Sunday, August 19, 2007

August 19: Letter of Complaint Day

Today is the anniversary of a letter sent in 1862 by Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, to President Abraham Lincoln. The letter published in the Tribune with the title: "The Prayer of the Twenty Millions," was a direct challenge to the president. The final resolution of the Civil War was still very much in doubt in the summer of 1862; in fact, the Confederate armies of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were on the rise. In addition, Lincoln had written a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, but it would not be officially announced until September 1862.

Greeley's chief complaint with Lincoln in the letter was that he was not enforcing the Confiscation Act that authorized the confiscation of rebel property, including slaves who according to the law "shall be deemed captives of war and shall be forever free." Lincoln did not think that the law was well written, and his reticence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation revolved around his desire not to alienate still-loyal slaveholding border states.

To understand the weight of Greeley's letter, it is important to realize the importance of newspapers in 19th century America. In a time before radio and television, newspapers were the media, and in 1860 there were more than 2,500 -- that's more than were in the rest of the world combined. Greeley's New York Tribune was one of the most influential newspapers in the nation with a circulation in 1860 of 214,000. In addition, in the 19th century the reading of newspapers was a communal activity as illustrated from this passage from the book The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Own Words:

Many more people read newspapers than the paid subscribers. One copy was often read by several families. Numerous citizens heard editorials read aloud in an era that prized public reading. In countless general stores, neighbors gathered in the evening to listen to the reading of editorials from "Uncle Horace's Weekly Try-bune." As national issues heated up, people gathered by rural post offices to anticipate the stagecoach delivering their "newspaper Bible."

As a result of their influence on the masses, editors like Horace Greeley had a profound impact on the economy and the politics of the nation. Greeley's August 19th missive was not just a letter to the president, it was a letter to the president from a man who played a large role in his successful election to the presidency in November 1860.

From the very start of his letter, Greeley's tone is sober and assertive:

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 more than 2,200 words Greeley goes on to enumerate his complains against the president's leadership and apparent lack of resolve and direction.

In response to this public letter, Lincoln responded with a public letter of his own, published on August 23, 1862 in Washington's National Intelligencer. Terse compared to Greeley's letter, Lincoln wrote 370 words emphasizing his primary goal: not the freeing of slaves but the preservation of the "Union" -- a word he used nine times:

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 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.

Lincoln might have used his letter to announce his plans for the Emancipation Proclamation, a draft of which he had in his desk as he wrote to Greeley. However, Lincoln was not one to let someone else force his hand. He did things for his own reasons and in his own time.

Today's Challenge: Vocabulary by the Letter

The ten words listed below are from Horace Greeley's letter to President Lincoln published in the New York Tribune on August 19, 1862. Writing in the 19th century, Greeley uses a level of vocabulary you probably won't find in 21st century newspapers. Nevertheless, these are words that educated readers should know. You might begin by reading Greeley's entire letter. Then, see if you can match up each word with its correct definition.

imperative malignant credulous implacable phalanx

solicitude prescribe unequivocal deference remiss

1. courteous regard

2. Failing in what duty requires

3. requiring attention or action

4. to order or to issue commands

5. dangerous to health

6. a feeling of excessive concern

7. incapable of being pacified

8. disposed to believe on little evidence

9. a body of troops in close array

10. admitting of no doubt or misunderstanding

Quote of the Day: Always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them. --James Fallows

Answers: 1. deference 2. remiss 3. imperative 4 prescribe 5. malignant 6. solicitude 7. implacable 8. credulous 9. phalanx 10. unequivocal

1 - White, Ronald C. The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words. New York: Random House, 2005.


DrPezz said...

By the way, I tagged you for a teaching meme. If you've already done this one, maybe you can just create a link to it. :)

Brian Backman said...

This is the first time I have been tagged for a meme, so I'll have to give it some thought. I'm fascinated with the whole "meme" concept,and I think it would be a good idea for a post; I wonder what day of the year would be Meme Day?

DrPezz said...

I like getting to know the authors of the blogs I frequent. I've really enjoyed yours and thought a tag would help me learn more.

Right now my calendar is empty, but I will begin to fill it later. My website is:

Click on a class and a month, and you'll find my calendar. Instructions will be sparse because much is self-explanatory, but I do have the students buddy up to help each other after absences. Simple, but it works.

Brian Backman said...

I checked out your site and it looks interesting -- looks like we teach quite a few of the same books. I also sent an email to your school address with a few more details. Thanks.