Lincoln the PersuaderPrint
Seeking to get people behind his policies, he made himself the best writer for all our presidents
By Douglas L. Wilson
September 1, 2006
In the four years that Abraham Lincoln was president, the American public gradually discovered, much to its collective astonishment, that this unprepossessing Illinois politician had remarkable abilities as a writer. In that brief period, and in the midst of a relentless siege of crises and distractions, he produced not one or two examples of provocative writing (which is more than most presidents can manage) but a whole series of unmistakably impressive documents. Even though confined to such unpromising formats as ceremonial speeches, messages to Congress, proclamations, and public letters in newspapers, Lincoln’s presidential writing proved to be timely, engaging, consistently lucid, compelling in argument, and most important of all, invested with memorable and even inspiring language. Eventually it began to shape public attitudes and was a telling factor in the success of his policies. Only with his death, however, did his contemporaries begin to realize that Abraham Lincoln’s words were destined to find a permanent place in the American imagination.
All of this came to the American public, and particularly to members of the American intelligentsia, as a revelation. His nomination for the presidency over more familiar and established candidates had been a disappointment to the literati, to say the least. The verdict on Lincoln of Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of presidents and a leading Republican, was typical: “Good natured, kindly, honest, but frivolous and uncertain.” The last thing the intellectual establishment looked for from this folksy, self-educated prairie politician was literary ability.
“Perhaps no point in the career of Abraham Lincoln has excited more surprise or comment,” wrote John G. Nicolay, “than his remarkable power of literary expression.” As Lincoln’s private secretary and later biographer, Nicolay had witnessed the unfolding of this surprising phenomenon at first hand, a phenomenon that continued to mystify the learned long after Lincoln’s death. “It is a constant puzzle to many men of letters,” Nicolay wrote, “how a person growing up without the advantage of schools and books could have acquired the art which enabled him to write the Gettysburg address and the second inaugural.” They could accept that such a man might be an exceptional storyteller or stump speaker, but writing—especially writing of a high order—was somehow different. For Nicolay, this was not so much a mystery as a fact. “The remarkable thing,” he wrote, “was that while nature and opportunity gave him talent and great success at story-telling and extemporaneous talking, he learned to write—learned to appreciate the value of the pen as an instrument to formulate and record his thought, and the more clearly, forcibly, and elegantly to express it.”
Nicolay’s verdict, or something like it, would eventually be accepted by the American public, and even by the world at large. Lincoln has thus become one of the most admired of all American writers. “Alone among American presidents,” Edmund Wilson has written, “it is possible to imagine Lincoln, grown up in a different milieu, becoming a distinguished writer of a not merely political kind.” If one were to judge the importance of a writer by the familiarity of his words and the depth of meaning and feeling they evoke, few if any American writers would compare with him. But for all this implicit recognition of Lincoln’s literary ability, it is overshadowed by his standing as a great national hero—war president, savior of the Union, emancipator, man of the people.
His writing began in childhood and was extensive. As an adult he contributed a considerable body of lively political writing to newspapers, much of which, having been printed anonymously or pseudonymously, will probably never be recovered. Famous in the 1850s for his speeches and his ability on the platform (as in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas), Lincoln was always carefully prepared, with many of his arguments and positions written out and polished in advance. He lives in legend as a trial lawyer who was successful before juries, but his less-recognized skill as an appeals lawyer, who submitted written arguments to a panel of judges, may have been more impressive. His surviving personal papers attest that it was. A careful and conscientious draftsman who knew the value of revision, he began to preserve his papers in the 1840s. And yet, well as we think we know the essential character of this most written about of all Americans, his habits and practice as a lifelong writer have scarcely been explored.
Writing is admittedly a solitary activity. While artists have made it possible for us to see Lincoln reading by firelight, swinging an ax, or speaking from a platform, depictions of him working at his writing desk are rare. An exception is provided by the president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who late in life sent a correspondent this word picture of his father at work:
He was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid. I cannot remember any peculiarity about his posture; he wrote sitting at a table and, as I remember, in an ordinary posture. As to dictation, I never saw him dictate to anyone, and it certainly was not his practice to do so. He seemed to think nothing of the labor of writing personally and was accustomed to make many scraps of notes and memoranda. In writing a careful letter, he first wrote it himself, then corrected it, and then rewrote the corrected version himself.
