Thomas N. Bonner, "Horace Greeley and the Secession Movement, 1860-1861." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 3, (Dec., 1951), pp. 425-444.

Horace Greeley and the Secession Movement, 1860-1861

By Thomas N. Bonner

In the period between the election of Lincoln and the bombardment of Sumter, probably no man exerted more influence on American public opinion than Horace Greeley. As editor of the New York Tribune (daily, weekly, and semi weekly), his opinions on public affairs readied a very wide audience. The Tribune indeed was the most widely read paper of the day; its columns were scanned by more than a million people each week.1 Hence the editorial policy of the Tribune as formed by Greeley becomes a matter of no little importance to a thorough understanding of the secession period. But there has been disagreement among historians as to what Greeley's editorial policy during the crisis actually was. A comparatively recent writer has cast doubt on Greeley's sincerity during the secession months, whereas earlier writers challenged his consistency. It is the purpose of this essay to set down the results of a study of the editorial pages of the Daily Tribune from November, 1860, to April, 1861, and check them against the conclusions drawn by other investigators.

The central problem connected with Greeley's policy toward secession is the supposed switch in editorial emphasis from the possibility of peaceable secession stressed in the early months of the crisis, to the violent opposition to compromise of any kind with the South which marked the later Tribune editorials on secession. Historians have been almost unanimous in denouncing this as an inconsistency arising out of an initial horror of bloodshed which wore off as the crisis dragged on.

Although Greeley's consistency has been attacked by the historians, his sincerity in advocating peaceable separation in the early [426] months has not, until recently, been challenged. Indeed, Greeley has traditionally been cited as the chief spokesman, if not the author, of the movement to allow the South to depart from the Union peaceably, and his famous "depart in peace" editorial of November 9, 1860, has usually provided the citation for that claim. In that editorial Greeley declared that "if the Cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace." To cite this single statement as proof of Greeley's unqualified adherence to the doctrine of peaceable secession does not lead to accuracy of interpretation, as will presently be seen, but that is nevertheless what the majority of writers on the period have done. David M. Potter has taken the lead in showing to what extremes interpretations have been pushed on the strength of this single sentence.2

Although Professor Potter has shown the inadequacy of the traditional view of Greeley's policy during the secession months, it will be briefly noted here for reasons of comparison and analysis. According to this view Greeley was entirely sincere in advocating a peaceful division of the Union, but he gave up the cause when he found "that it met no hearty response" in the North, and he gave it up, too, in "deference to Lincoln."3 He was forced to join in the trend toward war or be caught eventually in an awkward position.4

Opposed to this conception of Greeley's secession policy is the stimulating thesis put forward by the Yale scholar.5 This thesis holds that Greeley was by no means sincere in his espousal of the doctrine of peaceable secession. On the contrary, these "disingenuous proposals of separation were made in the false expectation that fulfillment would never be demanded."6 Faced with the three [427] possibilities of compulsion, peaceful separation, and compromise in dealing with secession, Greeley's policy was conditioned primarily by his fear of another compromise.7 He was so repelled by the prospect of further appeasement of the South that he wrote editorials designed specifically to confuse northern counsels at a time when further alarm might provoke another hated division of the national territory between slavery and freedom.8 By seeming to offer the alternative of a voluntary separation, Greeley hoped to "disarm the southern fear of aggression . . . and give southern unionists an opportunity to rally their forces," as well as prevent a panicky concession by the North.9 He assumed that southern unionists were a large majority of the population and the secession threat came only from a few "fire-eaters" who were trying to wrest another compromise from the North by using disunion as a threat. To compromise under such conditions would be futile. What was most needed was a cooling-off period.

To substantiate this contention that Greeley never offered separation as a real possibility, Potter points to the qualifications with which Greeley surrounded his offers, qualifications which "went far to nullify the entire declaration." 10 These qualifications, moreover, changed from time to time.11 Finally, as the coup de grace in his argument, Potter cites Greeley's later conduct as additional "evidence that [Greeley's] ostensible willingness to separate was, essentially, [a] reluctance to compromise."12 For, by the time these later editorials were written, the chance for compromise had passed and the old "emphatic unionism" reasserted itself.13

This, then, is the Potter thesis. Before the crisis, the Tribune was unionist. When the crisis came, a compromise, judging by previous experience, seemed likely. Greeley therefore dropped his unionism and called for peaceable separation. But as the possibility of another compromise became more and more remote, his unionism returned. "In other words, when confronted by a choice between [428] compromise and peaceable secession, Greeley chose peaceable secession; but when confronted by a choice between war and peaceful secession, Greeley chose war."14

Comparing this analysis of Tribune policy with the traditional one, it will be seen that both agree that the peaceable secession policy was a temporary one and that the early editorials show an inconsistency with the later ones which is unwarranted by developments. This inconsistency is attributed by Potter to Greeley's insincerity in offering separation, while earlier historians assigned it to a horror of civil war which eventually gave way before public sentiment. The problem becomes, then, essentially one of motives. Why did Greeley expound the possibility of peaceable secession? Was he sincere in setting it forth as an alternative to coercion? Do the secession editorials show an inconsistency which could not be due to the actual trend of events, and if so, how may it be explained? These are some of the questions which suggest themselves.

