Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley

Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley


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(New York University Press, 2006)
The relationship between Horace Greeley and Abraham Lincoln was problematic long before the Illinois lawyer was elected President. Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: “The course of Greeley’s opinion and treatment of Lincoln was peculiar and tortuous.”1 Greeley failed to appreciate the steadiness of the course President Lincoln pursued. “Horace Greeley was a notorious gadfly,” wrote Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson. “At every turn of events, Greeley could be counted on for emphatic pronouncements about what was needed and what must be done.”2

Greeley’s status as editor of the New York Tribune, which he founded in 1841, gave him national influence that even President Lincoln could not afford to ignore. As biographer Robert C. Williams noted: ‘As editor of the influential and widely read New York Tribune in the decades before the Civil War, Greeley’s words helped to add fuel to the fires of slavery and sectionalism that divided North and South. His newspaper had a larger circulation than any other newspaper in the world by 1860.” 3 An eccentric social reformer and erratic political tactician, Greeley pushed Illinois Republicans to back Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas for reelection in 1858.

Although an early New York ally of Whig leaders Thurlow Weed and William Seward, Greeley became their implacable foe. Greeley was passionate and impatient. He was known as a strong opponent of slavery, a knowledgeable expert on the protective tariff, and a strong proponent of western expansion. He served briefly in Congress in 1848, winning strong enmity from his colleagues from the Tribune’s series exposing expense account padding. Biographer Robert C. Williams noted that Greeley “showed that Congressman Lincoln had traveled 780 miles from Springfield, Illinois, but had charged the public weal for $1,300.80 when the actual charge should have been $676.80. He calculated that overall Congress had charged the public an excess of $62, 105.20 for that session, a considerable sum of money.”4 Greeley biographer Ralph R. Fahrney wrote that mentor William H. Seward concluded that Congressman Greeley “was ‘trying to reform Congress all at once,’ and he confided to Thurlow Weed that their obstreperous prótége was ‘doing himself most ungracious service.”5

Unlike Mr. Lincoln, young Greeley had a good education, although the New Hampshire native’s parents refused an offer to send him to Phillips Academy. Greeley biographer Harlan Hoyt Horner wrote: “Zaccheus Greeley, the father of Horace, was not unlike Thomas Lincoln. He was honest and inoffensive, and it would seem, more disposed to hard work than Thomas Lincoln.” 6 Horner wrote: “Getting on in the world constituted a continuing process in the adult education of Lincoln and Greeley. They each sought a ‘sphere and vocation’ quite different from what their forebears had know.”7 Like Mr. Lincoln, Greeley neither drank nor smoked. Like Mr. Lincoln, his appearance was somewhat strange with his smooth shaven faced trimmed with hair. Like Mr. Lincoln he tended to be somewhat careless in his appearance. Like Mr. Lincoln, he had a difficult marriage. “Mary Cheney was even more eccentric than Mary Todd, and Greeley never had a home which attracted or held him,” wrote Greeley biographer Harlan Hoyt Horner.8 Unlike Mr. Lincoln who did not settle on the law as his profession until his mid-20s, Greeley had been apprenticed to a printer at age 15. Horner wrote that “Greeley was quite like Lincoln in his desire to express his thoughts in speech and writing in plain language.”9 Unlike Mr. Lincoln, Greeley used language like a hammer while Mr. Lincoln used it like a scalpel.

The two men met when both served their sole terms in Congress. Greeley biographer Robert C. Williams noted: “The Congressional Globe mentioned Abraham Lincoln eleven times during this session; it mentioned Greeley seventy-one times. But Greeley and Lincoln had become friends and allies for the first, but not last, time. They voted the same way on bills ninety-five times, and voted differently forty-nine times.”10 Greeley recalled: “I first met Mr. LINCOLN late in 1848 at Washington, as a representative in the Thirtieth Congress, the only one to which he was ever elected. His was, as apportioned under the census of 1840, a Whig district; and he was elected from it in 1846 by the largest majority it ever gave any one. He was then not quite forty years old; a genial, cheerful, rather comely man, noticeably tall, and the only Whig from Illinois, not remarkable otherwise, to the best of my recollection. He was generally liked on our side of the House; he made two or three moderate and sensible speeches which attracted little attention; he voted generally to forbid the introduction of slavery into the still untainted Territories; but he did not vote for Mr. Galt’s Daniel Gott’s resolve looking to the immediate abolition of slavery in the Federal District, being deterred by the somewhat fiery preamble thereto.”11 Greeley added that “I judge that no other on the Whig side of the House was more generally liked and esteemed than he. And yet had each of us been required to name the man among us who would first attain the Presidency, I doubt whether five of us would have designated Abraham LINCOLN.”12