Although an unfamiliar pose, this is an especially revealing picture. Perhaps most striking is Robert’s identification of a distinctive characteristic that is very little recognized: Lincoln was not in the least put off by what most people consider the onerous labor of writing, even though he was a slow and “very deliberate” writer. For anyone interested in Abraham Lincoln’s presidential writing, this is an important point to keep in mind.
As we know, no presidency was more crisis-ridden and hectic than Lincoln’s. His surface calm and good-natured demeanor do not suggest how totally engaged he was by the job. While never well organized or systematic, he was an energetic, hands-on, detail-oriented administrator. If any president’s performance in office deserved the overused epithet indefatigable, it was his. He is famous for his willingness to make time for hearing the personal requests of ordinary members of the public. Though the demands of the patronage system drove him almost to distraction, he insisted on involving himself in the contentious process of sorting out the competing claims of hundreds of applicants for government posts. He also kept extremely close tabs on military developments and spent a substantial amount of time in the telegraph office of the War Department.
One has only to peruse his personal papers (most of which are on view on the Library of Congress Web site) to get some idea of the amazing number of details that received his attention. The testimony of those who saw him regularly is replete with evidence confirming Lincoln’s exertions. As is often pointed out, the physical toll that these efforts exacted is visible in the photographs taken over the course of his four years in office. He kept longer hours and in almost every way outworked his subordinates, which prompted an old friend and frequent visitor, Joshua Speed, to inquire about it. “I remember asking him on one occasion, when he slept—his answer was—‘just when every body else is tired out.’”
In the midst of all this exertion, Lincoln found an astonishing amount of time to write. Published items in the Collected Works from his hand as president run into the thousands, and recent searches in the National Archives indicate that there are many more writings that have gone unrecorded. As these discoveries show, Lincoln not only sent a constant stream of small notes and endorsements to various government offices and officials, but he sometimes drafted complicated documents that were issued over the signature of subordinates. He wrote frequently to his generals, as a way of keeping in touch and offering advice. After his first taste of military defeat (the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run), his reaction was to take up his pen and stay up all night to set down on paper what needed to be done to redeem the situation. In short, he responded in writing to almost every important development during his presidency, and to many that were not so important. Except for ceremonial proclamations, he seems to have delegated relatively little official writing. It becomes apparent that writing—both the activity and its products—was indispensable to Lincoln’s way of performing his office.
But the drafting of a consequential text usually requires time, quiet, and an absence of interruptions, the very things that Lincoln most often lacked. How did he manage? Another recollection of Joshua Speed’s helps to explain: “He had a wonderful faculty in that way,” Speed recalled. “He might be writing an important document, be interrupted in the midst of a sentence, turn his attention to other matters entirely foreign to the subject on which he was engaged, and take up his pen and begin where he left off without reading the previous part of the sentence.” But the record also reveals that Lincoln frequently sought sanctuary—in the telegraph room, at the Soldiers’ Home, and even behind the usually open doors of his own office—to immerse himself in his writing. Indeed, there is more than a little to suggest that writing was often a form of refuge for Lincoln, a place of intellectual retreat from the chaos and confusion of office, where he could sort through conflicting options and order his thoughts with words.
In a masterly essay, “The Words of Lincoln,” the late Don E. Fehrenbacher suggested that in addition to their meanings “within a definite historical context, some of Lincoln’s words have acquired transcendent meaning as contributions to the permanent literary treasure of the nation.” Fehrenbacher is here pointing to the fact that Americans have for a long time turned to Lincoln’s words not only for inspiration but to understand their own history. To ask the question “What are American values and ideals?” is inevitably to invite an appeal to some of Lincoln’s most illustrious words. But those words, as Fehrenbacher reminds us, came out of concrete historical circumstances.
As president, Lincoln was not a national hero. For most of his presidency, he was beset by critics on all sides. He found himself operating in a perpetual crossfire from congressmen, governors, generals, office seekers, ordinary citizens—all dissatisfied and many sincerely convinced that his incompetence was leading the nation down the path to destruction. His writings were an important part of his effort to respond to this pressure. His achievement is all the more remarkable when we consider that many of the presidential writings for which Lincoln is best known—the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural—were formulations of ideas and positions that were not immediately popular. That they eventually came to be widely admired and even venerated is a tribute to Lincoln’s rare combination of leadership and literary ability.
