September 20, 2012

150 Years Ago in News History: The Emancipation Proclamation

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Mathew Brady’s portrait of President Abraham Lincoln. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

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Jan. 2, 1863, edition of the New York Tribune with the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation. (Newseum collection)

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Sept. 23, 1862, edition of The New York Herald with the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation. (Newseum collection)

On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive directive proclaiming “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thence — forward, and forever free.”

For years, New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley, father of the modern American editorial page, made his newspaper a leading national voice against slavery. On Aug. 20, 1862, in a 2,200-word editorial titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Greeley implored Lincoln to free the slaves:

To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States:

Dear Sir: I do not intrude to tell you — for you must know already — that a great proportion of those who triumphed in your election, and of all who desire the unqualified suppression of the Rebellion now desolating our country, are sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of Rebels. I write only to set succinctly and unmistakably before you what we require, what we think we have a right to expect, and of what we complain.

In an unusual move, Lincoln answered Greeley personally in a letter to the editor that was published in the Tribune on Aug. 25. His goal, Lincoln told Greeley, was not to save or destroy slavery, but “to save the Union”:

Hon. Horace Greeley:

Dear Sir: I have just read yours of the 19th, addressed to myself through The N.Y. 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 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 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 do 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.
Yours, A. Lincoln.

A month later, following the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The groundbreaking proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.

The Sept. 23, 1862, New York Herald with the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation can be seen in the exhibit “Blood and Ink: Front Pages From the Civil War,” currently on display on the Newseum’s Mezzanine Level.

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