In the fateful two months between the secession proceedings in South Carolina and the attack on the Star of the West, northern opinion on the crisis split into two sections, roughly along party lines. In general, Democratic statesmen and editors favored some scheme of conciliation or compromise and, that failing, they were willing to allow the South to secede peaceably from the Union.15 Republican editors, on the other hand, were almost uniformly opposed to compromise of any kind and were divided into those who saw coercion as necessary and those who maintained that it would be better to allow the slave states to depart in peace. Abolitionist spokesmen all seem to have welcomed the prospect of a voluntary dissolution of the Union, thereby ridding the country of an obnoxious evil.16

There was, however, a considerable difference between the peaceable secession discussed by Republican papers like Greeley's Tribune and that put forward by Democratic editors as the only safe alternative to compromise. Republican journals never declared the right of secession to be the unqualified right of a single state to dissolve the Union for any real or pretended grievance. The "right" of secession as claimed by the South was asserted by Republican editors [429] to be an extraconstitutional one inherent in democratic principles of self-government. It was, in a word, the right of revolution, recognized by the Declaration of Independence.17 There was, however, a constitutional means by which the slave states might leave the Union; this was a national convention, and Greeley took the lead in developing the idea that only a convention of all the states could provide for the peaceful dissolution of the Union.18 Even reasoning from John C. Calhoun's premises that the federal government was only a compact between the states, was not the agreement of all parties to the contract necessary for its abandonment? Republicans opposed the southern concept of the right of secession as being arbitrary and unilateral. This opposition, added to Republican belief in strong unionist sentiment in the South, explains in large measure the stand which Republican editors took toward the secession movement as it actually developed.

Returning to the problem of Greeley's policy, it will be remembered that the older historians held that Greeley's peaceable secession articles were provoked by the secession crisis and were explainable only in the light of a sudden aversion to fratricidal strife. But there is abundant evidence to show that the principles found in those editorials were not makeshift expedients designed to fit a particular situation. Nine years before the election of Lincoln, Greeley declared that a state whose people were united in wanting to quit the Union should not be "retained as a captive and a subject if she is unwilling to remain as a partner."19 In 1854 and again in 1856 he repeated these sentiments, warning that the only real danger to the nation came, not from the oft-repeated threats of secession, but from the chance that the North might one day refuse to grant any further concessions despite the threats. Then the leaders of the South might be "ashamed not to secede upon discovering that the North refuses, for once, to be dragooned by them."20

Thus, within the decade preceding the crisis of 1860-1861, Greeley had outlined the convictions which were tb guide his editorial policy throughout the crisis. Secession was only a bluff used to [430] frighten timid Northerners into concession. The vast majority of the southern people were loyal to the Union and would tolerate the secessionists only so long as they were able to wring concessions from the North. If, however, a decisive majority of any state should ever vote for secession over union, he would favor letting them go, but the means by which this was to be accomplished were not described.21

During the late summer and fall of 1860, Greeley's editorials were aimed largely at minimizing the possibility of secession in the event of Lincoln's election. The obvious objective of this policy, which was common to all the Republican journals,22 was to win votes. There were many Lincoln supporters in the North who would have dropped him if there were any question that his election meant disunion.23 Consequently, Greeley attacked the secession threat with vigor and sarcasm. Those who heeded the warnings of "Southern braggarts" and "Northern demagogues" were "simpletons."24 The threat of dissolution was "as audacious a humbug as Mormonism, as preposterous a delusion as Millerism."25 The possibility of united southern action was treated with contempt: "the South could no more unite upon a scheme of secession, than a company of lunatics could conspire to break out of Bedlam." 26

After Lincoln's election, however, the Tribune began to consider the possibility of secession more seriously. By the ninth of November, the date of his famed editorial noted above, Greeley knew that in South Carolina, at least, the probability of action was very strong. A dispatch from South Carolina in the same paper carried the news of Governor William H. Gist's recommendations to the state legislature.27 Because of the crucial importance of the November 9th editorial, it may be well to devote some space to Greeley's [431] own words and an analysis of them. The significant parts of the editorial follow:28

. . . and if the Cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. The right to secede may be a revolutionary one, but it exists nevertheless; and we do not see how one party can have a right to do what another party has a right to prevent. We must ever resist the asserted right of any State to remain in the Union and nullify or defy the laws thereof: to withdraw from the Union is quite another matter. And whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep it in. We hope never to live in a republic, whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.

But while we thus uphold the practical liberty if not the abstract right of secession, we must insist that the step be taken, if it ever shall be, with the deliberation and gravity befitting so momentous an issue. Let ample time be given for reflection; let the subject be fully canvassed before the people; and let a popular vote be taken in every case before secession is decreed. Let the people be told just why they are urged to break up the confederation; let them have both sides of the question fully presented; let them reflect, deliberate, then vote; and let the act of secession be the echo of an unmistakable popular fiat. A judgment thus rendered, a demand for separation so backed, would either be acquiesced in without the effusion of blood, or those who rushed upon carnage to defy and defeat it would place themselves clearly in the wrong.

