“I Would Save the Union….”

I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective.  We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862.  We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation.  One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox.  On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation.  It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.

Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery.  We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union.  I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish.  A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation.  We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union.  At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation.  In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty.  With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war.  I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union.  To be completely honest, I never thought of this.

I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful.  The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion.  With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher.  As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.

Print Friendly
 

21 thoughts on ““I Would Save the Union….”

  1. acwresearcher

    That is very observant on this student's part. While I have never really thought about it from this perspective, when one looks at it that way, and then at other foreign and domestic policy issues in our history, the same principle, to some degree, would apply to most applications of patriotism and America's goals. Some are more subtle, as in Lincoln's case in 1862, but he became overt in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. Some historical instances in which overt actions were in place from the beginning would include Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 (when England and France were at war) and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 under the Adams Administration. A modern example would be the Patriot Act under the Bush Administration.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      You make a good point. In the case of foreign policy statements it is much more overt (i.e., “Operation Iraqi Freedom” etc.). I just never thought about this particular Lincoln statement along those lines even though I acknowledge him as the consummate politician.

      Reply
  2. Mark Higbee

    By the time Lincoln wrote this famous letter to Greeley, in August 1862, he had already privately decided to issue the preliminary emancipation proclamation. He'd also informed his cabinet of this decision, and been urged to wait until the US had stopped the string of military defeats, least the proclamation look desperate.

    So Lincoln's letter to Greely, while often used to argue that he was indifferent entirely to the slavery question, was really an effort to push public opinion toward embracing emancipation as a military necessity.

    Reply
    1. acwresearcher

      I'm not sure I follow your arguement that Lincoln's letter to Greeley “was really an effort to push public opinion toward embracing emancipation as a military necessity.” Some people do use the Letter to Greeley quote “to argue that he was indifferent entirely to the slavery question;” however, the statements from Lincoln matched other statements he had made about his not supporting the expansion of the institution prior to the war. While he was planning to issue the EP and had told his cabinet as much, his response to Greeley and him keeping his intentions under wraps, they seem to support Kevin's idea that Lincoln was “the consummate politician” rather than “an effort to push public opinion toward embracing emancipation as a military necessity.”

      Reply
    2. marcferguson

      The contention by some that Lincoln's Greeley letter demonstrates a cynical indifference towards slavery has always mystified me. The context, that he'd already decided to issue the EP and was waiting for a Union victory, and was taking the opportunity afforded him by Greeley to prepare the public for what was coming, seems obvious.

      Reply
    3. Kevin Levin

      I think our tendency to misinterpret the Greeley letter reflects the extremes of Lincoln interpretation in popular culture. Either he is the “Great Emancipator” or he is DiLorenzo's devil. I agree that one can see Lincoln trying to push the public along, but that would be true of just about everything Lincoln did and said during the war. I also agree that Lincoln had come to terms with emancipation by August 22, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he would have followed through. Events were in flux and conditions could have easily changed in a way that might steer Lincoln away from emancipation.

      Reply
  3. Mark Higbee

    acwresearcher writes of “Kevin's idea that Lincoln was “the consummate politician”” as if that quality of political leadership contradicts interpreting Lincoln's letter to Greeley as “an effort to push public opinion toward embracing emancipation as a military necessity.” Isn't pushing public opinion effectively something that makes a consummate politician?

    And I may be mistaken, but i don't recall Lincoln before this letter to Greeley publicly speaking of freeing all the slaves if doing so would help save the Union. He did so after having decided privately early in the summer to issue an emancipation decree, based on the commander in chief's wartime powers. His declared willingness in August 1862 to free all or some of the slaves to save the Union was thus a major departure from his 1860 campaign promise to stop the expansion of slavery while protecting it where it existed! Let's not confuse movement for lack of movement! Of course, the part of his letter to Greeley where he said he'd free no slaves if that could save the union was a rhetorical reiteration of the 1860 position, but when he wrote those words to Greeley he was already convinced the union could not be saved without turning the war into a war of liberation against the slaveowners of the rebel states. So this professed willingness to NOT free any slaves was rhetoric designed to show the military necessity of emancipation.

    The Charles H. Wright of African American History in Detroit, a fine museum, had, prior to its recent overhaul, a huge, dull panel of words and images on emancipation, straight out 1950s consensus historiography, on emancipation. A terrible example of public history. At the center of this panel the letter to Greeley was featured – words quoted out of context to show Lincoln's alleged indifference to the slaves. No mention of the date of the letter, if I recall correctly, and none whatsoever of Lincoln's rapid wartime shifts in his views of the possible and the necessary.

    Kevin, your student's comments sound impressive indeed, and I don't mean to take the focus away from her insights. All praise to the insightful student's observations! They keep the class alive! The Cox document is illuminating indeed.

    But I have to wonder — on what basis do you say that Lincoln may have abandoned his plan to issue the preliminary EM? (Which was issued, as you know, right after Antietam.) I am less deeply involved in teaching the Civil War than you — but I stand with those who say that Lincoln took each of his steps toward full emancipation slowly and cautiously, and he listened to arguments about why he should retreat, but he never actually took a backward step during the war on this issue: Wartime necessity convinced him the war could only be won thru destroying slavery, and that radically altered circumstance fit with his own moral (but not abolitionist) critique of slavery. A consummate politician listens to all view points, but Lincoln was careful to never negotiate against his own goals, and he asked for proposals to be put on the table; but that doesn't mean he agreed with any proposals that he retreat on emancipation – not in the summer of 1862 or later. Indeed, he told the cabinet of his decision to issue the preliminary EP – he did not ask them if he should, though he welcomed their ideas on how to make it effective.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Mark,

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough follow-up. I agree that Lincoln's public statement of Aug. 22 is a step away from his position in 1861, but it is important to understand it in the context of the summer of 1862. Keep in mind that slaves were already being freed through the Confiscation Acts and Congressional steps to end slavery in Washington, D.C. and the western territories. My point is simply that Lincoln was leaving all options on the table to be dictated by any numbers of factors, most importantly, progress on the battlefield. What if the November elections had ended in significant gains for Northern Democrats in Congress? Finally, don't you think it is also important to keep in mind that if the Confederate states had ended the rebellion before 1863, the Union would have been preserved without the abolition of slavery? Thanks again for the comment.

      Reply
      1. Mark Higbee

        Kevin,
        We don't disagree on much, I think. Yes, if the Confederates had backed down, as Lincoln had hoped they would when issuing the Preliminary EP, before 1863, slavery could have been preserved within a reconstituted US. And if a giant comet had hit North America in 1863, then what would have happened?) Those are hypothetical counterfactuals — the Confederates did not back down and rejoin the Union between late Sept. 1862 and New Year's Day, and no giant comet hit either. For the Confederates to seek to rejoin the union that early was perhaps more likely that an extraordinary celestial collision, but not by much, given their ideology, goals, and distrust of the North.

        Lincoln preserved his room to negotiate, but never did he reach a deal that involved him retreating from his own stated positions on emancipation. And yes, the Confiscation Acts and the DC slavery issues had preceded Lincoln's Preliminary EP, absolutely, and they were part of the changing political situation to which Lincoln responded. The Prelim. EP was a more radical step, for it was the commander in chief using his wartime powers to alter the terms of the war: No longer just a war for the union, but now a war for Union and Liberty, as the confederates could not be defeated without attacking the foundation of their society, which was slavery.

        Discussions of what did not happen aren't to me satisfying explanations for choices made in the past. Lincoln did not retreat from any position he took on emancipation, nor did the US Congress; and the northern public was pulled by the vortex of war to embrace emancipation as a necessity for saving the union. That it might have turned out differently is absolutely true; so what?

        Lincoln's letter to Greeley was not stating a negotiating position viz a viz Richmond, it was preparing the North for the soon to be issued Prelim. EP. Lincoln knew emancipation was palatable only as a war necessity, rather than on the terms defined by abolitionists or Horace Greeley.

        This is great blog. Thanks for letting the regular reader join in the dialog. Thanks for the blog!

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin

          Mark,

          I also think we are close on this particular issue. Please understand, however, that I am not thinking of this as a counterfactual, but what was very much a possibility at the time. Yes, with hindsight we could play around with what-ifs, but I am acknowledging the contingency that hung over events at the time in question. Did Lincoln think that reunion before 1863 was as likely as “celestial collision”? Well, I don't know, but Lincoln also misjudged the South early on during the secession winter.

          I also agree with you that Lincoln did not retreat once the EP was issued, but I was never suggesting that he did or even that he might have. There doesn't seem to be any doubt that Lincoln was committed to emancipation after 1863 and even the possibility of limited black civil rights by the end of his life.