“When we put ourselves back into the period,” Edmund Wilson wrote in Patriotic Gore, “we realize that it was not at all inevitable to think of it as Lincoln thought, and we come to see that Lincoln’s conception of the course and meaning of the Civil War was indeed an interpretation that he partly took over from others but that he partly made others accept, and in the teeth of a good deal of resistance on the part of the North itself.” Wilson was no worshiper of Lincoln, but he knew forceful and effective writing when he saw it. He was satisfied that Lincoln had succeeded in molding American opinion and that this “was a matter of style and imagination as well as of moral authority, of cogent argument and obstinate will.”
To approach Lincoln’s presidency from the aspect of his writing is to come to grips with the degree to which his pen, to alter the proverb, became his sword, arguably the most powerful weapon of his presidency. To explore Lincoln’s presidential writing is to create, in effect, a window on his presidency and a key to his accomplishments. One of the dramas that this perspective brings into focus has already been referred to, the gradual realization by the public that its unprepossessing president was actually an accomplished writer. A parallel drama had to do with how the power of Lincoln’s words gradually grew during the course of his presidency. While blessed with considerable self-confidence, Lincoln did not think of himself as a great writer. His private secretaries Nicolay and John Hay declared emphatically in their joint biography of Lincoln, “Nothing would have more amazed him while he lived than to hear himself called a man of letters.” Nonetheless, as a result of favorable reactions to things he had written, particularly the remarkable and unprecedented series of public letters, Lincoln eventually came to realize how effective he could be before the public in a literary medium. And as his writing became an increasingly useful means to help him achieve his presidential ends, it seems certain that he began to see how it might play a larger role still. By the time he wrote the Gettysburg Address, for example, he was attempting to put the horrific carnage of the Civil War in a positive light and to do it in a way that would have constructive implications for the future. By the time he wrote the Second Inaugural Address 15 months later, he was quite consciously in the business of interpreting the war and its deeper meaning, not just for his contemporaries but for what he elsewhere called the “vast future.” From that time forward, Lincoln’s most memorable writings have been at the heart of whatever positive interpretation Americans have been able to put on the Civil War. In fact, it is hard to imagine how we could engage the question of what that terrible war was about without Lincoln’s words.
Not everyone was blind to Lincoln’s writing ability. His very first presidential effort, his Inaugural Address, had found notable admirers, and four months later, his Message to Congress of July 4 made a keen impression on certain skeptics, such as the editor of the leading national magazine, Harper’s Weekly. But even with such discerning admirers, the national crisis was too grave and the focus on preconceived issues and antagonisms too intense for serious attention to the president’s literary skills. His critics and enemies were already persuaded that he had none. Even if his allies and defenders had recognized his skills for what they were, they could have made little headway by praising them, and generally did not.
The truth is that Lincoln’s writing, while frequently noted for its clarity, did not rate high by the prevailing standards of eloquence, which, like the architecture of the day, valued artifice and ornament. Like his contemporaries Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson, Lincoln was effectively forging a new, distinctively American instrument. Less self-consciously than some of these, perhaps, but no less diligently, Lincoln was in his own way perfecting a prose that expressed a uniquely American way of apprehending and ordering experience. His all-consuming purpose was, of course, not literary, but political—to find a way to reach a large and diverse American audience and to persuade them to support the government in its efforts to put down the rebellion.
As an experienced politician who had spent his career in minority parties, Lincoln was acutely aware of the importance of public opinion. “Public opinion in this country,” he had once said expansively, “is everything.” That was in 1859, when he was trying to persuade his party to lay the necessary groundwork for a successful presidential campaign.
In the campaign of 1858, which featured the famous series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln had made the influencing of public opinion a primary issue. If the public had been led to believe by the actions of the founders and subsequent developments that slavery had been placed on a course of ultimate extinction, then Douglas and his Democratic cohorts, Lincoln argued, had been deliberately trying to undermine that sentiment. In the first debate, at Ottawa, Illinois, Lincoln punctuated his claim with a memorable example of antithesis that we know from his manuscripts he had carefully composed in advance:
With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed. This must be borne in mind, as also the additional fact that Judge Douglas is a man of vast influence, so great that it is enough for many men to profess to believe anything, when they once find out that Judge Douglas professes to believe it.