The measures now being inaugurated in the Cotton States with a view (apparently) to Secession, seem to us destitute of gravity and legitimate force. They bear the unmistakakble [sic] impress of haste -- of passion -- of distrust of the popular judgment. They seem clearly intended to precipitate the South into rebellion before the baselessness of the clamors which have misled and excited her can be ascertained by the great body of her people[.] We trust that they will be confronted with calmness, with dignity, and with unwavering trust in the inherent strength of the Union and the loyalty of the American People.

These words do not contain an endorsement of what the South considered to be the constitutional right of secession. On the contrary, the right "may be a revolutionary one." It was only the "practical liberty" and not the "abstract right" of secession that Greeley was upholding. Nor does Greeley specify the means by which separation was to be achieved. There is nothing in these paragraphs which indicates that Greeley would ever accept the simple act of a state legislature as an "unmistakable popular fiat." Secession would be acceptable to him only if it were the result of a [432] deliberate and popular choice. Knowing that Greeley was convinced that there was strong unionist sentiment in the South, it may be observed that he was here trying to make sure that any act of secession would not be the work of a small group of conspirators who might mislead or intimidate a state convention or legislature into passing an ordinance of secession. In the third paragraph above, Greeley asserted that the actual secession movement then gathering momentum in the South lacked the gravity and deliberation which would make such a movement acceptable to him. Greeley's position in this editorial might be summarized as one of opposition to keeping any state in the Union against its will, provided that will were clearly and unmistakably expressed -- which had not been the case in any of the southern states to that time.

Actually, Greeley had not fully developed his secession policy at the time he wrote this editorial. He here combined two ideas that he was later to separate and clarify. There were two ways, according to the Tribune editor, in which dissatisfied states might leave the Union without bloodshed; by a peaceful rebellion too imposing to put down, or through a constitutional convention of all the states to arrange the terms of separation. The latter course would have to be preceded by a plebiscite which showed a distinct majority of the inhabitants of each of the seceding states favoring such action. It is the failure to distinguish between these two possible means of peaceable separation which accounts for much of the apparent confusion in Greeley's editorial policy during the crisis.

Of these two possible modes of leaving the Union, the recourse to revolution was, of course, the more unsatisfactory. But, said Greeley, if a sufficient number of states should undertake to establish their independence without the consent of the remaining states, it would be found impracticable to coerce them. This did not imply any moral repugnance to coercion on Greeley's part. He admitted that "One or two States may be coerced [but] not an entire section or quarter of the Union." 29 Greeley's estimate of the number of states necessary to make coercion impracticable varied from six to a number "large enough to form an independent, self-subsisting nation,"30 but his usual estimate was "seven or eight contiguous States."31 But it was up to the rebelling states to see that the [433] separation was peaceful, too. They must exercise forbearance and refrain from "any act of hostility which, as between independent States, would afford occasion for war."32 It was the subsequent failure of the Confederate States to observe this forbearance which assured Greeley that they had no real desire to make the separation a peaceful one.

The alternative to this revolutionary way of leaving the Union was for the would-be seceders to ask Congress to call a convention to arrange the terms of separation. This would take time and in the interim the president would be forced by his inaugural oath to enforce the laws and collect the revenue until the separation could be effected. But if the secessionists were in earnest and were willing to abide by these terms, "we shall do what we can to persuade the North to accede to their wishes."33

It would not be wise, however, to overemphasize the differences between these two paths to disunion. Greeley did not always distinguish between them himself. They are discussed here because of the contention of some writers (notably Potter) that Greeley was confused in his thinking during this period since he never clearly outlined any means whereby a state might leave the Union.34 Substantially, Greeley was consistent in his declarations of the conditions necessary for the realization of either possibility. The basic condition was a clear and deliberate choice by the southern people themselves. Assured of that, the next condition was that whatever action was taken, should be taken cautiously and with due regard for the rights and interests of those remaining in the Union. Finally, concerning delicate questions like control of the mouth of the Mississippi and federal fortifications, the United States would insist upon having a voice in their settlement.

In regard to further compromise as a means of saving the Union, Greeley again followed the policy he had outlined years before the crisis. Another concession to the South, in his view, was the worst calamity which could befall the Union.35 He warned that "to make [434] concessions involving vital principles because some State or section threatens to secede, is to incite constant bullying and menace by proffering rewards for turbulence and giving bounties for treason."36 In editorial after editorial the Tribune warned against the evils of compromise and viciously attacked the latest plan for reconciliation. Those who insist that Greeley changed from a policy of peaceable secession to one of violent opposition to compromise misread the facts. At no time did Greeley exhibit the slightest warmth toward any projected compromise scheme.

