August 20, 1862: The Prayer of Twenty Millions

Monday, August 20, AD 2012



Half sage and half quack, Horace Greeley, who in 1841 founded the New York Tribune, was a power to be reckoned with in the United States one hundred and fifty years ago.  On August 20, 1862 he published in his paper an open letter, entitled The Prayer of Twenty Millions,  to President Lincoln demanding the abolition of slavery within the Union.

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 you 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. Most emphatically do we demand that such laws as have been recently enacted, which therefore may fairly be presumed to embody the present will and to be dictated by the present needs of the Republic, and which, after due consideration have received your personal sanction, shall by you be carried into full effect, and that you publicly and decisively instruct your subordinates that such laws exist, that they are binding on all functionaries and citizens, and that they are to be obeyed to the letter.

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. Those provisions were designed to fight Slavery with Liberty. They prescribe that men loyal to the Union, and willing to shed their blood in her behalf, shall no longer be held, with the Nations consent, in bondage to persistent, malignant traitors, who for twenty years have been plotting and for sixteen months have been fighting to divide and destroy our country. Why these traitors should be treated with tenderness by you, to the prejudice of the dearest rights of loyal men, We cannot conceive.

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12 Responses to August 20, 1862: The Prayer of Twenty Millions

  • I often walk through Greeley Park on the way to or from Penn Sta. There is a statue of the man (seated) in the park. The statue beard is a bit bigger.

    I agree. Greeley was being presumptuous in proposing to speak for 20,000,000. Of course, neither Greeley nor the MSM branch of the Committee to Re-elect Barry Soetoro invented hubris.

  • Why was Lincoln steadfast with saving the Union to the extent that all other moral concerns in front of the state were irrelevant?

    Kind of smacks of the end justifying the means doesn’t it?

  • Not at all. His duty as President was to preserve the Union. Lincoln had no power under the Constitution to do anything about slavery except as a war measure. Lincoln understood the difference between his personal opinions on slavery and the duties incumbent upon him as President of the United States.

  • But he doesn’t seen so circumscribed in his statements. He maintains he would take action in either direction if it would mean preservation of the Union. There seems to be a moral understanding that concern for the Union outweighs all other concerns.

    In other words he either subjugates his moral compass at the altar of the state or he maintains a moral outlook and decides the morally appropriate course of action is the preservation of Union because it is indeed the greater moral good. Is there another analysis?

  • Yes. His duty as President was to preserve the Union. It was not a matter of personal preference by him. Previous Presidents, including southerners such as Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, had taken precisely the same view as Lincoln. Morally Lincoln thought slavery was evil and should be abolished, but doing so was not part of his duties as President as was the preservation of the Union. Lincoln was not a free agent as President but bound to carry out the duties of that office. The abolition of slavery could only be undertaken as a help to the preservation of the Union. I have no doubt that Linoln thought that preservation of the Union was morally good, but his duty to do so did not stem from that belief but rather from the office he held.

  • Paul D

    Because without the Union, there was no policy the Union could pursue.

  • What about his insistence that he would take the action necessary to maintain the Union whether it meant granting or not granting freedom to the slaves? This doesn’t appear to be mere literary device.

  • Thanks, Michael. Yes that would be the case. Is this conveyed elsewhere in Lincoln’s own writings?

  • Pingback: August 20, 1862 « The Late Great Unpleasantness
  • “This doesn’t appear to be mere literary device.”

    It wasn’t. Lincoln was stating that his goal was the preservation of the Union, and what he did about slavery was in furtherance of that goal. Lincoln had decided by the time that he wrote the letter that preserving the Union required the ending of slavery although he had not yet obtained the victory necessary to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. His personal preference to end slavery instantly had to take a back seat to his duty as President as he perceived that duty.

  • “Is this conveyed elsewhere in Lincoln’s own writings”

    Lincoln in his House Divided Speech of June 16, 1858 outlined his belief that if the Union was preserved slavery could be placed in the path of ultimate extinction:

    “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

    I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

    I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

    It will become all one thing or all the other.

    Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”

  • Thank you, Don for providing those quotes and more reference/context.