There is a misconception by many, perhaps caused by educational shortcuts, that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation “freed the slaves” in the United States. In fact, when it was first issued, the document did not even affect over 400,000 slaves held in the so-called “Border States” and it freed only a few of the nearly four million slaves held throughout the South. So, why do most historians, and this Lincoln admirer, consider the document one of the most important in American history? Why, because it was a good first step!
But, it was not a quick, nor easy, decision for President Lincoln to make.
He, and his cabinet, had discussed the ramifications of such a document since mid-summer, but felt that the Union first needed a significant military victory or the public, both North and South, might see it as an act of desperation. Then came the horrific battle at Antietum Creek on September 17, 1862 which claimed more American lives in one day than any military engagement before or since. While Northern newspapers and politicians considered it a victory, because General Robert E. Lee had retreated further south, many Civil War historians consider that the battle was actually a draw. But, this “declared victory” gave Lincoln and his advisers the confidence to move forward with the Proclamation; and he published the text on September 22, to be effective on January 1, 1863. Lincoln personally wrote most of the document, accepting a few suggestions from Secretary of State William Seward and others in his Cabinet. His handwritten final draft was titled simply “A Proclamation”, however, the Government Printing Office engraved the title as “Emancipation Proclamation.” It is unknown if Lincoln made that change, but I like to think he did.
Lincoln detractors, then and now, point out that (1) the Proclamation failed to include slaves held in parts of what is now West Virginia and the four Border States of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. (TRUE); (2) it did not, at first, free many slaves held in the eleven Confederate states (TRUE); (3) it was a deliberate and cynical attempt by Lincoln to cause slave insurrections in the South (FALSE); and (4) it was a desperate act by Lincoln who needed Negro troops to overcome Confederate forces (FALSE).
A Presidential “Emancipation Proclamation” had been encouraged by abolitionists and “Radical Republicans” (a name they embraced) in Congress beginning even before the Civil War started in April 1861. When Lincoln won the November 1860 election, many hoped the new Republican President would announce an effort to end slavery in all states. But Lincoln had said before the election, and again in his first Inaugural Address, that he had no power as President to “Constitutionally” interfere with the right of slavery in certain of the United States and that the Southern states had nothing to fear from his Republican administration. It appears that neither side was listening.
While Lincoln had always personally opposed slavery as an institution, he believed that the U.S. Constitution permitted slavery in specific states. However, after April 1861, he also took the position that the eleven states, which had seceded and initiated a “rebellion” against the lawful government, had forfeited any Constitutional protections. In the first few months of the War, Lincoln held hope that a quick military victory by Union forces would encourage some, if not all, Confederate states to petition for return into the United States; and he thought any unilateral Presidential Proclamation or anti-slavery legislation would be counter-productive to that goal. But, as the War dragged on, he began to explore the use of Presidential War Powers and the concept of “military necessity” to emancipate slaves in Confederate territory captured by Union forces. He was not yet ready to act however, as evidenced by his rebukes in early 1862 of several Union Generals who declared slaves freed as their troops entered areas of the South. A primary concern for Lincoln was the potential effect on the four Border States of any order to free slaves issued by him or his Generals. Lincoln reasoned that these states had remained in the Union and under the U.S. Constitution, therefore, they should not be subject to any anti-slavery Presidential Proclamation. So, on this point, his detractors’ comments are true!
However, his willingness to exclude these four Border States was a pragmatic decision, as he was concerned that Southern sympathizers in those states might lead a movement to also secede from the Union. Lincoln was convinced that the War would be prolonged, if not actually lost, if the Border States joined the Confederacy and provided several hundred thousand more men to fight against the Union. Lincoln did offer compensation to those four states if they would voluntarily free slaves but, while the proposal was debated, none actually agreed to such legislation.
It is also historically true, as his detractors note, that the Emancipation Proclamation did not, at first, free many slaves, since it only applied to areas of the eleven Confederate states which had already come under Union control, or would thereafter. However, over time, the Union Army accepted thousands of Negro men and established training programs to turn the former slaves into soldiers, and a few into sailors. Those new army enlistees were then assigned to all-black regiments under the control of White officers; a segregation policy very few questioned in 1863. In fact, it would be another 85 years before the U.S. armed forces were fully integrated.
It is false, however, when Lincoln’s critics claim that he hoped for slave insurrections. Lincoln actually feared that, if such violent uprisings occurred, even White citizens in the North might turn against his policies. As a precaution, he expected his Union Generals to control the risk of slave insurrections and retributions by former slaves as Union forces captured Confederate territory.
It is also false when some critics claim that Lincoln desperately needed the additional soldiers to defeat the Southern armies. While the Negro troops certainly contributed to the War effort and performed admirably in battle (read the stirring story of Colonel Robert G. Shaw’s Black troops at Fort Wagner), the North already had superior numbers and resources. And, at the time he wrote the Proclamation in late 1862, Lincoln was confident the Union would eventually prevail, but he did hope that the effects of emancipation on the southern economy, coupled with the added troops available to the Union Army, might shorten the war.
As he and his Cabinet expected, the Emancipation Proclamation had immediate impact on the Union (mostly positive) and on the Confederacy (mostly negative). First, although Britain and France had abolished slavery years earlier, both had been giving some support to the South but, internationally, the Proclamation gave the North a morally superior position and left the Confederate States isolated as a government that supported the expansion of slavery. Second, while the inclusion of thousands of former slaves as new recruits did strengthen Union forces, more importantly the Confederate Army began to lose the use of slaves to provide needed logistical labor for their fighting troops. And third, while the North’s industrial based economy thrived during war-time, the South’s loss of slave labor decimated their regional agrarian economies.
Although some politicians and newspaper editors in the North and the South predicted Confederate forces would see a significant increase in enlistments from outrage over the Proclamation; Lincoln correctly anticipated that the Confederate army would see only a minor resurgence in recruiting because most of the South’s eligible young men were already under arms.
The one unwelcome surprise for the President and his Cabinet was the scope of new, sometimes violent, draft protests in the North, especially in Ohio and New York, as many now believed the conflict was evolving into “Lincoln’s Negro War” rather than a war to preserve the Union.
The body of the Emancipation document contains significant semantic legalese which was necessary to correctly convey the circumstances for freeing some slaves while exempting others for whom freedom would not be granted. The document did, however, contain a few inspiring phrases such as, “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
However, it is the simple title of “Emancipation Proclamation” which best conveys the spirit of Lincoln’s words. As one editor wrote, “The title alone is Mr. Lincoln’s message to our nation.” Although on January 1, 1863, there were still nearly four million Negroes held as slaves in the eleven Confederate states and the four Border States, from that day forward slavery was destined to be eradicated.
At the time, however, Lincoln was concerned that, because the Proclamation was issued under authority of his War Powers, it could be challenged in the courts after the war ended and the country was reunified. He anticipated that there might be “drawn out legal processes” as former slave owners, who considered their slaves as chattel (property), would file claims for “confiscation” by the government. So he worked with Republican Senators to begin the process of amending the Constitution to eliminate the original 1789 provisions protecting slavery in certain states. The Senate passed the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1864, the House passed it in January 1865, and the required “three-fourths” of states finally ratified the Amendment by September 1865.
But, the “stain that is slavery” began to be washed away in 1863 with Lincoln’s inspiring document, appropriately titled “The Emancipation Proclamation.” A good and necessary first step.
Gary Alan Dorris: Contact the author at email@example.com.