In the midst of the Civil War, Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, published an editorial rebuking President Abraham Lincoln for vacillating on the issue of emancipating the slaves. An abolitionist and staunch supporter of preserving the “union”—meaning a unified country—Greeley was nevertheless not shy about criticizing Lincoln’s conduct of the war.
Lincoln’s reply to Greeley, written this week (Aug. 22) in 1862, was perhaps the most famous letter he ever wrote, especially the following excerpt: “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, 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.”
As it happened, Lincoln had already written a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that he would issue on January 1, 1863, because he was finally convinced that it would help the North win the war and preserve the union. As his letter makes clear, the nation’s preservation was his first priority.
But why? Why was saving the union so paramount that even an issue as morally repugnant as slavery was a secondary concern? The answer is that Lincoln felt he was not only preserving the nation for his generation of Americans, but also for generations not yet born, both in America and around the world.
“The last best hope of earth,” he called our country, and he had a point. For one thing, America in 1862 was the world’s only successful democratic republic, and attempts to duplicate it in Europe and next door in Latin America had repeatedly failed. For another, the world’s monarchies and dictatorships openly rooted against America’s survival and took gleeful delight in the threat to the union (and to democracy) that the Civil War posed. As Lincoln well understood, the success or failure of the “American experiment” would set a global precedent. Should the union fail, then the world would be convinced that “government of the people, by the people and for the people” was not destined to be a fixture on earth. But should it succeed, it would give hope to people everywhere that representative government could work.
Lincoln was willing to countenance slavery during the war because he believed that once the war was won and the union preserved, slavery in America would end. At that point, America would stand as a beacon to freedom and as living proof that “the people” could govern themselves without any help from kings, queens or dictators.
He was, as usual, right.