It is not quite fair to either Horace Greeley or to Abraham Lincoln to characterize them the way I am about to. Lincoln won’t mind, I am sure. And despite Mark Twain’s caution that one should not pick a fight with anyone who buys his ink by the barrel, I will take my chances with Greeley and his New York Tribune.
I mean no disrespect to Greeley by referring to him as a zealot, nor to Lincoln by referring to him as an agent. Zealots have a lot of…um…zeal. Greeley was an abolitionist, a worthy cause certainly, and that is just about all that mattered to him as a public man. The things that moved in the direction of abolishing slavery were good and the things that did not move in that direction were bad.
English gets the word zealot from the Greek zēlōtēs and zeal is “intense enthusiasm, as in working for a cause.” I know the etymology of a word is not its meaning, but I am amazed at how often it makes the understanding of a word richer. English gets agent from the Latin agens, the participial form of the verb agere, “to act.” An agent is one who acts.
You can see that this distinction really doesn’t separate them much. Greeley also acted—he published a newspaper—and Lincoln was also enthusiastic in working for a cause. But Lincoln was a public servant. That’s what I want to emphasize. Yes, he was president of the United States, but public servants at all levels need to act in the way Lincoln acted.
If, after all, only one thing is right, all we need to know about a public servant is whether he or she has the backbone to do what is right, or, as Greeley says in his editorial:
We require of you, as the first servant of the Republic, charged especially and preeminently with this duty, that you EXECUTE THE LAWS (caps in the original).
Actually, Greeley had one law in particular in mind and that’s a condition you often run into in zealots. Lincoln was not doing all that the second Confiscation Act authorized him to do and if he had done everything the act authorized him to do, more slaves would immediately have been freed. And Lincoln would very likely have lost the support of the border states for the forthcoming drama of the reconstruction of the union. Lincoln was “… unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States,” according to Greeley.
Lincoln had in mind the successful performance of quite a few actions at the same time. Some could be done immediately and others would have to be done over the long haul with the cooperation of men who would need to be cajoled, courted, and/or threatened. It is his attention to all the things that causes me to assign the label “agent” to him.
So the conflict between Greeley and Lincoln is just one of many such conflicts. You could change the names of the men and change the nature of the conflict and the dynamics would look very very familiar. Agents act as best they can to secure the range of outcomes the public needs. Zealots snap at their heels while they are doing it.
Greeley’s editorial was called “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” a reference to the size of Lincoln’s popular vote in 1860—inflated, probably, by adding those who care about slavery but did not vote for Lincoln. The editorial was 2200 words. It was long and complicated; it was vitriolic and finger-pointing.
Here is the entire text of Lincoln’s response. It is 408 words long. It has a labored clarity to it, which is understandable, given the editorial to which it is a response. It is also a gesture of warmth to a friend, as well as to a person who buys his ink by the barrel. I’ll just put it on the page and make a few remarks and call it good enough.
Executive Mansion, Washington, August 22, 1862.
Hon. Horace Greeley: 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 perceptable 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, A. Lincoln.
The range of ways Lincoln would save the union is staggering. Take, for instance “…and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” I doubt that that option really means anything by itself, but it does plug a hole that would have been there if he hadn’t said it.
And this line is intended especially for Greeley. I read it as saying, “I know you are a zealot and I hope you know why I can’t afford to be.” Here’s what he says to Greeley. “ 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.”
This letter is perhaps the clearest letter by any politician I have ever read. It cannot be misunderstood. Even Greeley, who printed it, certainly didn’t like it. On the other hand, he didn’t misunderstand it.