The Emancipation Proclamation: More Complicated Than Many Realize

(Note: This is a repost of a blog I wrote back in September. I decided to re release it, since January 1st marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation becoming official.)

Perhaps no document in American history is more well known and more misunderstood than the Emancipation Proclamation. Tomorrow will be the 150thanniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. New Year’s Day will mark the 150th anniversary of it becoming finalized. The 100-day gap between the proclamation being issued and taking effect demonstrates the fact that it was intended largely as a military measure, not as a step for human rights. It was set up in such a way that the seceded states had 100 days to reenter the Union before their slaves were freed. This served to put pressure on the Confederate leaders to end the war and come out of it with their human property intact, with the threat that if they continued rebelling they would lose the very thing that they had been fighting for. This did not happen. Fearing that they could not trust the North to allow slavery long term, the South continued to fight, and the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. It is widely believed that the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in the United States. This is, in fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about history. In order to understand the truth, we must realized that, while millions of slaves lived in the Confederacy, approximately 430,000 lived in the border states that had remained in the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation stipulated that, “on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” The proclamation, therefore, applied only to areas under Confederate jurisdiction. Of course, having formed a separate country to perpetuate slavery, the Confederate states were hardly going to obey a proclamation freeing their slaves. The Confederacy had its own constitution, and that constitution made slavery a federally protected institution. In order to be emancipated, a slave in the Confederacy had to make it across Union lines, which many of them did. But it would take the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment almost three years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in order for slavery to be banned everywhere in the United States. So why did Lincoln issue the proclamation? Another popular misconception about the Civil War revolves around the North’s reasons for fighting it. The truth of the matter is that while the South’s reason for seceding was to preserve slavery, the North’s reasons for not letting the South secede were quite different. Abolitionists like Wendell Phillips wanted to pursue the war to abolish slavery, but the vast majority of white Northerners were not abolitionists and had less noble reasons for supporting the war effort. In the first place, they wished to preserve the Union. In the second place, they were economically linked with the South and feared the financial consequences of a divided America. In a letter to antislavery newspaper editor and fellow Republican, Horace Greeley, Lincoln said that while he would personally prefer that slavery be ended everywhere, his top priority was preserving the union. (The letter can be found here: The Emancipation Proclamation had the potential to help the North win the war. Confederate diplomats had been clamoring for recognition from European powers, such as Britain and France. The more clear it became that the war was about slavery, the less likely it was that Britain and France, where slavery had been illegal for years, would support the Confederacy. Furthermore, as referenced earlier, the proclamation allowed many runaway slaves to join the Union Army. On the other hand, white Unionists in Confederate states, border state residents, and Northern “War Democrats” who favored slavery but sided with the North to preserve the Union might be inclined to stop supporting the war effort. This could be exacerbated by the fear of Northern whites that their states would see an influx of freed slaves. With the knowledge that the North would now never recognize their ownership of their slaves, Confederate leaders might be persuaded to fight even harder. The fear of the proclamation’s military consequences was illustrated by the reaction of Lincoln’s Cabinet when the president discussed the document with them in July 1862. Out of all of Lincoln’s Cabinet, only Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, ironically virtually the only prominent antislavery Democrat not to have left the party in the 1850s, voiced support for issuing the proclamation immediately. Most of the other Cabinet members urged delay. William Seward, Secretary of State, was so determined to delay it that he made the absurd argument that antislavery action might antagonize Britain and France. Lincoln, himself apparently looking for a reason not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation immediately, seems to have convinced himself that this was a legitimate possibility. Among the group, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase was certainly the most antislavery and the most supportive of increased rights for freed blacks. Yet he had ambitions to challenge Lincoln for the Republican Party nomination in the 1864 presidential election and hoped to make the president look unappealing to abolitionists, so he slyly cautioned against the Emancipation Proclamation. Chase also felt that the presidential order was weak and resented Lincoln for not taking a stronger stand against slavery and in favor of black civil rights. As a side note, one wonders if Lincoln appointed him to the position of Secretary of the Treasury, because it was a Cabinet position that would gave Chase very little opportunity to agitate against slavery in a way that might upset Southerners and Northern Democrats. So, in order to avoid making the Emancipation Proclamation look like an act of desperation, Lincoln decided to wait for a major victory by the Union Army. On September 17, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Antietam in a battle that was considered a strategic victory for the North, and five days later, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued. It is certainly true that Lincoln did not do as much as he should have as fast as he should have to end slavery. It is also true that Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery and undoubtedly took some satisfaction that in pursuing his goal of keeping the country together, he had struck a blow against the “peculiar institution.” Furthermore, the proclamation did, somewhat by accident, make emancipation an additional Northern war aim. And it must not be forgotten that in his 1864 election bid, Lincoln largely repudiated his former lukewarm antislavery position and called for a constitutional amendment to ban slavery everywhere in the United States. This amendment passed after his death, and while no one person deserves all the credit for ending slavery, Lincoln must be given some. Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation helped spark a debate, first among abolitionists and later among neo-abolitionist historians, about whether or not Lincoln was a friend of racial justice. Some neo-abolitionist historians, like Lerone Bennett, Jr., see Lincoln as completely undeserving of any accolades and as a rabid white supremacist who had no moral objection to slavery. Others, like James McPherson, believe Lincoln still stands out as a freedom fighter in his own right. I think nuance is important here. Again, Lincoln was no Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, or John Brown. When measured against the many abolitionists who stood up for complete racial equality, he falls quite short. Yet it cannot be denied that Lincoln blew every president before him out of the water in terms of the actions he took against slavery and that, as mentioned earlier, he came to publicly endorse the Thirteenth Amendment even though doing so could have cost him the election.


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January 1, 2013 · 4:23 am

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