(July 6, 2017) Provided below is basically Chapter Six of my 2016 book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide. This online version, however, does not include any footnotes.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation is the most familiar document resulting from America’s Civil War, understanding its adoption and impact on the war requires analysis.
The popular comprehension of Abraham Lincoln as the a great liberator dates to his June 1858 acceptance speech for the Republican nomination to oppose Democrat Stephen Douglas in a losing election for an Illinois US Senate seat. Known as his House Divided speech, Lincoln essentially advocated eradication of slavery. Moreover, he dubiously accused Northern Democrats of seeking to compel states previously admitted as “free” to become “slave.”
A House divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved…but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery will…place it…in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will put it forward…in all the states.
Lincoln’s message was a powerful weapon against Douglas. According to historian David Donald it was “designed to show that Douglas was a part of a dangerous plot to nationalize slavery.” But it was also reckless, which became evident when a prominent editor complained that the statement “implied a pledge…to make war upon [slavery] in the Sates where it now exists.” In response, Lincoln waffled: “Whether the clause used by me will bear such construction or not, I never so intended. I made a prediction only – it may have been a foolish one perhaps.”
As is often the case when provincial politicians win a chance to run for the presidency, Lincoln came to realize that positions strictly appealing to regional constituencies could not be forced on the entire nation without consequences. In 1860 abolitionism was just such a principle. It readily appealed the region composed of free states, because such states had no investment in slaves and were therefore immune to monetary consequences. Simultaneously, the most threatening consequence of mandatory nationwide abolition was the possible departure of those states of another region compelled to pay the abolitionist’s bill.
As a result, Lincoln modified his stance during the presidential campaign. The chief Republican Party plank involving slavery banned its extension into the territories that had not yet been organized as states. There was no plank promising abolition. Although the second plank stated that men were “created equal” the fourth plank affirmed “the right of each state to order and control its domestic institutions.” In the lexicon of the era, institution was a code word for slavery. Nonetheless, if the non–extension plank became a federal policy, no additional slave states could ever be admitted into the Union.
In 1860 there were a total of thirty-three states. Slavery was outlawed in eighteen and legal in only fifteen Southern states. At the least, many slaveholders interpreted the plank as a deliberate intention to adopt a discriminatory rule designed to block their access to the common territories of the United States to which they felt they had as much right as other citizens. Other slaveholders simply doubted that Lincoln’s position had genuinely changed since his House Divided speech two years earlier.
Even before the May 1860 nominating convention, Lincoln tried to distance himself from House Divided dogma. In a February 1860 speech at Cooper Union in Manhattan he presented a legal argument asserting the federal government’s authority to deny the extension of slavery into the territories. However, he also quoted Thomas Jefferson to underscore his agreement with the third president that the authority for emancipation rested with the states individually and not the federal government.
He additionally felt compelled at Cooper Union to address the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision for two reasons. First, it contradicted his claim that the federal government could legally prohibit slavery in the territories. Second, as recently as 1856 he held that it was the judicial system that had the ultimate power to settle slavery disputes when he said, “The Supreme Court of the United States is the tribunal to decide such questions.” As a member of the Republican Party he claimed, “We will submit to its decision; and if you [the Democrats] do also, there will be an end of the matter.” However, at Cooper Union he argued that Republicans should not accept the Dred Scott ruling because it was legally flawed and therefore did not settle the slavery question.
Toward the end of the speech he summarized the position he would promote as a presidential candidate: “Wrong as we [Republicans] think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we…allow it to spread to the National Territories and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty…” Thus, while conceding that slavery should be left alone where it already existed, he was still clinging to the belief that the South was trying to force all free states to become slave states.
In order to arrest the trend toward Southern secession, after his November 1860 election Lincoln was repeatedly asked to clarify his stance on the future of slavery. He consistently refused to make any further public announcement, although a number of his private statements and conversations emphasized that he had no intention of abolishing slavery in the states where it already existed. “I do not wish to interfere with them [Southerners] in any way, but to protect them in everything they are entitled to.” He also said that when Southerners travelled to Springfield, Illinois to visit him after his election they “seemed to go away apparently satisfied.”