Both men were dedicate to liberty. Greeley “believed that the transformation of liberty for some into freedom for all was essential if the American republic was to be saved,” wrote biographer Williams. 13 He noted that Greeley and Lincoln “shared a Whig interpretation of politics and economics, a love of Henry Clay, an enthusiasm for the new Republican Party, an antipathy to slavery, and a commitment to freedom.” 14 Lincoln and Greeley “held very similar views on slavery for two decades before the Civil War. From their earliest recollections they believed slavery wrong, abhorred it, and hoped for its ultimate extinction,” wrote Hoyt. “They were not abolitionists, however. They believed in the reign of law and the mandates of the Constitution. They long nourished the hope of compensated emancipation and, with Henry Clay, contemplated colonization. They were opposed to violence and ready to defend the rights of slavery where it existed under law. They found the Fugitive Slave Law distasteful but still believed it should be enforced with other laws. They were stubbornly against the extension of slavery: Greeley always and Lincoln gradually and finally with equal vigor. They were stirred as never before in their lives by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and labored valiantly against the principle involved in it. They regarded the Dred Scott decision as fundamental unsound, were not held by it in political action, and argued with clear conscience for its reversal under law. They favored the Wilmot Proviso, sympathized with ‘bleeding’ Kansas, and opposed and condemned the Lecompton Constitution. They believe John Brown a mad man and at no time sought the overthrow of slavery through violence. Broadly speaking, it may be said, as the crisis approached, that Lincoln and Greeley held substantially the same views on the slavery issue with one notable exception.”15

The two former Whigs came into conflict in 1858 when Greeley was the leader in a movement among some Eastern Republicans to endorse Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas for reelection in Illinois. Historian Allen Johnson wrote: “On at least two occasions, Greeley was in conference with Senator Douglas at the latter’s residence. To the gossiping public this was evidence enough that the rumor was correct. And it may well be that Douglas dallied with the hope that a great Constitutional Union party might be formed. But he could hardly have received much encouragement from the Republicans, with whom he was consorting, for so far from losing their political identity, they calculated upon bringing him eventually within the Republican fold.” 16 But noted Greeley biographer Robert C. Williams, “Greeley’s consistent strategy that year was to divide the Democrats by backing an anti-Lecompton man who had broken with his party and his president, which would help elect a Republican president in 1860.”17

Greeley’s behavior aggravated Douglas’s likely Republican opponent in Illinois. One morning, Mr. Lincoln told law partner William H. Herndon: “I think Greeley is not doing me right. His conduct, I believe, savors a little of injustice. I am a true Republican and have been tried already in the hottest part of the anti-slavery fight, and yet I find him taking up Douglas, a veritable dodger, one a tool of the South, now its enemy, and pushing him to the front. He forgets that when he does that he pulls me down at the same time. I fear Greeley’s attitude will damage me with Sumner, Seward, Wilson, Phillips and other friends in the East.”18

This antipathy on Greeley’s part so vexed Mr. Lincoln that Herndon traveled east to dampen this movement. After meeting with Greeley, Herndon reported that Greeley had said: “Douglas is a brave man. Forget the past, and sustain the righteous?” Herndon wrote to Mr. Lincoln from Boston: “I saw Greeley, and so far as any of our conversation is interesting you I will relate. And we talked, say twenty minutes. He evidently wants Douglas sustained and sent back to the Senate. He did not say so in so many words, yet his feelings are with Douglas. I know it from the spirit and drift of his conversation. He talked bitterly, somewhat so, against the papers in Illinois, and said they were fools. I asked him this question, ‘Greeley, do you want to see a third party organized, or do you want Douglas to ride to power through the North, which has so much abused and betrayed?’ and to which he replied, ‘Let the future alone; it will all come right. Douglas is a brave man. Forget the past and sustain the righteous.’ Good God, righteous eh!”19

Illinois Republicans refused, however, to concede the election to Douglas. In a virtually unprecedented move, they endorsed Abraham Lincoln at their convention in Springfield in June 1858. “Faced with such obstinacy, even Greeley beat a partial retreat. Not, however, before he had profoundly alienated Illinois Republicans who pinned on him much of the responsibility for Lincoln’s defeat,” wrote historian Richard H. Sewell. “Bitterness bred paranoia, and some, including Herndon, muttered that Lincoln had fallen victim to a conspiracy. Greeley and Seward, it was widely rumored, had agreed to help Douglas in his senatorial campaign in exchange for the Little Giant’s continued opposition to Lecompton and, perhaps, a boost for Seward’s presidential hopes in 1860.” 20 William H. Herndon complained after the 1858 election: “Greeley never gave us one single, solitary, manly lift. On the contrary, his silence was his opposition. This our people felt. We never got a smile or a word of encouragement outside of Illinois from any quarter during all this great canvass. The East was for Douglas by silence.”21

Mr. Lincoln did not want to believe what he heard about Douglas and Greeley, but was gratified to know what the facts were. In December 1859, Mr. Lincoln wrote Illinois Congressman William Kellogg: “I have been a good deal relieved this morning by a sight of Greeley’s letter to you, published in the Tribune. Before seeing it, I much feared you had, in charging interviews between Douglas & Greeley, stated what you believed, but did not certainly know to be true; and that it might be untrue, and our enemies would get an advantage of you. However, as G. admits the interviews, I think it will not hurt you that he denies conversing with D. about his re-election to the Senate. G. I think, will not tell a falsehood; and I think he will scarcely deny that he had the interviews with D. in order to assure himself from D’s own lips, better than he could from his public acts & declarations, whether to try to bring the Republican party to his support generally, including his re-election to the Senate. What else could the interviews be for? Why immediately followed in the Tribune the advice that all anti-Lecompton democrats should be re-elected? The world will not consider it any thing that D’s reelection to the Senate was not specifically talked of by him & G.

