.

This is but one sample of the man’s proneness to interfere in other matters. With all the infallibility of an editor he was ever ready to tell what the President ought to do as a sensible and patriotic man. He would have saved the country by electing Douglas, by permitting peaceable secession, by persuading the French ambassador to intervene, by conference and argument with the Confederate emissaries, and by assuming personal control of the administration. At a later date he went so far as to propose to force Lincoln’s resignation. He did not seem to realize that Lincoln could be most effective if allowed to do his work in his own way. He did not grasp the truth that he could be of the highest value to the administration only as he helped and encouraged, and that his obstructions operated only to diminish the efficiency of the government. If Greeley had put the same degree of force into encouraging the administration that he put into hindering its work, he would have merited the gratitude of his generation.

He was singularly lacking in the willingness to do this, or in the ability to recognize its importance. Like hundreds of others he persisted in expounding the duties of the executive, but his patronizing advice was more harmful in proportion to the incisiveness of his literary ability. This impertinence of Greeley’s criticism reached its climax in an open letter to Lincoln. This letter is, in part, quoted here. It shows something of the unspeakable annoyances that were thrust upon the already overburdened President, from those who ought to have delighted in holding up his hands, those of whom better things might have been expected. The reply shows the patience with which Lincoln received these criticisms. It further shows the skill with which he could meet the famous editor on his own ground; for he also could wield a trenchant pen.

Greeley’s letter is very long and it is not necessary to give it in full. But the headings, which are given below, are quite sufficient to show that the brilliant editor dipped his pen in gall in order that he might add bitterness to the man whose life was already filled to the brim with the bitter sorrows, trials, and disappointments of a distracted nation. The letter is published on the editorial page of the New York Tribune of August 20, 1862.


“To ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States:

“DEAR SIR: I do not intrude to tell you–for you must know already– that a great proportion of those who triumphed in your election, and of all who desire the unqualified suppression of the Rebellion now desolating our country, are sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels. I write only to set succinctly and unmistakably before you what we require, what we think we have a right to expect, and of what we complain.

“I. We require of you, as the first servant of the Republic, charged especially and preeminently with this duty, that you EXECUTE THE LAWS....”

“II. We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act....”

“III. We think you are unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border States....”

“IV. We think the timid counsels of such a crisis calculated to prove perilous and probably disastrous....”

“V. We complain that the Union cause has suffered and is now suffering immensely, from mistaken deference to Rebel Slavery. Had you, Sir, in your Inaugural Address, unmistakably given notice that, in case the Rebellion already commenced were persisted in, and your efforts to preserve the Union and enforce the laws should be resisted by armed force, you would recognize no loyal person as rightfully held in Slavery by a traitor, we believe that the Rebellion would have received a staggering, if not fatal blow....”

“VI. We complain that the Confiscation Act which you approved is habitually disregarded by your Generals, and that no word of rebuke for them from you has yet reached the public ear....”

“VII. Let me call your attention to the recent tragedy in New Orleans, whereof the facts are obtained entirely through Pro-Slavery channels....”

“VIII. 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 to-morrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor–that the army of 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....”

“IX. I close as I began with the statement that what an immense majority of the Loyal Millions of your countrymen require of you is a frank, declared, unqualified, ungrudging execution of the laws of the land, more especially of the Confiscation Act.... As one of the millions who would gladly have avoided this struggle at any sacrifice but that of Principle and Honor, but who now feel that the triumph of the Union is indispensable not only to the existence of our country, but to the well-being of mankind, I entreat you to render a hearty and unequivocal obedience to the law of the land.”



“NEW YORK, August 19, 1862.”

Those who are familiar with the eccentricities of this able editor will not be slow to believe that, had Lincoln, previous to the writing of that letter, done the very things he called for, Greeley would not improbably, have been among the first to attack him with his caustic criticism. Lincoln was not ignorant of this. But he seized this opportunity to address a far wider constituency than that represented in the subscription list of the Tribune. His reply was published in the Washington Star. He puts the matter so temperately and plainly that the most obtuse could not fail to see the reasonableness of it. As to Greeley, we do not hear from him again, and may assume that he was silenced if not convinced. The reply was as follows:



“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 perceptible 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; 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 everywhere could be free.”



Not the least interesting fact connected with this subject is that at this very time Lincoln had the Emancipation Proclamation in mind. But not even the exasperating teasing that is fairly represented by Greeley’s letter caused him to put forth that proclamation prematurely. It is no slight mark of greatness that he was able under so great pressure to bide his time.

This was not the last of Greeley’s efforts to control the President or run the machine. In 1864 he was earnestly opposed to his renomination but finally submitted to the inevitable.

In July of that year, 1864, two prominent Confederates, Clay of Alabama, and Thompson of Mississippi, managed to use Greeley for their purposes. They communicated with him from Canada, professing to have authority to arrange for terms of peace, and they asked for a safe- conduct to Washington. Greeley fell into the trap but Lincoln did not. There is little doubt that their real scheme was to foment discontent and secure division throughout the North on the eve of the presidential election. Lincoln wrote to Greeley as follows:

“If you can find any person, anywhere, professing to have authority from Jefferson Davis, in writing, embracing the restoration of the Union and the abandonment of slavery, whatever else it embraces, say to him that he may come to me with you.”

Under date of July 18, he wrote the following:

“To whom it may concern:“

“Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war with the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive government of the United States, and will be met on liberal terms on substantial and collateral points; and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe-conduct both ways.”


Greeley met these “commissioners” at Niagara, but it turned out that they had no authority whatever from the Confederate government. The whole affair was therefore a mere fiasco. But Greeley, who had been completely duped, was full of wrath, and persistently misrepresented, not to say maligned, the President. According to Noah Brooks, the President said of the affair:

“Well, it’s hardly fair to say that this won’t amount to anything. It will shut up Greeley, and satisfy the people who are clamoring for peace. That’s something, anyhow.” The President was too hopeful. It did not accomplish quite that, for Greeley was very persistent; but it did prevent a serious division of the North.