Nonetheless, by his March 4, 1861 presidential inauguration, seven states had already seceded and formed a Southern Confederacy with Jefferson Davis as its provisional president. Lincoln could no longer avoid public clarifications. They took shape in his inauguration speech and were almost the opposite of his earlier House Divided dogma.
The new president said explicitly that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so…” He added that he did not oppose an amendment hurriedly passed by both houses of the US Congress, which stipulated that the federal government could never interfere with slavery in the states where it is legal. Contending that the amendment was already implied by constitutional law Lincoln said, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”
When Lincoln was inaugurated eight slave states remained in the Union and only seven had joined the Confederacy. However, after Fort Sumter was bombarded into surrender on April 13, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Most of the slave states that had not joined the Confederacy had previously warned Lincoln that if he attempted to coerce the seven cotton states back into the Union the remaining eight slave states would be forced to choose sides in the ensuing war despite having already demonstrated their preference to remain in the Union without coercion. Four of the states, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, promptly joined the Confederacy.
Lincoln quickly focused on keeping the remaining four slave states in the Union. Delaware was certain to stay, but Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were questionable. If those three states joined the eleven-state rebellion, they would add 45% to the white population of the Confederacy and 80% of its industrial capabilities. Given their uncertain loyalty and potential to increase the military power and strategic strength of the Confederacy, Lincoln could ill-afford to adopt a policy that might provoke them to secede. Abolitionism was undoubtedly such a policy.
Such concern was genuine not only by Lincoln but also by most Washington politicians, including Republicans. Only a few days after the Union defeat at First Bull Run on July 21, 1861 both congressional houses passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution specifying that the goal of the war was to preserve the Union and not “for the purpose of overthrowing…established institutions [meaning slavery.]” The vote in the House was 121 – 2 and 30 – 5 in the Senate.
Exiled state governments in Kentucky and Missouri would join the Confederacy later in 1861. Maryland was likely prevented from leaving the Union only because federal authorities arrested – or threatened to arrest – pro-secession members of the legislature planning to attend a special session in September 1861. Missouri’s loyalty was obtained by a federal coup d’etat of the state government.
However, after the federal military appeared to gain control of the Border States in the autumn of 1861, Republican congressmen began to agitate for abolition. The first indication of a policy change was the First Confiscation Act in August 1861, which Lincoln reluctantly signed.
As explained in chapter 3, the Act declared captured slaves used in the rebellion – such as army laborers – to be contraband and therefore forfeited by their owners. It did not proclaim them to be free. But it prompted Major General John C. Fremont in St. Louis to declare later that month that such slaves would be freed in Missouri. Lincoln forced the general to rescind the order.
Among other Republicans, Illinois Senator Orville Browning rallied to Fremont’s position and criticized Lincoln. The president’s response underscores his continuing concern for the impact of abolitionism on the loyalty of the Border States. He explained that Kentucky would likely have seceded if the order had not been rescinded: “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think Maryland. These all against us and the job on our hands is too large for us.”
On December 1 War Secretary Simon Cameron released to the press the department’s annual report, which urged the recruitment of ex-slaves as Union soldiers. Lincoln told him to recall the release and remove the paragraph containing the recruitment recommendation. But a number of newspapers had already printed the release.
The next month Lincoln removed Cameron from office and appointed him as ambassador to Russia where he could presumably do little harm. Two days after Cameron released his annual report, Lincoln’s annual address clarified that the president still regarded the preservation of the Union as the goal of the war. “I have been anxious and careful” that the war “shall not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle [to eradicate slavery.] I have therefore in every case thought it proper to keep the integrity of the Union prominent as the primary object of the contest on our part…” One day later the House revealed its disagreement with the president by declining to reaffirm the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution in a 71 – 65 vote
As explained earlier, Radical Republicans applauded the May 1862 appointment of John Pope to command the Union Army of Virginia because of his liberal interpretation of the Confiscation Act and hostility toward Virginia civilians. They similarly maneuvered to get generals who were respectful of Southern property rights, such as Buell and McClellan, removed from command. McClellan was temporarily ousted that summer although Buell was able to keep his job until October. Earlier in the summer, however, Buell suffered the humiliation of official disregard in Washington for his court martial of Colonel Truchin. Even though convicted of sacking Athens, Alabama, Lincoln promoted Turchin to brigadier general.