It is now obvious that Greeley meant something quite different by the term "peaceable separation" than did contemporary Southerners and northern Democrats. It is from this difference that many of the misleading interpretations of Greeley's policy have arisen. Historians familiar with the course secession actually took in the South have freely assumed that Greeley was initially prepared to accept that course and subsequently reneged, forgetting that there was more than one possible road to disunion visible to Americans of 1860. While Greeley acknowledged the impracticability of coercing a large number of states simultaneously in rebellion, the difference between revolution and treason, as even Jefferson would admit, is largely a matter of numbers and outcome. As long as the withdrawal was orderly and peaceful, with no damage or loss to the property belonging to the common government of all the states, Greeley was willing to acquiesce, though grudgingly, in the movement.87

But Greeley never believed nor asserted that a single state had the right to break up the Union in a "transient gust of passion." 38 He attacked the southern doctrine that there was a right inhering in a state as a state to secede from the federal Union.39 Jefferson's principle, like any other broad generalization, declared Greeley, could [435] be pushed to "extreme and baleful consequences." Admit the right of a state to secede under that principle, then why should Governor's Island not be permitted "to secede from the State and Nation and allow herself to be covered with French or British batteries," if she wished.40 It is the writer's conviction that Greeley revived Jefferson's revolutionary doctrine only to strengthen the unionists' hands in the South and, that failing, to provide a means whereby the cotton states, en masse^ could leave the Union without bloodshed. Unquestionably, he considered the first alternative the more probable, since he presumed the southern unionists to be in the majority. The irregular correspondence which he received from the lower South confirmed his belief that the "fire-eating" minority was trying to ram secession down the throat of the average loyal Southerner.41

According to the traditional view of Greeley's policy on secession, a momentous change took place in January. A policy which favored letting a seceding state depart in peace was transformed into one opposed to any kind of concession to traitors. So much of this interpretation as applies to Greeley's early secession editorials has been [436] analyzed and found to be false and misleading; opposition to any-kind of compromise was a vital part of the early policy and, consequently, can not be considered exclusively characteristic of a later policy antithetical to it. It remains now to determine whether Greeley's policy toward the problem of secession actually underwent any drastic change from January on.

The course of events from mid-December to mid-January greatly disturbed the Tribune editor. Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama followed South Carolina in passing ordinances of secession, and Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas soon joined them. Not one of these states made any pretense of consulting the states remaining in the Union before exercising what it considered to be its sovereign right. Only Texas among these seven states proposed to submit its secession ordinance to a direct vote of the people, but even there it proved a farce.42 Moreover, all these states followed the lead of South Carolina in seizing federal property — buildings, funds, arsenals, and military posts. South Carolina batteries had actually opened fire on the Star of the West, a federal ship attempting to land provisions and reinforcements at Fort Sumter. Far from apologizing, the South Carolina authorities subsequently demanded the surrender of Sumter.

It is obvious that these events did not conform to Greeley's formula for a peaceable separation. To his mind the withdrawing states, being responsible for thus breaking up the Union, were also responsible for seeing that the division was a peaceful one. He continued to proclaim his willingness to assist the slave states in getting out of the Union, if only they would submit their claims to the whole people, and cease acting as the sole arbiters of right and wrong. But they refused to do this; in Greeley's view, because the leaders of the secession movement knew that they did not represent the views of a majority of their own people and that delay would be fatal to their plans.

As a result of the course secession was taking in the South, the Tribune counseled a firmer policy. Less was said about the possibility of a peaceful break-up of the Union and more emphasis was placed upon the necessity of upholding the laws. Referring to the seizure of Forts Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, the Tribune [437] declared that "This is an act of hostility to the United States, whose property... is thus seized by its open enemies."43 Greeley declared that Fort Sumter should be reinforced with "decision and energy" in view of the threat posed by South Carolina's belligerency.44

But not all of this increased firmness can be ascribed to Greeley. For five weeks, from mid-January to some time after February 20, he was absent from the Tribune on a lecture tour. It was during these five weeks that some of the most virulent and uncompromising of the editorials appeared, under the direction of the Tribune's managing editor, Charles Dana. It is true that Greeley probably approved, in general, of Dana's views but it is equally certain that he would never have written: "the country is believing a lie. They are assured that the secession movement is in the hands of a mob; that the respectable people of the South are coerced to approval, or, at least to silence; that property is already unsafe ... that starvation is added to anarchy." But, warned Dana, this was not the truth. There was no coercion, no tyranny of opinion, no want in the South. "It is a fatal mistake," he concluded, "to encourage any hopes for the future upon any supposed condition of Southern distress."45 These were not Greeley's views, as an open letter from Greeley two days later shows.46 It is quite possible that some of the other editorials of this period, which have been cited to prove Greeley's changed attitude, reflect Dana's rather than Greeley's point of view, but definite proof would require more evidence than is available.

