(December 29, 2016) Yesterday while proceeding through Eric Foner’s Civil War lectures on YouTube I came to this one about the Emancipation Proclamation. Chiefly because of contextual omissions the professor puts enough spin on it to give the listener whiplash by saying:
[Consider] how Lincoln addresses the freed people directly…“I urge you to refrain from violence”…but then adds “except in self defense.”…[I]sn’t that interesting. He didn’t have to say it…[Lincoln is showing that he] is not cowed by the chorus of warnings of these slaves massacring their owners.
Actually, to anyone who knows the full story Lincoln was almost compelled to use the language Foner quotes. The professor fails to clarify how two versions of the Emancipation Proclamation—issued about three months apart—differed. The preliminary version that was announced on September 22, 1862 was the more impactful one because it signaled the President’s intent to officially free Confederate slaves on January 1, 1863 when a formal version would be signed if the Rebels did not surrender.
Lincoln’s advice that freedmen “refrain from violence except in self defense” is only contained in the second version. More importantly, the reason it is included is because the language in the preliminary version suggested that Lincoln may have wanted to deliberately provoke a slave rebellion as a means of winning the war quickly. The statement in the September proclamation that triggered such concerns was 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 concluded the statement ordered the military to do nothing to protect Southern civilians should a slave rebellion arise.
Among them was Charles A. Dana, a trusted civilian observer of generals and armies in the field for Lincoln. Dana immediately urged that the statement by 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 instigate 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.” Similarly, New York’s Continental Monthly urged that a “thousand mounted men” be recruited to raid deep into the South with authority to assemble and arm the slaves.” Finally, Massachusetts Senator Sumner 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 US presidents later remarked that the prevailing belief in the North at the time of the proclamation was that it would spark an immediate slave uprising to bring the war to a sudden end. 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 about 45% of the total vote.
According to historian Howard Jones, initial reaction that the Emancipation Proclamation might provoke slave rebellions was also common in Europe. The Europeans especially 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 the Europeans were contemplating whether they should ally with the Confederacy before a genocidal race war began to infect the entire Western Hemisphere and thereby disrupt international trade.
Even President Lincoln admitted the possibility of such insurrections before he issued the preliminary proclamation. On September 13, 1862 he replied to a delegation of Chicago abolitionists visiting Washington that he recognized the potential “consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South” that such a proclamation might provoke. Whatever the moral benefits, or immoral consequences, of emancipation 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.”
Whatever Lincoln’s intent, the preliminary proclamation led to an uproar about its potential to incite slave rebellions. Contrary to Foner’s interpretation, Lincoln’s inclusion of qualifying language in the final version was not a bold action to signal that he refused to be cowed by warnings of slave uprisings. To the contrary, it was a reactionary step to try and convince others that he did not originally intend to provoke such uprisings.