Emancipation or Slave Rebellion?

Was the Emancipation Proclamation a deliberate attempt to incite a slave rebellion?

Such a rebellion would almost certainly have compelled Confederate soldiers to desert in order to protect their homes and families. Even if they were members of the two-thirds of Southern families that did not own slaves such a event could trigger a race war. The danger was a particularly sensitive point in states like South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi where slaves represented over half, or nearly half, of the population. The Confederacy would have little chance of surviving a widespread servile insurrection that would require it to fight both the slaves and the Union armies.

Although there were few prior American slave rebellions, Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia uprising confirmed they could be merciless racial conflicts. During their brief summer rampage Turner’s rebels killed nearly every White they encountered. A total of about sixty were massacred, mostly women and children.

One near-victim was George Thomas who was spared because he fled his home to hide in the woods with his mother and sisters. Thomas later became a famous Union general credited with saving an entire army during the battle of Chickamauga. Out of 7,000 Blacks in the region, Turner was only able to get about sixty followers. There were even reports that some masters armed their wards and that the slaves helped put-down the insurrection.

Some slave rebellions elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere involved more extensive genocide. On example was on the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo where a multi-year insurrection resulted in the formation of the Free Haitian Republic in 1804. Although most Whites left the island during the years of fighting, the 5,000 or so who remained were massacred. Some women who took Black husbands or lovers were spared.

The map below verifies that the vast bulk of slave trade terminated in the Caribbean and South America, not the United States. Therefore, Western Hemisphere slave uprisings outside the United States were more common. As shall be explained, their potential to disrupt Atlantic trade was a serious worry of the Europeans.


President Lincoln famously resisted pressure to emancipate slaves during the first year and a half of his administration. During the first year he required that Major General John C. Fremont withdraw the general’s military order freeing Missouri slaves, which was a state Fremont commanded. In May 1862 Lincoln rescinded an order by Major General David Hunter that freed the slaves in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Lincoln’s resistance to emancipation early in the war was partly influenced by a desire to prevent the slave-legal border-states from seceding. Examples include Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

However, by the summer of 1862 the president was considering emancipation as a necessary means of winning the war. His earliest supportive remarks date to July 13, 1862. While riding in a carriage with Secretary of State William Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles who were conservative cabinet members he remarked that he “had about come to the conclusion that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Both men were surprised and asked for time to consider the matter. Lincoln urged them to ponder it seriously.

About a week later on July 22 the president read a first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the entire cabinet that included abolitionist and conservative members. The secretaries had expected the meeting to address other matters and had difficulty focusing on the statement. It had a curious structure that showed the president was trying to reconcile his previous policy and constitutional arguments with the new position. It also pledged pecuniary aid to any state, including the rebellious ones, who voluntarily abolished slavery. He concluded by asking for cabinet member opinions.

Secretary of War Stanton and Attorney General Bates urged immediate adoption. Surprisingly, the abolitionist Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase felt that it would be better to let the generals in the field implement it sector-by-sector partly to avoid the “depredation and massacre” among civilians and their property. Secretary of State Seward remarked that emancipation “would break up our relations with foreign nations and the production of cotton for sixty years.” Apparently he believed that cotton could not be economically produced except by slave labor. Seward also advised that if the president was determined to proceed, he should wait until the Union armies won an important victory before publicly proclaiming emancipation. Otherwise, he warned, the policy “would be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government…”

Secretary Chase’s comment reveals that at least some important Northerners recognized that emancipation might prompt a slave rebellion. In point of fact, President Lincoln was among them. On September 13, 1862 he replied to a delegation of Chicago abolitionists that he would urge them to avoid advocating emancipation on the basis of moral superiority because of the potentially immoral “possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. In contrast, he “view[ed] the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the [Confederate] rebellion.”

After the battle of Antietam that turned back Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, Lincoln publicly announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It is described as “preliminary” because the formal proclamation would not be effective until January 1, 1863.

Following the September 22 announcement more voices condemned the proclamation as an attempt to provoke a slave rebellion. It was a common interpretation in the South and not uncommon in the North. One example was Charles Francis Adams, Jr. who was a Union soldier. He was also the son of Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain and the great-grandson and grandson of two US presidents. The ambassador’s son concluded the prevailing belief in the North was that the proclamation would spark an immediate slave uprising to bring the war to a sudden end. Another was Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens who rejoiced that the salves “might be incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real civil war.”

According to historian Howard Jones’s Blue and Gray Diplomacy, Major General George McClellan similarly “complained that the president sought to stir up slave rebellions in an attempt to end the war.” McClellan cannot be dismissed as an isolated example because he was Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 wartime presidential election when he received over 1.8 million votes, which was 45% of the total. As late as July 1864 Lincoln was convinced he would lose the election to McClellan, but the president’s prospects were rescued by Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 2.

Initially the Europeans had similar reactions. Instead of concluding that emancipation gave the United States the moral high ground historian Jones writes:

What developed was not an expected debate over the morality of slavery but a deep fear among British leaders that the president’s move would stir up slave rebellions. The result, they predicted, would be a race war that crossed sectional lines and, contrary to Lincoln’s intentions forced other nations to intervene.

[British Foreign Secretary John Russell]…told [the House of] Lords that the war must come to a halt on the basis of a southern separation. Otherwise a full-scale race war would result…

Russell justified mediation on…a certain race war that would drag in other nations. In the ultimate irony Lincoln had adopted an antislavery posture in part to prevent outside interference…but had instead raised the likelihood of foreign involvement by, according to the British and French, attempting to stir up a servile insurrection…

Similarly Jones writes of the opinion held by the French minister to Washington, Henri Mercier:

…like the British [Mercier concluded] that the Union’s expected demand for immediate emancipation would spark a race war that disrupted the southern economy and stopped the flow of cotton. Such a conflict would spread beyond sectional boundaries and drag in other nations.

Opinions similar to those above were echoed by a number of prominent British and French newspapers. The London Times asked whether “the reign of [Lincoln’s presidency was] to go out amid the horrible massacres of white women and children, to be followed by the extermination of the black race in the South?” According to Jones, the French “…Conservative press thought the Proclamation would cause slave rebellions and a ‘fratricidal war’ that would envelop America in ‘blood and ruins.’”

In time, however, as a slave uprisings failed to materialize, Lincoln was able to win the moral high ground with the Europeans and posterity. It is impossible to be certain about his intentions. Nonetheless, there is a subtle but important difference in language between the Emancipation Proclamations of September 22, 1862 and the final one of January 1, 1863. To discourage violence, Lincoln added the following paragraph to final version, which was absent from the September 22 version:

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

My schoolboy impressions of the sixteenth president make it hard to believe he intended to provoke slave uprisings. Instead, it appears that he was willing to run the risk of an up-rising in order to win the war.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the absence of such a rebellion may have reflected a stronger bond between White and Black Southerners than is presently admitted. Consider the comments of former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who is commonly vilified due to his “Cornerstone Speech.” When addressing the Georgia legislature less than a year after the war ended he said:

Wise and humane provisions should be made for [ex-slaves]…so that they may stand equal before the law, in the possession and enjoyment of all rights of person, liberty and property. Many considerations claim this at your hands. Among these may be stated their fidelity in times past. They cultivated your fields, ministered to your personal wants and comforts, nursed and reared your children; and even in the hour of danger and peril they were, in the main, true to you and yours. To them we owe a debt of gratitude, as well as acts of kindness.


If you liked the analysis above, consider one of my books:

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated


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