          Finally, thanks for the kind words re: the blog. Always nice to hear that people of various stripes are enjoying it.

          Reply
      2. marcferguson

        Kevin and Mark,
        I don't see the “Lincoln as consummate politician” and “preparing the public to accept emancipation as a military necessity” to be contradictory, but in fact complementary and fully consistent with Lincoln's temperament as a crafty yet fundamentally conservative politician. You ask what if Democrats made significant gains in the November elections, but isn't that one of the groups he would have wanted to appeal to with the Greeley letter? He was attempting to hold together broad Northern interests with only one thing in common, the belief in preserving the Union. The Greeley letter is a typical Lincoln public statement that lends itself to interpretation through various lenses. As for the rebellion ending before 1863, that would of course have left the status quo regarding slavery in tact, although the ongoing situation of “contraband” within Union lines would have been a mess to unravel. However, isn't it more likely that while Lincoln would have been delighted for the rebellious states to lay down arms in response to the EP, isn't it more likely that he issued the preliminary EP with that option assuming the war would continue but as a strategic position to ameliorate those in the north who fundamentally opposed emancipation but might support it as a military necessity?

        Marc

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin

          Marc [make sure we keep our Mark(c)'s distinguished here. :)],

          I pretty much agree with what you've stated here. Lincoln was a fairly conservative politician who was trying to maintain a united front at a time when the war was going downhill for the United States. Seems to me that Lincoln would have been content for the Confederacy to lay down its harms if only to stop the bloodshed. From that perspective slavery comes in a far second.

          Reply
    2. acwresearcher

      Arguing the specific statement from the Greeley letter, as Mr. Higbee has, does show Lincoln was progressing in his views regarding emancipation. When taking the letter as a whole, it really doesn't represent that great a change in Lincoln's public comments regarding slavery. What I'm saying is that, at the time the letter was written, I fail to see much of a push, on his part, to change public opinion. While Lincoln was in the process of drafting the EP and issuing a preliminary one, I would agree with Kevin's comment below that actions of Congress did more to change public opinion absent Lincoln's actions. No, Lincoln never backed off his desire that slavery be ended, but Congress was already in the process of doing it, with or without him.

      What I fail to understand is how either the position that Lincoln was indifferent to slavery or that he was shaping public opinion can be taken from the Greeley letter. While Greeley did publish the letter, he was under no legal obligation to do so. Perhaps, Lincoln was gambling on Greeley's journalistic ethics and that he would publish it, but that was no guarantee. I believe two factors influenced Greeley's decision to do so: his ethics and his respect for the office of the President. That it was a public relations boost for Lincoln was more a shot in the dark than an intended consequence. That being the case, Lincoln, as my dad says, “fell into 'spit' and came out smelling like a rose.” That happens to politicians more than we realize until we review the series of events.

      In my opinion, when one looks at that specific quote alone, Lincoln was doing the “consummate politician” thing and talking out of both sides of his mouth.

      Reply
      1. Marc Ferguson

        I think Lincoln wasn't so much “shaping public opinion” as preparing a policy context for the issuing of the preliminary EP. In other words, he was preparing the ground for emancipation being interpreted as a necessary part of the war effort to preserve the Union. As for the possibility that Greeley might not publish Lincoln's letter, that strikes me as improbable. What newspaper, even today, would balk at the opportunity to publish an exclusive statement from the president? And the Tribune was a Republican newspaper, so Lincoln was hardly taking a risk that the letter wouldn't be published by Greeley. Also, I really don't get the “talking out of both sides of his mouth” thing – Lincoln was making a clear statement that this issue of slavery took a back seat to the issue of Union, while restating his fundamental opposition to slavery, “that all men every where could be free.” People do hold complex, sometimes competing, beliefs, and may have to prioritize them at times when they conflict.

        Reply
      2. Mark Higbee

        Of course Greeley was going to publish Lincoln's letter. Lincoln wrote in reply to Greeley's call, in an editorial, for prompt anti-slavery war aims, and Lincoln adroitly ducked Greeley's call, saying he'd do whatever saving the Union required. Lincoln knew the letter would be published, and read in what was one of the most widely read papers in the country – and reprinted too. He wrote the darn letter to be read by the public. It was all about preparing the public to support emancipation on the same terms Lincoln had decided to issue the Prelimin. EP: A necessity of war.

        The letter to Greeley was not private communication between correspondents. Lincoln wrote it carefully to be read by the public. Indeed, such statements were part and parcel of American political culture of the day.

        Vacillating politician? Talking out both sides of his mouth? Perhaps. Or perhaps better termed as a skilled statesmen /consummate politician who responded to the rapidly changing conditions created by a war of unexpected scale and astonishing consequences.

        And wasn't emancipation a true military necessity? Lincoln had decided it was, but only after field officers had already made similar conclusions.

        Reply
      3. acwresearcher

        I'm not saying Greeley (or an editor today) wouldn't print a response from the President, simply that he was under no obligation to do so other than it was (and still is) the customary practice.

        I argue that those who read Lincoln's statement as being indifferent on slavery are incorrect, but I also believe those who see it as an overt effort to shape public opinion on Lincoln's part in August of 1862 are reading more into it than is really there. Congress was already acting and, while Lincoln wasn't vetoing their actions, he still needed a stronger statement as to his intentions. The response to Greeley wasn't that response. The EP was and it needed the success of Antietam and a quiet winter. To some degree, my interpretation of Lincoln's intention with the Greeley letter, as a whole, was to get the old goat to let him to the job he was elected to do — save the Union and, if possible, eliminate slavery.

        Basically, the “I would save the Union…” quote was the politically safe thing for Lincoln to say. That is what made Lincoln a great politician — knowing what to say when. That might be interpreted by some to mean he was “shaping public opinion” or “preparing a policy context for the issuing of the preliminary EP,” however, Lincoln would have issued the EP absent the Greeley letter, provided he got the wins in the field to prevent the look of desparation. The aspect of timing the EP has more to do with shaping public opinion than Lincoln's response to Greeley.

        Reply
        1. Mark Higbee

          If Lincoln's letter to Greeley was not part of an “effort to shape public opinion on Lincoln's part in August of 1862 ” what on earth was it? It most surely was not “the politically safe thing for Lincoln,” as he already determined that the war would be, was, a war to end slavery — and that expanded war goal opened him up to deeper and more widespread attacks from racists in the north, who saw a war for emancipation as both a threat to the white race and a cause not worth dying for. Isn't the Cox speech an example of that? And in the 1862 election campaigns, lots of northern Democrats ran on race-baiting platforms. The Republicans did well in those elections, but not because they went for the politically safe positions on the war.

          If Lincoln's letter to Greeley was not part of an “effort to shape public opinion on Lincoln's part in August of 1862 ” what on earth was it?

          Reply
          1. acwresearcher

            Lincoln's statement was, in my estimation, very non-commital, so much so that I do not see it as being an effective support for his later actions. He took to the fence on this one and fence-riding does not, in my estimation, qualify as shaping public opinion.

            I'll not continue to argue this point. I'm not conceding, I just choose to disagree with you, at least at this time.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin

              Greg,

              That's interesting because I actually believe that Lincoln is staking out a very clear position even if that position may take the nation in very different directions. He remains consistent in emphasizing the importance of preserving the Union. Nothing matters beyond that, including a possible end to slavery, if the Union is dissolved. As I mentioned before, slaves are already being freed and its expansion had been limited owing to Congressional action. I see Lincoln as acknowledging the importance of slavery to the Confederate war effort and moving to undercut that resource. Lincoln is also, no doubt, addressing the Border States and their unwillingness to seriously consider compensated emancipation.

              This has been a very interesting thread. Thanks

              Reply
  4. acwresearcher

    Lincoln's statement was, in my estimation, very non-commital, so much so that I do not see it as being an effective support for his later actions. He took to the fence on this one and fence-riding does not, in my estimation, qualify as shaping public opinion.

    I'll not continue to argue this point. I'm not conceding, I just choose to disagree with you, at least at this time.

    Reply
  5. Kevin Levin

    Greg,

    That's interesting because I actually believe that Lincoln is staking out a very clear position even if that position may take the nation in very different directions. He remains consistent in emphasizing the importance of preserving the Union. Nothing matters beyond that, including a possible end to slavery, if the Union is dissolved. As I mentioned before, slaves are already being freed and its expansion had been limited owing to Congressional action. I see Lincoln as acknowledging the importance of slavery to the Confederate war effort and moving to undercut that resource. Lincoln is also, no doubt, addressing the Border States and their unwillingness to seriously consider compensated emancipation.

    This has been a very interesting thread. Thanks

    Reply

Join the Conversation