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HORACE GREELEY: Reformer as Republican Bernard A. Weisberger Horace Greeley was a man who, in his long and busy life, never shrank from controversy. His usual pattern of response to criticism is contained in a letter which he wrote to the Union League Club of New York after the Civil War was over, when a proposal was before the members to express, in some way, their displeasure at his unforgivable sin of signing a bail bond for Jefferson Davis. "Don't sidle off into a mild resolution of censure," he wrote testily, "but move the expulsion which you propose, and which I deserve, if I deserve any reproach whatever. ... I care not how few vote with me, nor how many vote against me, for I know that the latter will repent it in dust and ashes before three years have passed."1 It would neither surprise nor discomfort so contentious a man, one suspects, to know that his conduct in the months between Lincoln's election and the firing on Fort Sumter has drawn as much criticism from historians as it did from his contemporaries . Nor would he feel that those scholars who took his side were doing more than simple moral duty required. For Horace Greeley was, above all things, a moralist; to the despair of both his friends and his foes, a very energetic moralist. Yet his moral guidance system sometimes gave him conflicting signals, pointing him simultaneously in opposed directions. It is this which explains the curious course he followed during the secession crisis. To ascribe confusion of purpose to moral imperatives is not to condemn them. The search for a moral basis for action was— and perhaps remains—a constructive element in the American public character. But in moments of duress, it could pose dilemmas. To understand this is to understand much about the longterm political behavior of the entire nation. One of the best-known facts in United States history is that the election-night bonfires of I860 had hardly cooled when Greeley weighed the possibility of secession and advocated that the erring sisters be allowed to depart in peace. His precise words on the editorial page of his New York Tribune on November 16, for example , were: "Whenever a whole section of this Republic—whether 1 Constance Rourke, Trumpets of Jubilee (New York, 1963), p. 252; William Harlan Hale, Horace Greeley. Voice of the People (New York, 1950), p. 323. 6 CIVIL WAR HISTORY a half, a third, or only a fourth—shall truly desire and demand a separation from the residue, we shall as earnestly favor such separation. . . . Whenever the people of the Cotton States shall have definitively and decisively made up their minds to separate from the rest of us, we shall urge that the proper steps be taken to give full effect to their decision."2 In various forms, this remained a Tribune theme through December, 1860. Thereafter it was replaced by increasing rigidity, objection to compromise, and finally —after war broke out—with advocacy of an immediate advance on Richmond. Nevertheless, the initial impression was the one that prevailed in the record. As David Potter noted in 1941, almost every leading historian of the war up to then ignored his combative words of early 1861 in favor of his first reaction, and caused him to be "identified with peaceable separation just as thoroughly as Henry VIII with matrimony or Machiavelli with duplicity."3 Duplicity, in fact, was the charge which Potter leveled at Greeley—a calculated impreciseness of terms, intended to leave considerable room for maneuver. "The editor of the Tribune," Potter asserted, "used emphatic words, but, like Humpty-Dumpty, he thoughtfully inserted a provision that they should mean whatever he wished them to mean." And the motive for this deception was "to mollify the people of the South by avoiding threats against them, and ... to offer a fictitious alternative to frightened Northerners, who might otherwise choose concession as the only alternative to war."4 According to Potter, Greeley surrounded his endorsement of peaceable secession with impossible qualifications, knowing in fact that it was no more than a thoroughly abstract possibility. Meanwhile, he fought vigorously against compromise. Since the real...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 5-25
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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