Horace Greeley (1811–1872) was the editor of the influential New York Tribune, whose circulation was among the largest in the United States. On August 19, 1862, he wrote an editorial titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” (the number of Northerners loyal to the Union), which criticized Lincoln for his reluctance to use the powers Congress had given him to confiscate southern property, including slaves, in order to emancipate them. In this reply, published in a competing newspaper, Lincoln made clear that in accordance with his official duty, his “paramount object” was to preserve the Union. He then mentioned different scenarios for dealing with slavery based on that objective. Notwithstanding his disclaimer that his goal was “not either to save or to destroy slavery,” this was the first time a president had publicly claimed authority “under the constitution” to emancipate slaves in the southern states. Lincoln had explicitly disavowed this policy in his Inaugural Address.
In retrospect, we know that Lincoln had already shared an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation with his cabinet a month before he wrote this letter to Greeley. Lincoln concluded the letter by distinguishing between his “official duty” and his “oft expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” Although he was willing to subordinate the end of slavery to the Union’s preservation in the short term, Lincoln believed that in the long term, preserving the Union meant living up to the antislavery principles of the Declaration (See Fragment on the Constitution and Union).
Source: Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 23, 1862, Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 2, General Correspondence, 1858–1864, Manuscript/Mixed Material, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/mal4233400/.
Dear Sir: 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 perceptible 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 anyone 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 this 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 everywhere could be free.