So what, then, could or should be done legitimately to influence or change public opinion? One thing that Lincoln apparently would not consider doing was what people like Horace Greeley often did, which was to attempt to bully others into submission under the pretense of speaking, like a Roman tribune, for the general public. As early as 1842, Lincoln had laid it down as a principle in his Temperance Address that to “assume to dictate to [someone’s] judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised” is counterproductive, for the person so admonished “will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be ble
to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.” Although he had reformed his oratorical diction since that time, his views on persuasion had remained essentially the same. A prime consideration was still what it had been in 1842: “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”
Very much in the forefront of Lincoln’s calculations was the gradual education of public opinion. “No one had greater responsibility for defining and directing democracy than the president,” writes a leading historian of Lincoln’s presidency, Phillip S. Paludan, “and Abraham Lincoln may have been the most qualified man in the nation for the job. For over a quarter century, as both lawyer and politician, Lincoln had been in the persuading business in the most democratic society in the world.”
Even in his early speeches there are glimpses of a theory of persuasion that he was using. Except for the passages on rhetoric in the textbooks he read as a young man, it is doubtful that Lincoln ever studied the art of persuasion as a formal discipline or read Aristotle’s Rhetoric. But as Ronald C. White Jr. has suggested, Lincoln’s practice in many respects embodies the principles of Aristotle. For example, Lincoln’s endorsement in his 1842 Temperance Address of the Sympathetic reform efforts of the Springfield Washington Temperance Society over the harsh denunciations of the clergy accords perfectly with Aristotle’s precept that “our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.”
“Persuasion,” writes Aristotle, “is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others; this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” Lincoln seems to have understood this instinctively and from a very early period. An account of a speech he gave in Quincy, Illinois, in 1841 reports: “As a speaker, he is characterized by a sincerity, frankness and evident honesty calculated to win attention and gain the confidence of the hearer.” When he became president, Lincoln seems to have behaved accordingly. Rather than trying to convince strangers to alter their preconceptions, he understood that he would be better served by simply giving them reason to believe that, whatever his faults, he was essentially honest and trustworthy.
In August of 1862, one of the lowest points in his presidency, this trustworthiness was just about all Lincoln had going for him. The public, as George Templeton Strong reported in his celebrated diary, was generally disheartened and disillusioned with its honest but ineffective commander in chief: “most honest and true, thoroughly sensible, but without the decision and energy the country wants.” The president’s determination to take bold action in July with a proclamation of emancipation had to be postponed until the deteriorating military situation improved, so he looked for other ways to make his presence felt. Not surprisingly, he took up his pen.
Horace Greeley was a notorious gadfly. As the editor of the New York Tribune, he had long occupied a prominent pulpit from which he issued his opinions forcefully and at high volume. At every turn of events, Greeley could be counted on for emphatic pronouncements about what was needed and what must be done. Now he was seemingly incensed that the president had not acted promptly on the provisions of the Second Confiscation Act, which called for the seizure of Southern property, including slaves. On August 20, he published a long, nine-part indictment in the form of a public letter to the president with the eye-catching title “The Prayer of Twenty Millions.” Presuming, in characteristic fashion, to speak for all those loyal to the Union, Greeley intoned:
We require of you, as the first servant of the Republic, charged especially and preeminently with this duty, that you EXECUTE THE LAWS. Most emphatically do we demand that such laws as have been recently enacted, which therefore may fairly be presumed to embody the present will and to be dictated by the present needs of the Republic, and which, after due consideration have received your personal sanction, shall by you be carried into full effect, and that you publicly and decisively instruct your subordinates that such laws exist, that they are binding on all functionaries and citizens, and that they are to be obeyed to the letter.
Since the Second Confiscation Act had been passed scarcely a month earlier, Greeley’s indignation about delay in its execution was arguably overdrawn, but there may well have been more to it. News of Lincoln’s decision in July to proclaim some form of emancipation was no secret to insiders in Washington, and the chances are good that Greeley knew what was coming. In this light, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” may well have been the egotistic Greeley’s attempt, as one writer has suggested, “to beat Lincoln to the draw on emancipation and thus win for himself a portion of the reflected glory.”