“Now, mark, I do not charge that G. was corrupt in this. I do not think he was, or is. It was his judgement that the course he took was the best way of serving the Republican cause. For this reason, and for the further reason, that he is now pulling straight with us, I think, if I were you, I would not pursue him further than necessary to my own justification. If I were you I would however be greatly tempted to ask him if he really thinks D.’s advice to his friends to vote for a Lecompton & Slave code man, is very ‘plucky'”22

Greeley himself conceded that Mr. Lincoln’s performance in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and narrow loss to Douglas in the state legislature had raised his national stature: “Lincoln it was said was beaten; it was a hasty, erring judgment. This canvass made him stronger at home, stronger with the Republicans of the whole country, and when the next national convention of his party assembled, eighteen months thereafter, he became its nominee for President, and thus achieved the highest station in the gift of his country, which but for that misjudged feat of 1858 he would never have attained.” 23 But Greeley continued to be concerned about Republican prospects for the 1860 presidential election. Biographer Ralph R. Fahrney wrote: “In April, 1859, Greeley still lacked faith that the anti-slavery men of the country had ‘either the numbers or the sagacity required to make a President.'” Greeley “confided to a friend: ‘An Anti-Slavery man per se cannot be elected; but a tariff, River and Harbor, Pacific Railroad, Free Homestead man may succeed. I wish the country were more anti-slavery than it is; as it is, I hope to have as good a candidate as the majority will elect.'” 24 Biographer Robert C. Williams noted that “Greeley and Lincoln approached the problem of slavery and Union from two different angles. Greeley wanted slavery to disappear, even at the cost of the Union. Lincoln wanted the Union to survive, whether or not slavery was eliminated. Both preferred a Union without slavery.”25

Inadvertently, Greeley helped secure for Mr. Lincoln the Republican nomination for President in 1860. But he did so not because he was helping Mr. Lincoln, but because he was redressing an old political slight to Greeley by New York Senator William H. Seward and Seward’s top political ally, Thurlow Weed. Several years before, they had denied him the Whig nomination for statewide office and Greeley had not forgiven them for their ingratitude for his past services. “Mr. Greeley was an ill-balanced man. He was great, partly because and partly in spite of his eccentricities. He was, on most occasions, extremely inopportune,” wrote journalist Isaac Hill Bromley, “In the present conjuncture of circumstances by the logic of all his political teaching, and his whole life, he should have been for Seward. Seward stood for conscientious conviction, sturdy adherence to principle, and uncompromising hostility to the aggressions of the slave power. The Tribune stood for that too, and the Tribune was Greeley.”26

At the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Greeley was a celebrity. “He is surrounded by a crowd where he goes, who besiege him for a speech, and failing in that, seduce him into a conversation, which inevitably becomes a speech ‘ere he closes,” reported the Springfield Daily Republican. 27 To the consternation of Seward backers in New York, Greeley backed Missouri attorney Edward Bates because he was “the safest nomination for us to make. He is a very able man and he comes from a section that we ought to have with us.” When one delegate asked why Greeley didn’t support Abraham Lincoln instead, he said that the Illinois lawyer “is a very adroit politician. He has a host of friends out here in Illinois who seem to see something in him that the rest of us haven’t seen yet. He has a very interesting history that would make good campaign literature, but the trouble with Lincoln is this: he has had no experience in national affairs, and facing a crisis as we all believe, I doubt if such a nomination would be acceptable. It is too risky an undertaking. I think Bates would be safer.”28

“I have always thought that Mr. Lincoln was more indebted to Mr. David Dudley Field for his nomination for the Presidency at Chicago in 1860, than to any other one man,” later claimed James A. Briggs, who helped to bring Mr. Lincoln to New York for the Cooper Union speech in February 1860. “I was at the Tremont House, with Mr. Field, Mr. Greeley, Mr. George Opdyke, and Mr. Hiram Barney. The night before the nomination, about midnight, Mr. Greeley came into Mr. Field’s room, and threw himself down with a feeling of despair, and said ‘All is lost; we are beaten.”29

“To Mr. Greeley’s cry ‘All is lost!’ Mr. Field replied ‘No, all is not lost! Let us up and go to work!’ His energetic voice and manner seemed to inspire Mr. Greeley with new life, and both immediately went out to renew the struggle,” Briggs later contended. “Mr. Field particularly worked with a determined will and resolute purpose that seemed to know no such word as fail. He went from delegation to delegation, and as he was from New York, Mr. Seward’s own State, and yet was opposed to his nomination, he had great influence in turning the tide of feeling in favor of Mr. Lincoln. Before morning they returned in high spirits, when Mr. Field said: ‘The work is done! Mr. Lincoln will be nominated!’ Mr. Greeley seemed equally confident, a confidence which was justified by the event. But it was in those midnight hours that the work was done.” 30 Many Seward backers, especially New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond, blamed Greeley for Seward loss of the nomination.