The attacks which the Tribune made against compromise from January to April were perhaps more intense, but hardly more bitter, than those of the preceding November and December. Should the North compromise, the Tribune announced, the government would be "demoralized by having been defied, insulted and humiliated with impunity." 4T To drop the Chicago platform would be to admit [438] "that in public affairs there is no such thing as right, and that a man may change his politics as he changes his shirt."48 Therefore, "Let us retract nothing; let us not yield a single inch; let us be firm under every provocation and every threat."49

This is the basis for the traditional assertion that Greeley's views underwent a serious alteration when he was confronted with actual secession. But it should now be apparent that Greeley's attitude toward compromise had not changed at all, and that his reaction to actual secession in the South was just what should have been expected in the light of his early editorials. An examination of his later editorials on the possibility of peaceable secession should provide the remainder of our answer to the question of Greeley's consistency.

Perhaps the most important observation to be made with regard to the secession editorials which Greeley wrote between January and April is that he continued to offer to the South, in terms very similar to those employed in November, the possibility of a peaceable division of the Union. Where the early editorials had qualified such offers with warnings that arbitrary, unilateral action would not be tolerated, these later editorials stressed the danger in the course the South was now pursuing, while continuing to point out the road to an orderly, peaceable separation.

A long article explaining the Tribune's policy toward secession appeared on January 14. This editorial has been cited by James Ford Rhodes50 and others as evidence of Greeley's "recanting" his peaceable secession policy. To the present writer it is one of the clearest statements of that policy. Greeley began this article by outlining the consequences of another backdown to the South. Another compromise, he said, would result in the establishment of the "monstrous, anarchical doctrine that any State may at pleasure dissolve the Union." All secession up to that point, declared Greeley, had been based on that assumption. For the North to give official recognition to it by retreating before the threat would mean, in effect, that the United States had no government worthy of the name.

The cotton states, Greeley continued, were in the hands of desperate adventurers. Secession there was only a "cloak for anarchy and plunder." No southern state, with the possible exception of [439] South Carolina, would give a majority for disunion in a free election. There was proof of this in the fact that the leaders of the movement everywhere shrank from putting the secession-versus-union question to a popular vote (even in South Carolina).

Greeley again declared for a separation "peacefully and constitutionally attained." If the Southerners would only be patient and "not rush to seize Federal forts, arsenals and Sub-Treasuries," but instead poll their own people in a free and honest election, then he would help them to leave the Union "at an early day." "I want no States kept in the Union by coercion," he wrote, "but I insist that none shall be coerced out of it, as is now being done by the banded and armed traitors throughout the South, and, above all, that no State shall coerce the Union itself." Greeley concluded this exposition of his views with another plea for an "open and full canvass" and promised again to join in urging the constitutional changes necessary to let the slave states out, if they should elect secession. His closing sentences epitomized his thinking about secession: "But it must be understood and agreed that, as the Union is at least a compact, to which there are not less than two parties, it can only be peaceably dissolved, as it was formed, by mutual consent. If the Sword is introduced to cut the knot because one alone cannot untie it, that is not Secession — it is Revolution."

There is no perceptible departure from earlier principles apparent in this editorial. The basis for the traditional view of a January reversal in Greeley's attitude is to be found, not in the January editorials, but in an inadequate understanding of what Greeley offered in November. The principles which guided his policy in both November and January are apparent in all the editorials which he continued to write on the subject of peaceable secession up until, and indeed after, the bombardment of Sumter. The absence of Greeley from the Tribune during the latter part of January and most of February may have something to do with the frequent misinterpretation of his policy, since only one editorial dealing with the possibility of a peaceful separation -- and that a letter from Greeley himself -- appeared during his absence.

During the ensuing months, the ideas of the January 14th editorial were repeated over and over again. The right of self-government, he asserted once more, was not to be exercised "with the levity of a beau choosing his partner for a dance." A state could not [440] "break out of the Union like a bull from a pasture."51 As late as March 25 Greeley asked for more time for the citizens of Tfexas to make up their minds: "If she really desires to go out of the Union that is a question to be decided upon when it is brought properly before the whole Government at Washington ... or, perhaps, the whole people." For how could it be known that "the usurping party [in Texas] are the party of the people"?52 Finally, when the events at Sumter exploded the last chance for a peaceable separation, Greeley embodied in one of his war aims his consistent opposition to the southern doctrine of unilateral secession: "We want peace, but it must be an honorable and durable one. It must be a peace that fully upholds the dignity and insures the stability of the Union. A peace that affirms, even by implication, the right of any State to dissolve the Union at pleasure, would be the inauguration of perpetual anarchy and of chronic civil war." 68

There is then no evidence, so far as the writer can discover, to support the traditional view of Greeley's secession policy. His editorials show a consistent willingness to support any separation movement which had the support of the people concerned, and which was conducted along orderly lines. The editorials show, too, a consistent opposition to the conception of the right of secession appealed to and implemented by the South. When it became apparent to Greeley that the actual secession movement in the South was neither popularly inspired, peacefully intended, nor considerate of the rights and interests of those peoples remaining within the Union, he began to call for a more vigorous assertion of the national authority, while continuing to offer cooperation with the South in any separation scheme which called for a direct and open vote on the question.64

Greeley's peaceable secession policy, it may be concluded, was not [441] a temporary aberration occasioned by the crisis of 1860. It was not simply a frantic, last-minute appeal to avert civil war. Based on a serious misconception of southern politics, Greeley's policy was designed to rally a supposedly powerful loyalist element in the South and at the same time provide a peaceable, constitutional means of escape, if he had overrated the strength of that element. Whatever shift in emphasis took place in the Greeley editorials once secession had begun was the result of the hasty and'ill-considered actions of the withdrawing states.

