The Journalists: Horace Greeley (1811-1872)
"What in the word is the matter with Uncle Horace? Why can't he restrain himself and wait a little while?" complained President Lincoln to the Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune in early 1862. "I do not suppose I have any right to complain," President Lincoln told the reporter, Homer Byington. "Uncle Horace agrees with me pretty often after all; I reckon he is with us at least four days out of seven."1 Journalist John Russell Young summarized the dilemma posed by the New York Tribune editor: "Mr Greeley would be the greatest journalist in America if he did not aim to be one of the leading politicians in America."2
The relationship between the Illinois politician and the New York editor traveled over many bumps - starting with a scandal over travel reimbursement in 1848. As a newly elected Congressman in 1848, Greeley "scoured the House for 'abuses,' and soon hit upon the members' prevalent habit of pocketing some ready money by charging the government for more mileage than they actually covered between their homes and Washington - since a loophole in the law enabled them to collect on the basis of circuitous routes,"3 according to Greeley biographer William Harlan Hale. He wrote that "Lincoln had charged the government for travel by a route of over 1,600 miles, whereas the shortest mail route from Washington to his home in Springfield was less than half that distance. Lincoln had, therefore, collected $676.80 'in excess of mileage over what it would have been if the distance had been computed by the most direct mail route."4
Greeley remembered Mr. Lincoln as "a genial, cheerful, rather comely man, noticeably tall, and the only Whig from Illinois- not remarkable otherwise, to the best of my recollection. He was generally liked on our side of the House; he made two or three moderate and sensible speeches which attracted little attention..."5 Mr. Greeley later wrote that he remembered Congressman Lincoln as a "quiet, good-natured man, did not aspire to leadership, and seldom claimed the floor." He wrote: "Though a strong partisan, he voted against the bulk of his party once or twice, when that course was dictated by his convictions. He was one of the most moderate, though firm, opponents of Slavery Extension, and notably of a buoyant, cheerful spirit. It will surprise some to hear that, though I was often in his company thenceforward until his death, and long on terms of friendly intimacy with him, I never heard him tell an anecdote or story."6
As Greeley's comments suggests, there was an impersonal quality to their relationship. It was about issues and politics, not quite about friendship. Greeley was a hard man to befriend; he was consistent only in his inconsistency. While Mr. Lincoln seemed to collect friends, Mr. Greeley seemed to collect enemies. Their relationship was often conducted through the mails - by themselves or intermediaries. Even before Greeley arrived in the House of Representatives, Mr. Lincoln had written "Friend Greeley" on June 27, 1848:
In the "Tribune" of yesterday I discovered a little editorial paragraph in relation to Colonel [John] Wentworth of Illinois, in which, in relation to the boundary of Texas, you say: "All Whigs and many Democrats having ever contended it stopped at the Nuces." Now this is a mistake which I dislike to see go uncorrected in a leading Whig paper. Since I have been here, I know a large majority of such Whigs of the House of Representatives as have spoken on the question have not taken that position. Their position, and in my opinion the true position, is that the boundary of Texas extended just so far as American settlements taking part in her revolution extended; and that as a matter of fact those settlements did extend, at one or two points, beyond the Nueces, but not anywhere near the Rio Grande at any point. The "stupendous desert" between the valleys of those two rivers, and not either river, has been insisted on by the Whigs as the true boundary.
A decade later, their relationship was strained again by Greeley's support of Stephen Douglas' campaign for reelection to the Senate. "In this campaign, the apathy, if not hostility, of Horace Greeley was a continued sorrow to Lincoln," wrote biographer William E. Barton.8 Mr. Lincoln, however , refused to take Greeley's opposition personally - he wrote journalist Charles L. Wilson "I have believed - do believe now - that Greely, for instance, would be rather pleased to see Douglas reelected over me or any other republican; and yet I do not believe it is so, because of any secret arrangements with Douglas. It is because he thinks Douglas' superior position, reputation, experience, and ability, if you please, would more than compensate for his lack of a pure republican position, and therefore, his re-election do the general cause of republicanism, more good, than would the election of any one of our better undistinguished pure republicans. I do not know how you estimate Greely, but I consider him incapable of corruption or falsehood. He denies that he directly is taking pat in favor of Douglas, and I believe him. Still his feeling constantly manifests itself in his paper, which, being so extensively read in Illinois, is, and will continue to be a drag upon us."9
Historian William Lee Miller wrote that "the meddling pressure of Greeley and the others caused the Illinois Republicans, in resentment and defiance, to solidify and make explicit their commitment, so that in county after county the Republican organization endorsed Lincoln as the 'first and only' choice for senator, setting the stage for the party to do the same."10
Lincoln and Greeley were themselves curiously alike -- both gawky and odd in appearances, both largely self-taught, both schooled in farming (though Lincoln abandoned those skills while Greeley prided himself on his agricultural expertise), both strong Whigs, both great admirers of Henry Clay, both skilled word craftsmen but indifferent businessmen, both knowledgeable about human nature, both abstemious in their personal habits. Like Mr. Lincoln, Greeley neither drank nor smoked.
