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The unknown emancipators

In First Amendment on February 28, 2013 at 4:52 pm
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A guy named Abe Lincoln seems to be very much in the news at the moment. Maybe it’s the Oscars and Daniel Day Lewis’ triumphant performance as the nation’s 16th commander in chief. Of course, Lincoln is never far from the collective imagination. We all likely associate him with freedom.

Recently, I read mention of the great man in a column by Don Corrigan, editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times in Missouri. Corrigan wrote about Lincoln and the debt of gratitude we all should feel toward the newspapermen who pushed Lincoln to do the right thing. He made his reference to New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley’s “Prayer for the Twenty Millions” in a piece that was reprinted in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ monthly newsletter. Corrigan notes that Lincoln gained moral purchase on the shoulders of great men like Greeley who had the courage of their convictions. …

Greeley’s “Prayer” was an open letter to Lincoln that appeared in the Tribune on Aug. 19, 1862. In it he argues passionately that Lincoln should adhere to provisions of the Confiscation Act of 1861 that require rebels to turn over slaves to union forces as the nation’s army marched through the South. Here’s an excerpt:

We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight Slavery with Liberty. They prescribe that men loyal to the Union, and willing to shed their blood in her behalf, shall no longer be held, with the Nations consent, in bondage to persistent, malignant traitors, who for twenty years have been plotting and for sixteen months have been fighting to divide and destroy our country. Why these traitors should be treated with tenderness by you, to the prejudice of the dearest rights of loyal men, We cannot conceive. …

Three days later, Lincoln answered. He made clear that, at the time, he was more interested in preserving the union than ending slavery. An excerpt from Lincoln’s reply:

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 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…

I don’t want to make too much of this. Lincoln also made clear that slavery was corrupt. He wasn’t persuaded to emancipate slaves solely because of editors like Greeley, of course, but journalists led the charge just as surely as Ulysses S. Grant. Remember his example as you write your next editorial. Be fearless.

Clay

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