There are, indeed, several important aspects of the secession movement which support Greeley's contention that the departing states failed to fulfill the conditions he deemed necessary for a peaceable separation. The question of submitting the decision for secession to a popular vote was everywhere side-stepped in the South. In the case of six of the future Confederate states, separation was effected by the acts of speedily arranged conventions.65 William L. Yancey in Alabama was forced to threaten the northern part of his state with coercion in order to secure cooperation with secession plans.56 Considerable opposition to leaving the Union came from citizens in the Gulf states (notably Louisiana), who were prone to wait for an overt act on the part of the incoming administration before taking drastic action. In the states of Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, more deliberate attempts to get secession conventions elected failed.

The consistency of Greeley's secession policy having been determined, the question of his sincerity in offering peaceable secession becomes largely a superfluous one. For Potter's thesis, too, is based on Greeley's supposed inconsistency. In Potter's view this inconsistency is attributed to Greeley's disingenuousness in ever offering peaceful separation. As soon as this insincere offer had served to obscure the true alternatives -- compromise or war -- Greeley dropped his peaceable secession idea and railed against compromise, thereby leaving coercion and war as the residual alternative which represented Greeley's true formula for meeting the secession movement. [442]

It should now be apparent that Greeley did not desert his peaceable secession policy. Neither did he return to a belligerent stand against compromise; he had never left that position. He did not, moreover, turn to a coercion policy because all attempts at compromise had been effectively scotched. The pressure for compromise during the early part of February was stronger than ever -- even the Tribune was forced to admit the likelihood of a compromise.57 Nor could a Greeley bent on war call for "retrenchment in the Military" two weeks before the attack on Sumter.58

Quite rightly, Potter calls attention to the qualifications which Greeley attached to his peaceable secession offers, but there is no evidence to support his contention that in his November 26th editorial Greeley began to alter subtly his definition of the right of secession, making it no longer a matter for state action. Greeley never asserted the right of a state as a state to secede. A state might take part in a revolution too formidable to crush, but that was only recognition of the right of revolution, with the right reserved to treat it as such. Rather than altering any definition of a "right of secession" in the November 26th editorial, Greeley was only pointing out that there was a much more satisfactory way of leaving the Union than revolution. He was to continue to point out that way to the South for the remainder of the crisis.59

Potter argues that one of the purposes of Greeley's policy was to divide and confuse opinion in the North, thus forestalling a compromise. If this were true, why should he write to Lincoln, outlining the same views which he put before his Tribune readers?60 Was he trying to confuse Lincoln too? The means by which Greeley is supposed to have sought his end was "alteration in the definition [443] of his words" -- "one of the oldest and simplest tricks of casuistry."61 He was simply using the word "secession," according to Potter, in a different sense than that understood by his countrymen. Actually, it is Potter who assumes secession to be something quite different than what was included in the term in 1860. He follows the lead of the older historians in assuming that because Greeley and others asserted a willingness to acquiesce in a peaceable separation, they were prepared to accept secession as it actually developed. Consequently, because they were not willing to accept the actual course pursued by the revolting states, they have been accused of reneging. But, in view of the foregoing analysis of Greeley's policy, it is obvious that Greeley was opposed, both in theory and practice, to the arbitrary, unilateral right of secession claimed and exercised by the seceding states. It is forgotten, moreover, that the North did in fact acquiesce in southern secession until Fort Sumter provided a focus for antagonisms that might otherwise have been dissipated.62

Greeley, so far as can be determined, was sincere in offering peaceable separation to the slave states. His war activities, far from confirming Potter's hypothesis of disingenuousness, show that he never grasped the concrete realities in the southern situation. As Jeter A. Isely points out, Greeley continued to look for a rebellion on the part of nonslaveholders after the war had begun, or at least some expression of unionist sentiment from the South.63

The crux of Greeley's secession policy, then, was a consistent willingness to accept a division of the Union which was orderly, deliberate, and peaceable, coupled with an equally consistent opposition to the course which secession actually took from December on. Greeley's paramount concern was the preservation of a Union containing the elements of stability, order, and strength. Such a Union, in view of the promising potentialities of an undeveloped West, need not contain the cotton states. They might be allowed to go, providing their departure did not destroy the constitutional fabric of the government they were leaving, and thus render impossible [444] the development of a strong, prosperous, and united commonwealth stretching from ocean to ocean. But in Greeley's view, acceptance of the status quo after December would bring just such results. It would signify endorsement of the anarchical right of any state to secede from the Union at pleasure and take with it whatever federal property it saw fit to appropriate, regardless of the effect such seizures might have on the security and welfare of the remaining states. No unanimity of sentiment, only the skillful leadership of a few demagogues, would be necessary to effect dissolution. Disappointment in the outcome of an election would be enough. No government whose actions would be thus subject to nullification by the capricious acts of individual states could long command respect in a world where governments were accustomed to act on behalf of whole nations. The strong government which Greeley loved would disappear in a maelstrom of compromises and concessions to the will of individual states.