Like Mr. Lincoln, his appearance was somewhat strange - with his smooth-shaven face trimmed with hair. Like Mr. Lincoln he tended to be careless in his appearance but precise in speech. "Greeley was quite like Lincoln in his desire to express his thoughts in speech and writing in plain language," wrote Harlan Hoyt Horner in Lincoln and Greeley. "Getting on in the world constituted a continuing process in the adult education of Lincoln and Greeley. They each sought a 'sphere and vocation' quite different from what their forebears had known."11 Furthermore, like Mr. Lincoln, Greeley had a difficult marriage. "Mary Cheney was even more eccentric than Mary Todd, and Greeley never had a home which attracted or held him," wrote biographer Harlan Hoyt Horner.12
Greeley himself was in perpetual financial trouble - and in virtually constant search of a public position. His political ambitions got in the way of his political relations. He was angry with Senator William H. Seward and political manager Thurlow Weed for blocking his pretensions for statewide office in 1854. These tensions came to a head in May 1860, when Greeley did his best to block Seward from winning the Republican presidential nomination. Greeley came to the Republican National Convention as an Oregon alternate. Although he favored Edward Bates, he was even more strongly an opponent of William Seward. And thus, the net effect of his politics was to favor Abraham Lincoln.
The political tables were reversed in early 1861 over a Senate vacancy in New York. In early February, Mr. Lincoln wrote Weed denying that he favored the election of Horace Greeley to the Senate: "The gentleman you mention, did speak to me of Mr. Greely, in connection with the Senatorial election, and I replied in terms of kindness towards Mr. Greely which I really feel, but always with an express protest that my name must not be used in the Senatorial election, in favor of, or against any one. Any other representation of me, is a misrepresentation."13 When Weed lacked the votes to elect his own candidate, William Evarts, he threw his votes to Judge Ira Harris to block Greeley's election. Weed's enmity to Seward and Weed had been unrelenting ever since they blocked him from becoming a candidate for lieutenant governor of New York in 1854.
Even when he didn't support Mr. Lincoln, Greeley peppered him with advice. He wrote President-elect Lincoln in December 1860 his ideas about secession. Greeley visited Springfield in early February 1861 and spent several hours talking to President-elect Lincoln at his hotel. Greeley probably wrote the dispatch which appeared in the next day's Tribune: "Horace Greeley returned from the West this morning. This afternoon he was called upon at his hotel by Mr. Lincoln. The interview lasted several hours. Greeley urged a strict adherence to an anti-compromise policy, and is said to have received gratifying assurances. His opinion as to the Cabinet and other appointments was freely solicited and given. He is known to be strongly opposed to [Simon] Cameron, and very much interested in the appointment of Chase and Colfax. Colonel Fremont, he thinks, should have the mission to France. Although just defeated in Albany, he did not ask anything either for himself or friends."14
On the way back to New York, Greeley wrote Mr. Lincoln. According to Harlan Hoyt Horner, "After repeating what he had undoubtedly said to Mr. Lincoln in their interview, that he did not want anything for himself, Greeley intimated that it would be difficult for the President, in view of Seward's presence in the Cabinet, to do justice to the anti-Weed Republicans in the distribution of patronage in New York. He naively suggested that the President recognize the two 'wings' or factions and alternately recognize them in appointing New Yorkers to office. Lincoln might in this way settle all New York appointments 'in a single sitting' and thus promote sadly needed party unity. Then in a postscript, Greeley proceeded to recommend candidates for district attorney, surveyor of the port, and government printer."15 In other words, the same day that Greeley wrote that he asked nothing for "friends," he wrote Mr. Lincoln asking three jobs for friends.
The influence of Seward and Weed was a threat to Greeley and other anti-Seward Republicans in New York. It was one of Greeley's concerns in going to Springfield. It was one of many cases in which President Lincoln needed to balance men with whom he wanted to be friends but who considered each other mortal enemies. Greeley subsequently jumped on the pre-inaugural train from Springfield to Washington and spoke to the President-elect for less than a half-hour. Greeley much later reported that "the President sat listening to the endless whine of office-seekers, and doling out village postoffices to importunate or lucky partizans just as though we were sailing before land breezes on a smiling, summer sea; and to my inquiry, 'Mr. President! Do you know that you will have to fight for the place in which you sit?' he answered pleasantly, I will not say lightly - but in words that intimated his disbelief that any fighting would transpire or be needed; and I firmly believe that this dogged resolution not to believe that our country was about to be drenched in fraternal blood, is the solution of his obstinate calmness throughout the earlier stages of the war, and especially, his patient listening to the demand of a deputation from the Young Christians of Baltimore as well as of the mayor and of other city dignitaries, that he should stipulate while blockaded in Washington, and in imminent danger of expulsion, that no more Northern volunteers should cross the sacred soil of Maryland in hastening to his relief."16
After the train meeting, Greeley mysteriously disappeared. Greeley's editorial positions for the next four years seemed to appear and disappear at will - sometimes undermining and sometimes upholding the President. And as his reports suggests, sometimes befuddling as well. First Greeley favored letting the South ago, then after Fort Sumter, he championed war on the South. He went to Washington to see the President and came away thinking the president was passive and "obstinate."17 But he wrote the President on May 19: "The intelligence that the war for the Union is to be prosecuted with emphatic vigor, and that the traitors are to be thrown back from Washington in every direction causes general rejoicing here. We feel that the struggle thus prosecuted, cannot be of long duration. All are confident that the result will justify our fondest hopes."18
Most of Greeley's advice was written - either private or public messages. Mr. Greeley had been giving advice for a long time and the advice he had given Illinois in 1858 - to reelect Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas had been very badly received by Mr. Lincoln, who justly felt it was undercutting his own campaign. In his memoirs, Greeley wrote that "Mr. Lincoln's friends claimed a considerable majority for their favorite in the aggregate popular vote. They did not, for a while, incline to forgive me for the suggestion that it would have been wiser and better not to have opposed Mr. Douglas's return; but I still abide in that conviction."19
In their most famous exchange of correspondence, Greeley published an editorial "The Prayer of Twenty Millions" in August 1862. It was a tough editorial that called for the President fully to utilize confiscation laws against slave-owners: "What an immense majority of the loyal millions of your countrymen require of you is a frank, declared, unqualified, ungrudging execution of the laws of the land, more especially of the Confiscation Act. That act gives freedom to the slaves of rebels coming within our lines, or whom those lines may at any time enclose - we ask you to render it due obedience by publicly requiring all your subordinates to recognize and obey it."20
Rather than respond directly to Greeley, Mr. Lincoln published his reply as an open letter in a Washington newspaper, the National Intelligencer. "In his letter Mr. Greeley employed language that was intemperate and even dictatorial. Mr. Lincoln's immediate friends were astonished that he should appear in a newspaper, in reply to a letter addressed to him", contemporary biographer Noah Brooks later wrote.21 The newspaper itself was an odd choice, argued Robert S. Harper because "it was only lukewarm to the Lincoln administration and made no secret of its sympathy for the slavery system. Lincoln might have chosen it to tease Greeley."22 It certainly was teasing since it raised the possibility of emancipation - which President Lincoln was to turn into reality with a draft proclamation less than a month after his reply was published in the Intelligencer.
Greeley later complained that "though in form a response to my 'Prayer of Twenty Millions,' [it] was not so in fact; I had not besought him to proclaim general emancipation, I had only urged him to give full effect to the laws of the land, which prescribed that slaves employed with their master's acquiescence in support of the rebellion should thenceforth be treated as free by such employment, and by the general hostility of their owners to the national authority. I have no doubt 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."23
Some of the correspondence that passed from Greeley to Mr. Lincoln could have been highly injurious to Greeley had Mr. Lincoln chose to release it. The President's desk has a designated cubbyhole for correspondence from Greeley. On several occasions, Mr. Lincoln could have embarrassed Greeley - to the delight of Greeley's many detractors - but the President chose not. One opportunity came in early August 1861 when he received a letter Greeley had written in the throes of despondency over the Union defeat at the first battle of bull Run. There is some evidence that Greeley was close to a mental breakdown:
This is my seventh sleepless night - yours, too, doubtless - yet I think I shall not die, because I have no right to die. I must struggle to live, however bitterly. But to business. You are not considered a great man, and I am a hopelesly broken one. You are now undergoing a terrible ordeal, and God has thrown the greatest responsibilities upon you. Do not fear to meet them. Can the rebels be beaten after all that has occurred, and in view of the actual state of feeling caused by our late, awful disaster? If they can, - and it is your business to ascertain and decide. - write me that such is your judgment, so that I may know and do my duty. And if they cannot be beaten, ? if our recent disaster is fatal, - do not fear to sacrifice yourself to your country. If the rebels are not to be beaten, - if that is your judgment in view of all the light you can get. - then every drop of blood henceforth shed in this quarrel will be wantonly, wickedly shed, and the guilt will rest heavily on the soul of every promoter of the crime. I pray you to decide quickly and let me know my duty.
It was nearly three years later until Mr. Lincoln showed the letter to anyone. On another occasion in July 1864, Mr. Lincoln went through a very difficult period in which Greeley had placed the Administration in a difficult position regarding potential peace negotiations that Greeley had promoted with persons supposedly empowered to conduct them for the Confederacy. David E. Long wrote in Jewel of Liberty: "After the breakdown of the negotiations [in July 1864], Greeley became very defensive and self-conscious about his part. When other Republican newspapers, particularly the New York Times, criticized him, he implied that Lincoln caused the misunderstanding. He claimed that the safe-conduct letter given him on July 16 had constituted a waiver by Lincoln of any conditions stated in previous correspondence. He figured this freed him from announcing the conditions in Lincoln's letters of July 9 and 15. Greeley's shallow and transparent argument did both the president and the country a disservice. His unwillingness to accept responsibility for his part in the unfortunate affair damaged the prospects of an already troubled administration. It stood in contrast to the kindness with which Lincoln had treated Greeley."25
On August 15, President Lincoln wrote Greeley's rival, Henry Raymond, "I have proposed to Mr Greeley that the Niagara correspondence be published, suppressing only the parts of his letter over which the red-pencil is drawn in the copy which herewith send. He declines giving his consent to the publication of his letters unless these parts be published with the rest. I have concluded that it is better for me to submit, for the time, to the consequences of the false position in which I consider he has placed me, than to subject the country to the consequences of publishing these discouraging and injurious parts. I send you this, and the accompanying copy, not for publication, but merely to explain to you, and that you may preserve them until their proper time shall come."26
Replying to why he did not publish his correspondence with Horace Greeley about the Niagara Falls negotiations, President Lincoln said: "Yes, all the newspapers will publish my letter, and so will Greeley. The next day he will take a line and comment upon it, and he will keep it up, in that way, until, at the end of three weeks, I will be convicted out of my own mouth of all the things which he charges against me. No man, whether he be private citizen or President of the United States, can successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper, and escape destruction, unless he owns a newspaper equally great, with a circulation in the same neighborhood."27 Still, Mr. Lincoln admitted to Illinois politician Shelby M. Cullom, "While Mr. Greeley means right, he makes me almost as much trouble as the whole Southern Confederacy."28
Regarding the correspondence on peace negotiations in Buffalo, Noah Brooks wrote in 1865: "When I saw it last summer it was printed entire and was in Greeley's hands, with full consent to print, but he said that though he was willing to publish it, others might not be, and he was not sure that all of the correspondence would be accessible to him. So much for his honesty; so, though he may now say that he is willing that it shall be published, the President knows that he is not willing ? if so, why don't he print it in the Tribune? The President said then that he would leave the whole matter in the hands of Mr. Greeley, and he will probably say so now..."29
"The disinterested observer finds little justification for the persistence with which Lincoln urged certain eliminations and the stubbornness with which Greeley insisted that not a word should be changed. The public was accustomed to Greeley's outbursts. Lincoln overestimated the possible harmful influence of the few utterances he wished to suppress. Greeley had nothing to lose by the eliminations proposed. If they had made and the correspondence published, the record would still have left him in an untenable position," wrote historian Harlan Hoyt Horner. "Nothing daunted, Greeley continued to write letters of introduction and recommendation to the President as if nothing had happened between them, and got in a word from time to time with reference to the possibility of peace."30
Mr. Lincoln again proved a much better friend to Greeley than Greeley was to him. Greeley persisted throughout August to try to set up an alternative convention to replace Mr. Lincoln as the presidential candidate. Greeley wrote privately: "Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow."31 Only General William T. Sherman's conquest of Atlanta and General George B. McClellan's victory at the Democratic National Convention prevented saved President Lincoln from further action by Greeley and his co-conspirators.
Meanwhile, President Lincoln took care to take care of Greeley. Presidential secretary John G. Nicolay wrote Greeley in mid-September 1864: "In furtherance of the idea you suggested to me when In New York, I send you enclosed a copy of the letter of Col. Markland Special Mail Agent, who has under Mr Blair's instructions, made arrangements for the distribution of such newspapers, or other political matter, as the National Committee may determine to circulate in the Army of the Potomac. Will you please show it to Mr [Henry] Raymond and confer with him on the subject." He added: "Your later letter, enclosing one from Col [James] Conkling was duly received, and shown to the President. Col. Phillips' papers were specially referred by the President to the Secretary of War. Our news from all quarters is very encouraging."32
Less than a month letter, Nicolay again wrote Greeley: "I brought to the President's notice, your suggestion about the matter of exchange of prisoners, and learned from him, the reason why nothing can be done about it at present. The reason is conclusive, as you would at once appreciate, and admit if I could see and tell you."33
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Lincoln sent word through an upstate Republican politician that Greeley might be appointed Postmaster General in the next administration. Greeley's attitude toward the Lincoln administration improved albeit temporarily. "On April 14,  Horace Greeley chanced to meet his friend, George G. Hoskins, in New York and took occasion to remind him that he (Greeley) still was not Postmaster General. Hoskins, feeling his word was in jeopardy, boarded a train that evening for Washington," wrote Robert S. Harper in Lincoln and the Press. "After Hoskins left, Greeley wrote an editorial on Lincoln, a blistering attack. He sent the copy to the composing room, had it set up, proofed, and slugged to go in the next morning's paper. Then he went home, leaving Sidney Gay, managing editor of the New York Tribune, in full charge for the night as was his regular custom."34 That night Mr. Lincoln was assassinated and Gay spiked the editorial.
"When I last saw him, a few weeks before his death, I was struck by his haggard, care-fraught face, so different from the sunny, gladsome countenance he first brought from Illinois," said Greeley. "I felt that his life hung by so slender a thread that any new access of trouble or excess of effort might suddenly close his career."35 Later, Greeley wrote: "There are those who profess to have been always satisfied with his conduct of the war, deeming it prompt, energetic, vigorous, masterly. I did not, and could not, so regard it."36 "I am no admirer of the style of his more elaborate and pretentious state papers, especially his messages to Congress. They lack...fire and force," said the ever cantankerous editor.37 Still, Greeley wrote in his memoirs that "Mr. Lincoln was essentially a growing man. Enjoying no advantages in youth, he had observed and reflected much since he attained to manhood, and he was steadily increasing his stock of knowledge to the day of his death. He was a wiser, abler man when he entered upon his second than when he commenced his first Presidential term. His mental processes were slow, but sure; if he did not acquire swiftly, he retained all that he had once learned. Greater men our country has produced; but not another humanly speaking she could so ill spare, when she lost him, as the victim of Wilkes Booth's murderous aim."38
John Hay (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Henry J. Raymond
William H. Seward
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Thurlow Weed (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Henry Raymond (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Horace Greeley (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Horace Greeley (Mr. Lincoln and New York
Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley (Abraham Lincoln's Classroom)
Abraham Lincoln and Journalists (Abraham Lincoln's Classroom)