Ever mercurial, Greeley rejoiced in Mr. Lincoln’s election that fall but worried that southern states should be allowed to secede. Greeley even thought that secession might not be a bad idea. Historian James G. Randall wrote that “the atmosphere in government circles in Washington under Lincoln as well as under Buchanan was far from belligerent toward the South; indeed a number of Northerners seemed to think that the erring states should go in peace. This attitude is usually associated with Greeley, or rather Greeley in one of his moods, but it was by no means confined to him.” 31 Meanwhile in early 1861, Greeley’s political ambitions were again thwarted. This time he was deprived of the 1861 nomination to succeed Senator William H. Seward by Thurlow Weed’s machinations in Albany legislature. During this transition period before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, Greeley found time to visit with Mr. Lincoln once in Springfield and twice on Mr. Lincoln’s train to Washington.

Greeley continued to have grave doubts about the suitability of Mr. Lincoln to the crisis faced by the nation. “Mr. Lincoln entered Washington the victim of a grave delusion,” wrote Greeley after the Civil War. “A genial, quiet, essentially peaceful man, trained in the ways of the bar and the stump, he fully believed that there would be no civil war – no serious effort to consummate disunion. His faith in reason as a moral force was so implicit that he did not cherish a doubt that his Inaugural Address, whereon he had bestowed much though and labor, would, when read, throughout the South, dissolve the Confederacy as frost is dissipated by the vernal sun.”32

Along with other anti-Seward Republicans based in New York City, Greeley helped develop a rival faction to the dominant Seward-Weed group. “The Civil War gave a tone to New York politics. Beginning with 1861, the political situation in this State during the war presents two main features, both existing in the shape of tendencies before that date but after it becoming well marked and almost universal characteristics,” wrote historian Sidney David Brummer. “In the first place, state politics turned exclusively on national questions, while administrative matters of a more local nature, such as had formerly caused political divisions, quite disappeared as subjects of partisan alignment. Secondly, the opposition to Thurlow Weed, led by Greeley, grew into a strong faction; the struggle between the Weed and Greeley adherents continually gave color to events within the Republican party and its successor on the Union party within the State; and in this contest, the opposing ranks developed into radical wings.”33

Greeley himself developed his share of critics. His newspaper pushed for quick Union action against the South. Greeley wrote President Lincoln in May 1861: “The intelligence that the War for the Union is to be prosecuted with emphatic vigor, and that the traitors are to be thrown back from Washington in every direction causes general rejoicing here. We feel that the struggle thus prosecuted, cannot be of long duration. All are confident that the result will justify our fondest hopes.” 34 Greeley was blamed when the Tribune’s “On to Richmond” campaign led to Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Greeley was temporarily flustered by the reverse but soon returned to his vigorous advocacy of his opinions.

After Bull Run, Greeley was worried but not silenced. Historian Lloyd A. Dunlap wrote: “As a leading editor of his time Horace Greeley possessed an influence which he seldom hesitated to use whenever the welfare of mankind, the United States, or the Republican party seemed to be endangered. Amplified by the subscription lists of the New York Tribune, in its daily, weekly, and semi-weekly editions, his shrill voice was raised frequently and with authority on a variety of subjects. His crusading instincts, often coupled with a strong conviction of his own infallibility, carried his editorializing from the pages of the Tribune to his private correspondence” with Abraham Lincoln. 283 Greeley was liberal with his advice and criticism. He was also very concerned about the distribution of Lincoln Administration patronage in New York. Greeley biographer Ralph R. Fahrney wrote: “The salient feature of the Greeley military creed – adhered to with unfaltering persistency throughout the entire war – was the efficient utilization by the North of a decided numerical superiority. During the Peninsular campaign in 1862, the government was urged to reenforce McClellan so ‘largely and rapidly as to paralyze the energies of the Rebel masses by rendering further resistance hopeless.”35

Greeley continued to grumble in print about the Lincoln Administration and occasionally grumbled in person to the Lincoln Administration. In January 1862, Greeley came to Washington to give a lecture at the Smithsonian Administration in which he criticized the Lincoln Administration as the President sat nearby. Lincoln aide John Hay reported: “Horace Greeley, who has come down here apparently to marshal the hosts of the grumblers for the fray, is a different style of man. No man denies his honesty, no man questions his disinterestedness. He is not a candidate for any office within the gift of the people or President. He grumbles because he is an honest old fanatic, and does not agree with the Administration; and all honest people honor him for his integrity, though they may differ by a world’s width from his views.” 36 Congressman George Julian recalled that “Mr. Lincoln listened to and very greatly admired the Greeley address. I sat by his side, and at the conclusion of the discourse he said to me: “That address is full of good thoughts, and I would like to take the manuscript home with me and carefully read it over some Sunday.'”37