These are the reasons why Greeley insisted on an orderly, mutually contrived mode of separation in 1860. Only a Constitution and a Union which had some real meaning were worth preserving, whether or not the cotton states left the Union.


1 Ralph R. Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War (Cedar Rapids, 1936), 49; New York Daily Tribune, April 10, 1861.

2 David M. Potter, "Horace Greeley and Peaceable Secession," Journal of Southern History (Baton Rouge), VII (May, 1941), 146-48.

3 James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Final Restoration of Home Rule at the South in 1877, 7 vols. (New York, 1893-1906), III, 165-66. Most writers have followed Rhodes in giving these as the reasons.

4 Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune, 53. A contemporary editor, however, ascribed the change in Greeley's editorial policy to the protective tariff and a "desire to be true to the cotton lords of New England and the ironmasters of Pennsylvania." The paper was the Indianapolis Sentinel, a Democratic paper in Indiana. See James A. Woodburn, "Party Politics in Indiana during the Civil War," American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1902, I (Washington, 1903), 237-38.

5 Potter, "Horace Greeley and Peaceable Secession," Journal of Southern History, VII (May, 1941), 145-59. See also, by the same author, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (New Haven, 1942), 51-57.

6 Potter, Lincoln and His Party, 57.

7 Potter, "Horace Greeley and Peaceable Secession," Journal of Southern History, VII (May, 1941), 156.

8 Ibid., 153-56.

9 Ibid., 154.

10 Potter, Lincoln and His Party, 52.

11 Potter, "Horace Greeley and Peaceable Secession," Journal of Southern History, VII (May, 1941), 152, n. 20.

12 Potter, Lincoln and His Party, 55.

13 Potter, "Horace Greeley and Peaceable Secession," Journal of Southern History, VII (May, 1941), 157.

14 Ibid., 157-58.

15 Howard C. Perkins (ed.), Northern Editorials on Secession, 2 vols. (New York, 1942), I, 11-12.

16 Potter, Lincoln and His Party, 54; Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune, 42.

17 Perkins (ed.), Northern Editorials on Secession, I, 10-11. Said Greeley of Jefferson's revolutionary principle: "We do heartily accept this doctrine, believing it intrinsically sound, beneficent, and one that, universally accepted, is calculated to prevent the shedding of seas of human blood." New York Daily Tribune, December 17, 1860.

18 New York Daily Tribune, November 26, 1860.

19 Ibid., October 17, 1851.

20 Ibid., May 2, 1854.

21 The phrase, "letting them go," is decisive, however. This is the expression which Greeley employs in his later editorials. It implies that he expected any vote of secession to be submitted in some way to the North for consideration and action -- possibly to a national convention, or perhaps to Congress. This point is discussed later on.

22 Perkins (ed.), Northern Editorials on Secession, I, 9.

23 After Lincoln's election, when it became apparent that secession was a very real possibility, August Belmont wrote of " 'the reaction which has already taken place among thousands who voted for Lincoln/ " Rhodes, History of the United States, III, 144.

24 New York Daily Tribune, July 11, 1860.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., July 28, 1860.

27 Dispatch from Columbia, South Carolina, dated November 5, ibid,, November 9, 1860.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., December 4, 8, 1860.

30 Ibid., December 24, 1860.

31 Ibid., December 4, 10, 17, 1860.

32 Ibid., December 3, 1860.

33 Ibid., November 26, 1860.

34 Potter thinks that Greeley shifted ground and "subtly altered [his] definition of the 'right of secession'" in his November 26th editorial. This view is incompatible with the fact that most of Greeley's statements on the impracticability of coercion (including some of the stronger ones) came after this date. Potter, "Horace Greeley and Peaceable Secession," Journal of Southern History, VII (May, 1941), 152.

35 In his Recollections of a Busy Life (New York, 1868), 397, Greeley says: "My own controlling conviction from first to last was, -- There must, at all events, be no concession to Slavery. Disunion, should it befall, may be calamity; but complicity in Slavery extension is guilt, which the Republicans must in no case incur."

36 New York Daily Tribune, December 12, 1860.

37 In arguing the futility of coercion in one editorial, Greeley anticipated some of the trials of the Reconstruction era. If the seceding states were beaten, he asserted in his November 30th editorial, "they would no longer be equal members of the Union, but conquered dependencies. Suppose they could be overcome and their military forces destroyed: what then? Can you compel them to send members to Congress? Can you make them accept Federal offices?"

38 New York Daily Tribune, November 19, 1860.

39 Ibid., December 10, 1860. Greeley added that "we do not think a single State can well get out of the Union."

40 Ibid., December 17, 1860.

41 See Jeter A. Isely, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 1853-1861 (Princeton, 1947), 307, for samples of this correspondence with full citations.

