The Civil War: New-York Daily Tribune: Going to Go

November 9, 1860

One of the most famous newspapermen of his time, Horace Greeley, almost always had a sharp opinion, and with his newspaper, the New-York Daily Tribune, he had an audience. With the ubiquitous talk of secession during and after the election of 1860, Greeley had an opportunity to bring a more sober, well-reasoned approach to the issue.With that, perhaps he could resolve some of the tension that had developed between the North and South and assist in averting what seemed then to be an inevitable crisis.

Horace Greeley (1811-1872) was a prominent American newspaper editor and publisher during the 19th century.

Greeley was a strong opponent of slavery and was a vocal supporter of the Union cause during the Civil War.

Greeley was willing to accept that perhaps the South may be justified in wanting to secede, but there remained an outstanding question as to whether that should, in fact, occur. Typically, such momentous decisions are broadly discussed and debated, and elected officials take the temperature of their constituencies and tailor their positions accordingly. Greeley called for just such a broad discussion and debate, and in the New-York Daily Tribune, he wrote the following:

“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.”

After the public debated such an option, perhaps there would be a “popular fiat” that called for secession. If the public—rather than southern leaders—made clear that it was overwhelmingly pro-secession, then the northern states would have had a different dilemma presented to them; and perhaps the North would have acquiesced, on some level, to the South’s demands. But, without such a mandate, it made “the effusion of blood” and “carnage” all the more likely.

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