President Lincoln endeavored to ingratiate himself to Greeley. John Gilmore acted as an intermediary between President Lincoln and Greeley attempting to pass along information. In early August 1862, Gilmore had an interview with President Lincoln. “I infer from the recent tone of the Tribune that you are not always able to keep Brother Greeley in the traces,” Lincoln said to Gilmore. The intermediary said that Greeley was upset about “what he regards as the useless destruction of life and property, and especially your neglect to make a direct attack upon slavery.” When Gilmore suggested that Greeley was working on an editorial attack, President Lincoln asked: “Why does he not come here and have a talk with me?” Greeley himself wrote the President that he was concerned that a Washington visit to see the President would cause “further mischief.”38

Greeley biographer Ralph R. Fahrney wrote: “The views of Greeley on slavery were not greatly different from those of Lincoln. He detested the institution, had helped formulate that plan in the Republican platform which denounced its further spread over the territories, and anticipated ultimate emancipation as the only means of extirpating a national disgrace and putting forever at rest a troublesome and vexatious question. But he also recognized the demands of expediency which slightly modified his attitude toward immediate abolition and prevented collaboration with the most extreme wing of the radicals.” 39 Congressman George W. Julian differed: “During the progress of the war, President Lincoln and Mr. Greeley had some radical difference of opinion about its prosecution and the duty of the government in dealing with the question of slavery; but he had, I know, the most profound personal respect for Mr. Greeley, and placed the highest estimate upon his services as an independent writer and thinker.” 40 On August 20,1862, Greeley released an open letter to Mr. Lincoln, “A Prayer of Twenty Millions,” in which he urged immediate emancipation of southern slaves. Greeley wrote:

“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 the Rebellion would therein have received a staggering if not fatal blow. At that moment, according to the returns of the most recent elections, the Unionists were a large majority of the voters of the Slave States. But they were composed in good part of the aged, the feeble, the wealthy, the timid, the young, the reckless, the aspiring, the adventurous, had already been largely lured by the gamblers and negro-traders, the politicians by trade and the conspirators by instinct, into the toils of Treason. Had you then proclaimed that Rebellion would strike the shackles from the slaves of every traitor, the wealthy and the cautious would have been supplied with a powerful inducement to remain loyal. As it was, every coward in the South soon became a traitor from fear; for Loyalty was perilous, while Treason seemed comparatively safe. Hence the boasted unanimity of the South a unanimity based on Rebel terrorism and the fact that immunity and safety were found on that side, danger and probable death on ours. The Rebels from the first have been eager to confiscate, imprison, scourge and kill: we have fought wolves with the devices of sheep. The result is just what might have been expected. Tens of thousands are fighting in the Rebel ranks to-day whose, original bias and natural leanings would have led them into ours.”

Mr. Lincoln wrote his reply for the National Intelligencer in Washington: “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 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.”41

Greeley biographer Ralph R. Fahrney wrote: “The pronouncement was widely read, and the simple, direct manner of presenting the issue exerted a great influence on the public mind. The Tribune countered with the familiar charge of failure to execute the laws, but to little purpose. The complaint voiced later that Lincoln had side-stepped the problem immediately at hand and merely used the ‘Prayer’ as an excuse for expounding public policy, was doubtless not far from the truth, but no so apparent to the average Northerner. The impatient radicals had been temporarily thrust aside and the administration permitted to continue on its way.” 42 And, President Lincoln had begun to pave the way for the Emancipation Proclamation by appearing to conciliate northern conservatives.

President Lincoln’s choice of newspaper in which to print his reply to Greeley was curious. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “Although pro-Union, the National Intelligencer was not a staunch supporter of the president, and it was decidedly unfriendly to the idea of emancipation. Placing his unprecedented public letter in this newspaper was thus something of a defiant gesture toward Greeley, inviting the implication that Lincoln’s position on emancipation would be more welcomed by status quo conservatives than by radicals and abolitionists.” 43 Greeley himself wrote that he thought “that Mr. Lincoln’s letter had been prepared before he ever saw my ‘Prayer,’ and that this was merely used by him as an opportunity, an occasion, an excuse, for setting his own altered position changed not by his volition, but by circumstances fairly before the country.” 44 Ohio journalist Whitelaw Reid wrote: “So novel a thing as a newspaper correspondence between the President and an editor excites great attention. Mr. Lincoln does so many original things that everybody had ceased to be surprised at him, and hence the violation of precedent in this matter did not provoke so much comment as might be expected.” 45 Greeley himself wrote privately: “As to Old Abe’s letter, I consider it a sign of progress. I have no doubt the Nation will get on the right ground at last; I only fear it will get under the ground previously. It is time to fight with both hands now.” 46

Greeley was gratified by issue of the Draft Emancipation Proclamation a month after the exception of letters between himself and President Lincoln. Several years after President Lincoln’s murder, Greeley recalled: “I did not see the President between the issue of his first and that of his second Proclamation of Freedom in fact, not from January, 1862, till about February 1, 1863. He then spoke of the Emancipation policy as not having yet effected so much good here at home as had been promised or predicted, but added that it had helped us decidedly in our foreign relations. He intimated no regret that it had been adopted, and, I presume, never felt any. In fact, as he was habitually and constitutionally cautious as to making advances, he seldom or never felt impelled or required to take a step backward. Never putting down his foot till he felt sure there was firm ground beneath it, he never feared to lay his whole weight on it when once fairly down. And, having committed himself to the policy of Emancipation, he proclaimed and justified it in letters to sympathizing British workmen, and to friends and foes on every side. His proposal of gradual and compensated Emancipation in the loyal slave States and districts, his postponed but hearty sanction of the enlistment of black soldiers, and his persistent and thorough recognition and assertion of the Inalienable Rights of Man, were links in one chain which he wove skillfully, if not nimbly, around the writhing form of the over-mastered, fainting Rebellion.”47