Before turning to the editorials written in January and after, it may be well to present Greeley's own summary of his position in December. The following quotation constitutes the major part of an article written by Greeley, New York Daily Tribune, December 4, 1860, in response to a series of questions submitted by a reader, asking him to make his position on secession clear.

"Secession from the Union is by no means provided for or contemplated in the Constitution, and yet that instrument opens a door by which States may legally, and in an orderly manner, withdraw from the Confederacy. That door is opened in the provision for the amendment of the Constitution; and, until that means of redress has been tried, and has failed, no State, whatever its grievances, can be justified in the eyes of humanity or of history in resorting to the violent, anarchical, and dangerous remedy of revolution.

"But, whenever it becomes indispensable, revolution is indisputably the right of all men. This cannot be better expressed than in the language of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. ... [A quotation from the Declaration of Independence is omitted here.]

" -- That may be very old-fashioned doctrine, but we actually believe in it. And we cannot help seeing that, if it justified the Colonies in revolting from Great Britain, it equally justifies a fourth of the Union in cutting loose from the rest, for reasons which to them shall seem sufficient.

" -- So much for the abstract right to secede. The right is plainly a fundamental and extra-constitutional one, and the manner of its exercise is to be governed by circumstances. But should seven or eight States leave the Union, it would be very hard for the Federal Government not to perceive the fact and to act upon it.

" -- We have thus answered our correspondent's queries all together. Admit a right to exist, and you cannot well deny that there must be a proper time for and manner of exercising it."

42 Nearly half of the 122 counties in Texas did not even hold an election for convention delegates, and in the others only a small minority voted. American Annual Cyclopaedia . . . 1861 (New York, 1872), 688-89.

43 New York Daily Tribune, December 29, 1860.

44 Ibid., January 4, 1861.

45 Ibid., January 19, 1861. See ibid., February 20, 1861, for notice of Greeley's absence.

46 "What I demand is proof that the Southern people really desire separation from the Free States." Ibid., January 21, 1861. In this same issue Charles Dana again expressed his doubts about southern unionism: "Though the minority against Secession in the Georgia Convention was large (130 Nays to 165 Yeas), it would be a mistake to suppose that the State will not all stand together on the question of breaking up the Union. The minority is composed of men whose moderation would be called rank fanaticism in this quarter."

47 Ibid., February 8, 1861.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid., January 1, 1861.

50 Rhodes, History of the United States, III, 142 n.

51 New York Daily Tribune, February 23, 1861.

52 Ibid., March 25, 1861.

53 Ibid„ April 30, 1861.

54 Concerning Rhodes's claim that Greeley gave up peaceable secession "partly out of deference to Lincoln," it should now be clear that Greeley did not "give up" peaceable secession, as he understood it, at all. It should further be noted that Greeley wrote to Lincoln in late December, outlining his views on secession in much the same way as he had been doing in the Tribune, He told Lincoln that "a State could no more secede at pleasure from the Union than a stave could secede from a cask." But "if eight or ten contiguous States" should seek to leave the Union, then he would say, "'There's the door -- go!'" He qualified this last statement, as he had in the Tribune, by adding that " 'if the seceding State or States go to fighting and defying the laws, the Union being yet undissolved save by their own say-so, I guess they will have to be made to behave themselves.... I fear nothing, care for nothing, but another disgraceful back-down of the free States. That is the only real danger.'" John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, A History, 10 vols. (New York, 1890), III, 258.

55 Isely, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 309-10.

56 William R. Smith, The History and Debates of the Convention of the People of Alabama . . . (Atlanta, 1861), 68-69.

57 In the January 29th edition of the Tribune, the following report was carried: "We have positive information from Washington that a Compromise, on the basis of Mr. Crittenden's, is sure to be carried through Congress either this week or the next, provided a very few more Republicans can be got to enlist in the enterprise."

58 Ibid., March 28, 1861. The statement read that the Tribune concurred "in The Post's wish to see the Federal Expenditures reduced by retrenchment in the Military, Naval and Diplomatic service -- the Naval especially [N. B.]."

59 Nor was Greeley understood at the time to be counseling recognition of a state's constitutional right to secede, as Potter implies. A letter from a George N. Sanders, reproduced and commented upon by Greeley a week before the November 26th editorial contains the following sentence: ". . . in recent editorials you [Greeley] reject the idea of the secession of Southern States without the sanction of the popular vote in those States, declaring that mere legislative action would not warrant their withdrawal." Ibid., November 20, 1861.

60 See n. 54.

61Potter, "Horace Greeley and Peaceable Secession," Journal of Southern History, VII (May, 1941), 153. The two quotations have been reversed.

62 And a reasonable forbearance with respect to federal fortifications had been one of Greeley's prerequisites for a peaceable separation.

68 Isely, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 312-13. The writer is indebted at many points to Isely for his suggestive interpretation of Greeley's secession policy. See ibid., 300-31.