Did Lincoln Want a Slave Rebellion?

Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is the most memorable result of the American Civil War, most students of the era fail to realize that many period contemporaries—North and South— suspected the President of sinister motives.

After Lincoln read a first draft to his cabinet in July 1862, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase advised caution even though he was one of the Union’s most resolute abolitionists. He felt it would be better to let the generals in the field implement emancipation as they advanced through the South sector-by-sector, partly in order to avoid the “depredation and massacre” of civilians.

Chase’s comment suggests that a number of important Northerners recognized that emancipation might prompt a slave uprising. In fact, President Lincoln was among them.

On September 13, 1862 a delegation of Chicago abolitionists visited the White House to urge immediate emancipation. Lincoln first clarified that  he did not object to their proposal based upon any argument that he lacked the legal authority to do so. Next he added that he did not object based upon the possibility that it could lead to a bloody slave uprising in the South. Whatever the moral benefits—or immoral consequences—of emancipation he considered the matter to be exclusively a war measure.

Understand, I raise no objections against it [the delegation’s emancipation proposal] on legal or constitutional grounds, for, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war I suppose I have a right to take any measures which may best subdue the enemy; nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. I view this matter as a practical war-measure, to be decided on according to the advantages and disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion. [Italics added.]

Such an uprising would almost certainly have compelled Confederate soldiers to desert in order to go home to protect their families. Even if they were among the 70% of families that did not own slaves, such a rebellion could trigger a race war. The danger was most  threatening 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.

#2_Confederacy at Flood Tide

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.

Following Lincoln’s September public announcement of a preliminary version of the Proclamation, many voices condemned it as an attempt to provoke a slave rebellion. Unsurprisingly, it was a common interpretation in the South where Confederate President Jefferson Davis averred the document “encouraged [slaves] to a general assassination of their masters.” But similar reactions were not uncommon in the North partly because the proclamation included a statement that the “[US] military and naval authority . . . will do no act to repress [slaves], or . . . any efforts [the slaves] may make for their actual freedom.” Many critics interpreted the statement as an order that the military do nothing to protect Southern civilians should a slave rebellion arise.

Among them was Charles A. Dana, a trusted civilian observer of field generals for Lincoln and War Secretary Stanton. Dana immediately urged that the statement be erased or changed because of its potential to incite servile insurrection. Another example was former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis from Massachusetts. Although he did not believe Lincoln intended to ignite a slave rebellion, he concluded the proclamation’s likely result would be to “incite a part of the inhabitants of the United States to rise in insurrection against valid laws.” He foresaw “scenes of bloodshed” and “servile war.”

Boston maritime mogul and friend to abolitionist Charles Sumner, Robert Forbes, concluded that Sumner’s followers genuinely wanted the slaves to “be made free by killing or poisoning their masters and mistresses.” U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who was a primary abolitionist leader and chief architect of post Civil War Reconstruction, validated Forbes’s conclusion by later admitting a hope that the slaves would be “incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real civil war.” Similarly, the Continental Monthly of New York urged that a “thousand mounted men” be recruited to raid deep into the South with authority to assemble and arm the slaves.” Finally, Senator Sumner himself said, “I know of no principle . . . by which our [Southern white] rebels should be saved from the natural consequences of their own action . . . They set the example of insurrection . . . They cannot complain if their slaves . . . follow it.”

Colonel Charles Francis Adams, Jr. who was the son of Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain and the great-grandson and grandson of two U. S. presidents concluded that the prevailing belief in the North at the time was that the proclamation would spark an immediate slave uprising to bring the war to a sudden end. Union 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.

Grosvenor Lowery, a U. S. Treasury Department lawyer who wrote legal pamphlets supporting the expansion of the president’s wartime powers, opined that nobody could predict a slave rebellion. However, he added, that if a “servile resurrection . . . ensu[ed]” the rebels could only blame themselves. Essentially, Lowery argued for Lincoln that emancipation was a legal war measure, which the government should use to win the war even at the risk of a Southern slave rebellion. In legal terms, Grosvenor echoed Lincoln’s points to the delegation of Chicago abolitionists a little over a week before the president issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Essentially, Grosvenor and Lincoln claimed the action was a legal wartime measure but conceded it had both moral—and potentially immoral—ramifications.

According to historian Howard Jones, initial reaction that the Proclamation might provoke slave rebellions was also common in Europe, even though Lincoln mistakenly anticipated it would gain sympathy for the Union overseas. The Europeans, however, worried that it could trigger a race war that would extend beyond American borders. Instead of concluding that emancipation gave the United States the moral high ground Jones writes:

What developed was not . . . [the] debate [Lincoln expected] 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 [in America’s Civil War.]

[British Foreign Secretary Earl 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 . . . [presumption of] 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.

The British ambassador to the United States, Lord Lyons, was temporarily in Great Britain when the September 22 proclamation was released. While he was gone, Lyons’s role was filled by chargé d’affaires William Stuart who said:

There is no pretext of humanity about the Proclamation. It is cold, vindictive, and entirely political. It does not abolish slavery where it has the power; it protects ‘the institution’ for friends and only abolishes it on paper for its enemies . . . It offers direct encouragement to servile insurrections.

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.’” Many concluded that the Proclamation was not genuinely aimed at ending slavery but at the South. The London Spectator wrote, “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”

As events evolved and no servile insurrection ensued, European apprehensions subsided. In time Lincoln was able to win the moral high ground with posterity as well as contemporary Europeans. It is impossible to be certain about his intentions regarding servile insurrection. Nonetheless, there is a subtle but important difference in language between the Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 and the final one about three months later on January 1, 1863. Lincoln added the following paragraph to the final version, which was missing 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.

Those interested in a more complete analysis for the intent of—and reactions to—the Emancipation Proclamation may wish to read Chapter Six on my new book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart and other bookstores. It was also recently selected for the History Book Club.

Those wanting a signed copy may send a check for $28 payable to me at the address below along with your return address.

Philip Leigh, 3911 West San Pedro, Tampa, Florida 33629


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