“The Emancipation Proclamation and the ‘Prayer of Twenty Millions’ brought Lincoln and Greeley closer together on the war effort. Holding the country together and freeing the slaves were now parts of a single campaign. But Greeley would remained a nuisance for Lincoln, even as the two men cooperated,” wrote biographer Williams.48 Greeley, however, searched for an alternative Republican candidate to replace President Lincoln. During 1864, Greeley fluctuated in the support he gave for President Lincoln’s reelection. After the publication of President Lincoln’s letter to Kentucky editor Albert Hodges in April 1864, President Lincoln “seemed rather gratified that the Tribune was in the main inspired by a kindly spirit in its criticism.” Lincoln aide John Hay recorded in his diary that President Lincoln pulled out for him a letter to him from July 29, 1861. President Lincoln said: “This most remarkable letter still retains for me its wonderful interest as the most insane specimen of pusillanimity that I have ever read. When I had finished reading Nicolay said ‘That wd be nuts to the Herald. Herald editor James Gordon Bennett wd. willingly give $10,000.00 for that.’ To which the Prest., tying the red tape round the package, answered ‘I need $10,000 very much he could not have it for many times that.'”49

Artist Francis B. Carpenter wrote about the painting of the Emancipation Proclamation on which he was working at the White House: “About the first of June (1864) I received a call from the Hon. Horace Greeley, who was temporarily in Washington. Very near-sighted, his comments upon my work, then about half completed, were not particularly gratifying. He though the steel likenesses in his book, ‘The American Conflict,’ were much better. I called his attention, among other points, to a newspaper introduced in the foreground of the picture, ‘symbolizing,’ I said, ‘the agency of the ‘Press’ in bringing about Emancipation;” stating at the same time, that this accessory was studied from a copy of the ‘Tribune.’ Upon this his face relaxed; ‘I would not object,’ said he, ‘to your putting in my letter to the President on that subject.”

“Knowing that he had not been friendly to the renomination of Mr. Lincoln, it occurred to me, in my simplicity, that if I could bring them together, an interview might result in clearing up what was, perhaps, a mutual misunderstanding of relative positions, though I had never known Mr. Lincoln to mention the name of the editor of the ‘Tribune,’ otherwise than with profound respect. Leaving my visitor in front of the picture, I went to the President’s office to inform him of the presence of Mr. G. in the house, thinking that he might deem it best, under the circumstances, to receive him below stairs. In this, however, I ‘reckoned without my host.’ He looked up quickly, as I mentioned the name, but recovering himself, said, ‘with unusual blandness: ‘Please say to Mr. Greeley that I shall be very happy to see him, at his leisure.”50

Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr. wrote: “The Tribune lapsed into the patterns of two-party journalistic hostility in the summer of 1864, after the Lincoln administration had briefly seized the offices of two other New York newspapers, the Journal of Commerce and the World, both of which were Democratic. The Tribune later laid claim to intercession with the administration to restore the newspapers to their owners and operators, but the dispute between the maligned newspapers and the government led later in the summer to a suit in court against the army officer, General John A. Dix, who had seized the Papers, and the Tribune at that time published a long ‘Argument of an Amicus Curiae’ in General Dix’s behalf. The anonymous article justified the suspension of the opposition newspaper ‘by the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in a military district, in time of actual war.’ The article pointed out that only a year before, New York City had seen all authority overthrown by a mob from which the rebels had hoped for aid and comfort.” 51

Mr. Lincoln knew how difficult it was to influence or control the Tribune editor. That July, Greeley prompted the Lincoln Administration to respond to some unauthorized and ill-fated peace negotiations near Niagara Falls. President Lincoln was very leery of the authenticity of the supposed Confederate commissioners and leery as well about Greeley’s involvement. Publicity surrounding the aborted negotiations reflected badly on both President Lincoln editor Greeley. Union chaplain John Eaton wrote that President Lincoln “told me of his motive in sending Mr. Greeley to deal with Mr. Thompson, ex-Secretary of the Interior, and at that time agent for the Confederacy in Canada. Nothing resulted from Mr. Greeley’s mission, nor had Mr. Lincoln expected that anything would result, but it gave Mr. Greeley certain definite and vivid ideas of the difficulties of practical politics.” 52 Iowa Senator James Harlan reported that President Lincoln told him: “Greeley kept abusing me for not entering into peace negotiations. He said he believed we could have peace if I would do my part, and when he began to urge that I send an ambassador to Niagara to meet Confederate emissaries, I just thought I would let him go up and crack that nut for himself.”53

