As I mentioned in my previous article, I serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum. The museum currently has among its exhibits one of the 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1864. The copies were sold to raise money to care for wounded Union soldiers. The original proclamation, of course, was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863.
I thought this would be a good time to correct some misunderstandings about the famous document and to discuss how Lincoln’s own thinking evolved about the subject of slavery. Every president takes an oath of office whereby he or she swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Thus, if Lincoln – a seasoned lawyer of at least regional if not national reputation – wished to extend freedom to those held in bondage, he was well aware that he had to do so consistent with the Constitution. (In 1863, the United States Constitution did not include the Thirteenth Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.)
So, Lincoln relied on his Constitutional war powers as authority to declare free all persons held as slaves in states, or designated parts of states, “then in rebellion.” The proclamation did not release the bonds of slaves then living in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia (including the counties that had seceded from Virginia to form West Virginia, and other counties under Union control). Lincoln wished to retain his tenuous hold on the border states and was prepared to allow slavery to continue there to preserve as much of the Union as possible. Critics complained that the proclamation granted freedom to slaves where he lacked the military capacity to enforce it and kept them in bondage where he had the military might to guarantee their freedom.
Whatever Lincoln’s personal views about slavery, his first priority was to hold the Union together. Various anecdotes indicate that Lincoln’s views evolved during the course of the war. He campaigned on a Republican platform that slavery would not be allowed in any new states carved out of United States territories. Slavery would remain legal where it already existed. He likely hoped it would wither on the vine. But Southern politicians saw execution of such a platform as the first step in a major shift in the existing balance of power between the free states and the slave states. Thus, before Lincoln took the oath of office, seven states made the fateful decision to attempt to extricate themselves from their existing governmental relationship with their northern brethren, thereby accelerating the end of the peculiar institution they hoped to preserve.
The idea certainly began earlier, but in July 1862, Lincoln raised the prospect of an emancipation proclamation with his cabinet officers. At the time, Union armies were faring poorly in the field and some officers argued that under then-existing conditions, it would look like a last gasp effort by a government headed to defeat. Lincoln agreed that any such proclamation should await a significant Union victory.
That victory came on September 17, 1862, at Antietam. There, General McClellan’s forces won a bloody, hard-fought battle against General Lee. Although in what would become an all-too-common theme, McClellan failed to pursue and destroy Lee’s army after the victory, it was nonetheless a victory on whose peg Lincoln could hang the proclamation. He issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22. The proclamation allowed slavery in any rebel state that chose to return to the Union before January 1. All of the rebel states remained in rebellion.
In meetings with African-American leaders, Lincoln suggested that once freed, blacks should leave the United States because he could not see the white and black races living side by side in harmony. Black leaders rebuked such a suggestion, noting that generations of slaves had lived in the United States for over 200 years. They had earned the right to share the bounties of democracy on an equal footing with the white race. In time, he accepted the argument, but not without reservation. Generations of free blacks would find that freedom did not mean equality.
Back to the constitutional authority for the Emancipation Proclamation. Rebels depended upon slave labor to prop up the war effort. They built trenches and military fortifications. They sowed and harvested fruits and vegetables. They raised and slaughtered the livestock. They produced the cotton that provided the rebel government the financial means to prosecute the war. They were a significant component of the Confederate war effort. Depriving the South of that component, in turn, would greatly enhance the Union’s chances of suppressing the rebellion.
Lincoln certainly harbored doubts about his constitutional authority to suppress slavery once hostilities drew to a close. There would no longer be a war to justify freedom for the slaves. Thus, his campaign for the Thirteenth Amendment, to guarantee the end of slavery in the United States. But for the moment, and indeed for the generations that have followed, the Emancipation Proclamation served as a historically powerful first step – recognition by our nation’s chief executive that slavery is an evil incongruous with democracy.
I wrote this article based on dozens of books and articles on the subject. Three excellent sources are:
- Catton, Bruce. Terrible Swift Sword. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, New York, in 2009).
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.