But Greeley, as it turned out, had misjudged his man. He had known the president since they served together in Congress in the 1840s, and he was persuaded that “the power of Mr. Lincoln is not in his presenc or in his speech, but in the honesty and gloriously refreshing sincerity of the man.” If Greeley’s “Prayer” was intended as a preemptive strike, it had the misfortune of being aimed at a man who was not only a superior writer, but a man who, at that very moment, was casting about for an occasion to publish something he had already written. Lincoln’s reply to Greeley appeared promptly on August 23, and the next day The New York Times reported: “Several days ago the President read to a friend a rough draft of what appears this morning as a letter to Horace Greeley. He said that he had thought of getting some such statement of his position on the Slavery question before the public in some manner, and asked the opinion of his friend as to the propriety of such a course, and the best way of accomplishing it.” Lincoln had merely been doing what he often did in times of difficulty—putting his thoughts down on paper. That he had tried the result out on a friend was typical and perhaps an indication that he regarded his brief statement as a finished product; that he was taking soundings on the propriety of publication suggests remarkable confidence, if not downright audacity.
Greeley’s ostensible objective was to smoke the president out on the question of emancipation, but he could hardly have anticipated a public reply, much less one printed in another newspaper. It is important to recognize that Lincoln’s public response to Greeley was unprecedented. Presidents in the past may have been sorely tempted to defend or explain their views directly to the people through the medium of the newspaper, but it was considered undignified for a chief executive to do so and had, so far as contemporary commentators were aware, never been done. Thomas Jefferson, the only president whose writing ability rivaled Lincoln’s, had composed at least one such letter, but he had done it entirely in secret and under the fictitious guise of a concerned citizen.
Predictably, Lincoln’s letter caused a stir, and publishing it had clearly been a risk. It is possible to argue that Lincoln had little to lose, that taking such an unprecedented step was a measure of his desperation. But Lincoln had made a shrewd calculation, especially after seeing Greeley’s wordy, ill-tempered letter—that his brief, pithy message would carry the day.
If the letter’s quiet eloquence can be explained by his having carefully prepared his statement in advance, the first paragraph shows that he could also write effectively on short notice. Greeley’s “Prayer” was an ill-disguised harangue, and one that showed scant respect for the President. Lincoln’s strategy was to open on the opposite track:
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.
This opening was a piece of ingenious jujitsu, using his opponent’s own strength against him. Righteous impatience and a domineering tone were Greeley’s editorial stock in trade. The aggressive use of these tools had made him a formidable national presence, giving him a hearing on all the great questions of the day. Lincoln’s strategy in his reply has a lot in common with his legendary courtroom gambit of yielding points for which an argument or rejoinder might ordinarily be expected. The difference is that here, under the guise of cordially waiving these issues, he manages to imply that Greeley’s “Prayer” contains erroneous assumptions of fact as well as inferences that are falsely drawn. He more than implies that the tone of Greeley’s letter is “impatient and dictatorial,” but all of this, he insists, is to be overlooked because the writer is an old friend whose heart is (or is supposed to be) right.
Lincoln’s choice of a newspaper in which to reply is telling. The National Intelligencer had long been a leading paper in the nation’s capital, the main source of detailed accounts of congressional speeches and debates. Although pro-Union, the newspaper was not a staunch supporter of the president, and it was decidedly unfriendly to the idea of emancipation. Placing his letter in this newspaper was thus a defiant gesture toward Greeley, inviting the implication that Lincoln’s position on emancipation would be more welcomed by status quo conservatives than by radicals and abolitionists. In gauging the effect of Lincoln’s letter to Greeley on the public, it is important to focus on the text that appeared in the National Intelligencer on August 23, but as is often the case, Lincoln’s manuscript tells us even more about the letter and, especially, about Lincoln as a writer.
The portion of the letter that Lincoln had presumably written in advance is transcribed below from the manuscript; the inserted material is shown in brackets; the underlined words are Lincoln’s emphasis
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.”