President Lincoln knew that he had put Greeley on the spot by insisting that he take a personal role in the negotiations, but he did not desire to have a prolonged conflict with Greeley over their failure, even though the rival New York Times wanted to publish their letters. President Lincoln conditionally authorized publication of the correspondence on peace negotiations, writing Greeley: “With the suppression of a few passages in your letters, in regard to which I think you and I would not disagree, I should be glad of the publication. Please come over and see me.”54 Greeley responded:

“I have no desire whatever to have our correspondence published, nor any preference that it should not be; but the call for its publication in The Times was imperative, and seemed to be one that would not be so made without your sanction, and left me no options but to acquiesce. And now, if you will indicate any portions of my letters that you think should be suppressed, I will gladly assent presuming, of course, that they do not bear on the question that The Times has made on me.”
“I would very gladly go to Washington to see you, and will probably do so soon; but now I fear that my bitterest personal enemies are close around you, and that my going would only result in farther mischief, as at Niagara. I will gladly go wherever I feel a hope that their influence has fallen waned.”
“Mr. President, hear me for five minutes; for I may not be encouraged to trouble you again. You were fearfully misled when you refused to let A. H. Stephens (as you and I know him) to come to Washington last year. And the day after the news of Vicksburg’s surrender, you should have sent to Richmond, if necessary, proffering terms of pacification, and begging the Rebel chief no longer to prosecute this murderous fray. When the Democrats in Congress last Winter moved that a commission be sent to Richmond to negotiate for peace, you should have taken them at their word and sent the three biggest of them as Commissioners forthwith to see what kind of Peace they could get. What I think of Niagara, you already know. Let the past go; but I entreat you to find means to open negotiations for Peace forthwith. Do not let this month pass without an earnest effort for Peace.”
“If you shall ever be in the way of seeking the shortest road to negotiation for Peace, I shall be very glad to come to Washington, until then, knowing who are nearest you, it seems to me hopeless to do any thing whatever.”55

Journalist Noah Brooks wrote of the correspondence: “When I saw it last summer it was printed entire and was in Greeley’s hands, with full consent to print, but he said that though he was willing to publish it, others might not be, and he was not sure that all of the correspondence would be accessible to him. So much for his honesty; so, though he may now say that he is willing that it shall be published, the President knows that he is not willing if so, why don’t he print it in the Tribune? The President said then that he would leave the whole matter in the hands of Mr. Greeley, and he will probably say so now.”56

President Lincoln knew better than to get into a public quarrel with Greeley. Responding to suggestions that he contradict Greeley’s allegations about the peace negotiations, Mr. Lincoln reportedly said: “Yes, all the newspapers will publish my letter, and so will Greeley. The next day he will take a line and comment upon it, and he will keep it up, in that way, until, at the end of three weeks, I will be convicted out of my own mouth of all the things which he charges against me. No man, whether he be private citizen or President of the United States, can successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper, and escape destruction, unless he owns a newspaper equally great, with a circulation in the same neighborhood.” 57

President Lincoln’s frustration with Greeley showed in private conversation. After the failure to agree over publication of their letters, President Lincoln told an August 19 cabinet meeting: “In early life, and with few mechanics and but little means in the West, we used to make our shoes last a great while with much mending, and sometimes, when far gone, we found the leather so rotten the stitches would not hold. Greeley is so rotten that nothing can be done with him. He is not truthful; the stitches all tear out.”58

Greeley sided with a New York-based group of Republicans who wanted to replace Mr. Lincoln on the Republican ticket in August 1864. He changed his mind in early September after the Democrats nominated General George B. McClellan for President but endorsed a peace platform as well. Greeley biographer Williams noted: “In August, he predicted a Lincoln defeat in November, favoring Grant, Butler, or Sherman as the best candidate.”59

Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “On September 6 the New York Tribune unequivocally endorsed Lincoln’s reelection in an editorial universally attributed to Greeley, but actually written by Sydney Gay.” 60 Historian Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “With McClellan’s nomination, the Tribune perked up and began denouncing the hapless general as definitely inferior to Lincoln and a docile tool of the Slave Power to boot. Atlanta raised Greeley’s spirits immensely, even though he tried to make Lincoln believe that it would force a disaster,’ if it were not immediately followed by generous offers of peace reunion. The Tribune gleefully recounted how, on the morning that the fall of the rebel citadel became known, one McClellan man had said to another on the Wall Street ferry ‘Well, we will elect Little Mac in spite of all the victories!’ This imputation of Democratic disloyalty was followed by a skillful defense of Greeley’s springtime zeal for postponing the Republican national convention, and by a loud hurrah for Old Abe and for the Baltimoreplatform.” 61 By September 19, Greeley was writing Lincoln aide John Nicolay to complain the Lincoln campaign: “The McClellanites are very active and strong here, working and pushing night and day, while our people are. engaged in squabbles about paltry offices”.62

Greeley last saw President Lincoln in March 1865. Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “On some matter of no moment Greeley had a brief interview with Lincoln in early March and had a feeling Lincoln was worn down to his last physical reserves. ‘His face was haggard with care and seamed with thought and trouble. It looked care-ploughed, tempest-tossed and weather-beaten.'”63

