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Gilbert: Paramount Object

08/16/12 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert tells us about a famous exchange of letters between the highly influential abolitionist Horace Greeley and President Lincoln, which occurred one hundred and fifty years ago next week.

(Gibert) On August 20, 1862 Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, who as a boy had apprenticed for the newspaper in East Poultney, published a editorial entitled, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions.”

"The Union cause has suffered," he asserted, "from mistaken deference to Rebel slavery." He accused Lincoln of being “timid” and being “unduly influenced by... the Border slave states.” He argued that “all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile."

Two days later, President Lincoln responded in a public letter to Greeley. It’s one of his most famous letters. Lincoln wrote in part:

... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it 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 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.

A. Lincoln.

What Lincoln didn’t say was that a draft Emancipation Proclamation had been in the works for several months; Lincoln was only waiting for a significant Union victory to announce it publicly, so that he'd be perceived as acting from a position of strength. He would have that opportunity a month later, after the Battle of Antietam.

One might think that Lincoln’s third assertion was merely a rhetorical flourish – that if he could save the Union by freeing some slaves and leaving others alone he would also do that. But that's precisely what his Emancipation Proclamation did - free slaves in those regions of the country that had seceded, and leave slaves in the border states alone, for the moment.

We sometimes forget that Lincoln had to act in a political context. And we forget that, as he wrote in this letter, he distinguished between his duties as President and his personal wishes.

Almost exactly one hundred years later, President Kennedy authored a foreword to a book about the limitations of presidential power. He wrote, "Every President must endure a gap between what he would like and what is possible." And Kennedy quoted Franklin Roosevelt as saying that "Lincoln was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once."

Lincoln's acknowledging in his letter the difference between his personal wishes and the duties of his office suggests that Roosevelt was right.
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