Broken eggs can never be mended, and the longer the breaking proceeds the more will be broken_ If there be any [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 any [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 everywhere could be free_
The letter calls our attention to a telling aspect of Lincoln’s writing, namely, his adroit placement of emphasis. Especially when drawing distinctions—something that characterizes his best writing—Lincoln guides the reader’s understanding by placing emphasis on certain words. Some instances, such as the pairing of “any” and “all,” are reasonably straightforward, but others are much more subtle and unexpected. A good example is the famous sentence from his Annual Message of 1863: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” In the Greeley letter, consider the pattern of emphasis in the passage following the stricken sentence about “broken eggs,” which the president removed reluctantly at the request of the newspaper’s editors. The next sentence emphasizes the word “save” and the following sentence, the word “destroy,” both words referring, of course, to slavery. But then comes the riveting sentence about the president’s principal goal: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Here another writer might have emphasized “Union” and “slavery,” which would have been perfectly in keeping with the meaning. But by underlining “is” and “not,” Lincoln pairs the words that refer back to, and thus amplify, his “paramount object.” Unfortunately, Nicolay and Hay eliminated these and all other indications of authorial emphasis when they printed the letter in Lincoln’s Complete Works in the 1890s.
Lincoln’s public letter to Greeley came at a time when the president had already made up his mind to invoke a desperate remedy—anticipating rebel slaves and using them as troops. This measure seems so logical and inevitable to modern readers that historians always find it necessary to assure their audiences that such an action was, at the time, very risky. Emancipation was not popular in the North, and no one could be sure how the loyal Democrats, or the loyalists in the border states, or the officer corps, or the soldiery, or the northern public at large would react to it. Strong resistance from any of these quarters would present serious difficulties for prosecuting the war; broad opposition would be ruinous. Nonetheless, Lincoln determined to risk it. The public letter to Greeley, coming just one month after Lincoln revealed his intention to his cabinet, was the first of its kind and played a significant part in his calculated efforts to prepare the country for a change in direction.
Although the letter did not meet with universal approval, the president’s initial gambit succeeded. “Those who insist on precedent, and Presidential dignity, are horrified at this novel idea of Mr. Lincoln’s,” the sympathetic New York Times admitted, “but there is unanimous admiration of the skill and force with which he has defined his policy.” Even Greeley got the message. “I have no doubt,” he wrote years later, “that Mr. Lincoln’s letter had been prepared before he ever saw my ‘Prayer,’ and that this was merely used by him as an opportunity, an occasion, an excuse, for setting his own altered position—changed not by his volition, but by circumstances—fairly before the country.” While it is ironic in the extreme that Greeley, who changed his mind about the war repeatedly, should treat Lincoln’s “altered position” as an implicit criticism, the charge was essentially true. A week after its publication, Lincoln reportedly told Isaac N. Arnold “that the meaning of his letter to Mr. Greeley was this: that he was ready to declare emancipation when he was convinced that it could be made effective and that the people were with him.” What he did not say, but what is clear in retrospect, is that the public letter to Greeley was part of a conscious effort to bring hese things about.
Thomas Jefferson had considerable experience at shaping public opinion, but he knew that the public was often unresponsive or actively resisted measures that he believed were necessary. He wrote to a friend that he had come to see “the wisdom of Solon’s remark, that no more good must be attempted than the nation can bear.” Lincoln was probably as little acquainted with Solon as he was with Aristotle, but he had read Jefferson’s own works with care. That he was familiar with the substance of Solon’s remark and that he acted accordingly as president is evident in a number of instances. In the case of the reply to Greeley, he was trying to prepare the way for the acceptance of a highly controversial measure. Unable to be certain that he had properly gauged the situation, Lincoln himself was unsure, when he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation a month later in September 1862, that the public was ready for it. He confessed as much to his cabinet at the time, but he followed his instincts and took a chance. When it proved successful, he characteristically admitted to a visitor, “When I issued that proclamation, I was in great doubt about it myself. I did not think the people had been quite educated up to it.”
There can be little doubt that the Greeley letter had helped enormously in the process of educating the public up to the point of accepting emancipation. A public letter from a president, even if considered an undignified gesture, cannot be ignored. If its arguments are pithy and provocative, they will be noticed and will generate widespread public discussion, especially if they are timely. Indeed, what this episode suggests in retrospect is that one of the things Lincoln was most criticized for by members of his own party—his slowness to act—was in reality a superior sense of timing. But the publication of the Greeley letter was the unveiling of what would prove to be an even greater asset, his ability to shape public opinion with his pen.
Douglas L. Wilson is professor emeritus of English and co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. His most recent book is Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words.
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