Lincoln and Slavery: Wish vs. Duty in the Greeley Letter
By Erin Carlson Mast
How many of us have heard this quote from Abraham Lincoln, “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.” And yet, how seldom do we hear or read that quote in the context of the entire letter published in the New York Tribune in 1862? And how often is that quote from Lincoln misinterpreted as the words of a politician who does not care either way about slavery? Before passing judgment, one might at least read the entire letter to try to understand the man. The quote comes from President Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley, dated August 22, 1862, reprinted below for reference. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we use different parts of this letter throughout the site to illuminate Lincoln’s ideas and evolving policies and distinguish between Lincoln’s personal convictions and executive powers.
Hon. Horace Greeley.
August 22, 1862
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 perceptable [sic] 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, 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.
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 every where could be free. Yours,
From the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
Unlike our 19th century counterparts, we are able to see Lincoln’s words with the benefit of historical perspective. Those reading Lincoln’s letter in the New York Tribune in 1862, did not know that by that point, Lincoln had already written the preliminary emancipation proclamation and was preparing to release it. Read in its entirety, the letter provides a summary of Lincoln’s policies to that point in time, reflects his leadership style, and reminds us that Lincoln saw a clear distinction between personal wishes and “official duty,” which one should keep in mind whenever reading Lincoln’s speeches. All elected officials are expected to make the distinction between duty and hope, though it cannot be denied that sometimes they overlap in memorable fashion, as they did for Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation.