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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

In September 1861 and March 1862 Lincoln revoked the emancipation proclamations of Generals Fremont and Hunter. But in July 1862 he signed the Second Confiscation Act, authorizing the confiscation of slaves used to aid the rebellion. A month later, the New York Tribune published Horace Greeley's "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," calling upon Lincoln to take a clear position on the abolition of slavery.

On August 22 the Tribune published Lincoln's response, in which he explained, "...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...."

In August 1864, Charles Robinson, editor of the Green Bay, Wisconsin, Advocate, wrote Lincoln about his response to Greeley. It was an election year, and Democrats and Republicans alike were exploring peace efforts to appeal to war-weary voters. Robinson understood from a remark Lincoln had made about "The Niagara 'Peace' movement," that Lincoln was unwilling to negotiate peace without the abolition of slavery. Robinson asked Lincoln to reconcile that position with his earlier response to Greeley.

Lincoln drafted a reply to Robinson's letter on August 17, 1864. He shared the draft with a few advisers and wrote a second response later that month. Neither response seems to have been sent to Robinson, but it is possible that Lincoln communicated to him through another channel. Examine both drafts and analyze Lincoln's response to Robinson's question.

  • According to Lincoln, why weren't his response to Greeley and his statement about the Niagara Falls "Peace" movement at odds with each other?
  • What are Lincoln's arguments against reversing the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • Does Lincoln say that he will not support peace negotiations without the promise to end slavery?
  • Is Lincoln's position consistent with his response to Greeley?
  • In Lincoln's second draft of his response, he underlines the word "announce" in the sentence, "As a matter of policy, to announce such a purpose, would ruin the Union cause itself." What does this emphasis contribute to the meaning of the sentence and to the message of the letter?
  • In the second draft, Lincoln has removed the following statement, which appears in the first draft:

"But if the rebels would only cease fighting & consent to reunion on condition that I would stipulate to aid them in re-enslaving the blacks, I could not do that either-The people, if they would, could do that too; but I could never be their agent to do it-For such a work, they must find another would have to be found."

From "Abraham Lincoln to Charles D. Robinson, August 17, 1864 (Reply to Robinson's letter of August 7)," Page 3.

  • Why do you think that Lincoln removed this statement from his second draft? How does this change the overall message of his response?
  • What do the changes that Lincoln made between his first and second drafts suggest about his goal in responding to Robinson?