Greeley, who had penned a devastating critique of President Lincoln to run in the Tribune the morning after his assassination, was always ambivalent about Mr. Lincoln. Despite their similar goals, Greeley was never confident in Mr. Lincoln’s abilities. Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: “Greeley’s opinion of Lincoln may be summed up as an excellent expression of the unreasonable, discontented complaint of a large number of patriotic and devoted citizens who did not know at any time what the real purposes and abilities of Lincoln were. It was not until Lincoln had been dead for several years that Greeley attained any real conception of his power, and then it was not without the old erratic bias.”64

President Lincoln told Indiana Democratic politician Joseph McDonald: “In some respects Mr. Greeley is a great man, but in many others he is a wanting in common sense, I am well satisfied with his good faith. And gentlemen, I tell you, there has never been a time since the war began when I was not willing to stop it if I could do so and preserve the Union, and earlier in the war I would have omitted some of the conditions of my note to the rebel commissioners, but I had become satisfied that no lasting peace could be built up between the states in some of which there were free and in others, slave institutions, and, therefore, I made the recognition of the abolition of slavery a sine qua non.”65

More on the Author

is Vail Professor of History Emeritus at Davidson College. He has written Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy and Russian Art and American Money, 1900-1940.


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions, p. 64.
  2. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 148.
  3. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 1.
  4. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 115.
  5. Ralph R.Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War, p. 16.
  6. Harlan Hoyt Horner, Lincoln and Greeley, p. 18.
  7. Harlan Hoyt Horner, Lincoln and Greeley, p. 26.
  8. Harlan Hoyt Horner, Lincoln and Greeley, p. 30.
  9. Harlan Hoyt Horner, Lincoln and Greeley, p. 24.
  10. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 115.
  11. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 442 (Horace Greeley, Century Magazine, July 1891)
  12. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, (Horace Greeley, Century Magazine), July 1891, p. 443.
  13. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 5.
  14. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 197.
  15. Harlan Hoyt Horner, Lincoln and Greeley, p. 106.
  16. Allen Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas, pp. 348-349.
  17. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, pp. 195-196.
  18. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, pp. 319-320.
  19. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln,, pp. 322-323 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Abraham Lincoln, March 24, 1858).
  20. Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860, p. 348.
  21. Saul Sigelschaffer, The American Conscience: The Drama of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, p. 386.
  22. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, pp. 506-507 (Letter to William Kellogg, December 11. 1859).
  23. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 446 (Horace Greeley, Century Magazine, July 1891).
  24. Ralph R. Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War, p. 31.
  25. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 211.
  26. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 279 (Isaac Hill Bromley, Scribner’s Magazine, November 1893).
  27. Melvin L. Hayes, Mr. Lincoln Runs for President,(Springfield, Massachusetts Daily Republican), p. 42.
  28. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 206 (Andrew G. Proctor, address to Chicago Historical Society, April 4, 1918).
  29. Henry M. Field, The Life of David Dudley Field, p. 136.
  30. Henry M. Field, The Life of David Dudley Field, pp. 137-138.
  31. James G. Randall, Lincoln the Liberal Statesman, p. 96.
  32. Horace Greeley, Recollections of a Busy Life, p. 404.
  33. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, pp. 442-443.
  34. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Horace Greeley to Abraham Lincoln, May 19, 1861).
  35. Ralph R. Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War, p. 100.
  36. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press 1860-1864, pp. 188-189,(January 6, 1862).
  37. Allen Thorndike Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, p. 240 (Congressman George Julian)
  38. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press,(Robert Todd Lincoln Collection), p. 312.
  39. Ralph R. Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War, p. 111.
  40. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,(George W. Julian), p. 60.
  41. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, pp. 388-389 (Reply to Prayer of Twenty Millions, August 22, 1862) .
  42. Ralph R. Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War, pp. 128-129.
  43. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 151.
  44. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words,p. 159-160 (Horace Greeley, “Greeley’s Estimate of Lincoln: An Unpublished Address by Horace Greeley,” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, July 1891, p. 380).
  45. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words,(Whitelaw Reid, A Radical View, p. 215), p. 150.
  46. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 234.
  47. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends,(Horace Greeley, Century Magazine), July 1891, p. 456.
  48. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 236.
  49. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, April 30, 1864, p. 193.
  50. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 133.
  51. Mark E. Nelly, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 102.
  52. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 176.
  53. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 199.
  54. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,Volume VII, p. 482(Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 6, 1864) .
  55. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Horace Greeley to Abraham Lincoln, August 8, 1864).
  56. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 181.
  57. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,(Chauncey M. Depew), p. 436.
  58. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, August 19,1864, Volume II, p. 112.
  59. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom, p. 258.
  60. James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil war and Reconstruction, p. 283.
  61. Glyndon Van Deusen, Horace Greeley: Nineteenth-Century Crusader, pp. 310-311.
  62. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Horace Greeley to George B. McClellan, September 19, 1864).
  63. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p.134.
  64. Roy P. Basler: The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions, p. 67.
  65. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 322.