Lincoln consistently resisted pressure to emancipate slaves until the summer of 1862. The rescission of General Fremont’s August 1861 order freeing Missouri slaves is merely one example of such reluctance. Another arose in May 1862 when Major General David Hunter issued an order freeing the slaves in his department, which included Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. The president promptly revoked the order and rebuked the general. However, for the first time Lincoln’s revocation used language that implied his position on slavery was evolving. Only fourteen months earlier he stated explicitly that he had “no lawful right” to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. If he was to emancipate the slaves in the future he needed to develop a legal theory that contradicted his position in the first inaugural address. According to biographer David Donald it began with his countermand of Hunter’s order:
“No commanding general shall do such a thing upon my responsibility without consulting me,” he told Chase. But…for the first time he made it clear that he had no doubt of his constitutional power to order emancipation. Whether he exercised that authority would depend on a decision that abolition had “become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government.”…Under such circumstances he had no reservations about issuing an emancipation proclamation because “as commander-in-chief of the army and navy in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.”
In short, Lincoln began to consider the question of emancipation to be one of whether or not it might be a military necessity. He did not construe his power to declare it to be based upon any moral principle. In fact, as shall be explained, he could foresee potentially immoral consequences to suddenly freeing the slaves.
He asserted that his inaugural pledge of non-interference with a state’s right to slavery failed to apply to the Confederate states. He argued, “The rebels…could not at the same time throw off the Constitution and invoke its aid. Having made war on the Government, they were subject to the incidents and calamities of war.” However, he could not use the same argument with the Union-loyal Border States. That is one reason the eventual Emancipation Proclamation left slavery intact in states outside the Confederacy where slavery was legal. But there was another reason. On Independence Day 1862 Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner visited the White House twice urging the president to free all slaves. Lincoln declined because such a proclamation might cause Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland to secede.
Eight days later, however, Lincoln met with the Border State congressional representatives at the White House. He told them that the “friction and abrasion” of the war would eradiated slavery in their states. He added that he might soon be forced to proclaim emancipation because of rising anti-slavery sentiment in the North. He urged them to adopt gradual compensated emancipation. To demonstrate his intent to provide financial aid he arranged to have a bill for compensated emancipation introduced in congress the following day. However, according to legal scholar Paul Finkelman it was a hollow gesture: “Lincoln surely knew that this bill, like his meeting with the border state representatives, would go nowhere.” Most of the congressmen attending the meeting responded the following day with a long list of constitutional objections.
The same day he met with the Border State representatives, Lincoln confided to Secretary of State William Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that he was considering emancipation. Both men were surprised and asked for time to consider the matter. Lincoln urged them to ponder it seriously because “something must be done.”
About a week later on July 22 the president read the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the entire cabinet. The conference included both abolitionist and conservative members. The secretaries had expected the meeting to address other matters and had difficulty focusing on the statement. Its curious structure showed that the president was trying to reconcile his previous policy and constitutional arguments with the new position. Most significantly, he had to explain how emancipation did not contradict his inaugural statement that he had no intention or lawful right “to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” For this purpose he relied upon two factors.
First he presumed executive authority under the wartime powers of the commander in chief. Second he alluded to the recently passed Second Confiscation Act, which authorized seizures of private property, including slaves, belonging to persons supporting the Confederacy. As explained in chapter three, the First Confiscation Act passed the previous summer had narrower restrictions.
The emancipation draft also pledged pecuniary aid to any state – including the rebellious ones – that voluntarily abolished slavery. Lincoln concluded by asking for the opinions of cabinet members.
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 the program sector-by-sector partly to avoid the “depredation and massacre” of 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. Otherwise, he warned, the policy “would be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help.” The conservative Postmaster General opposed it on the grounds that it would damage the Party’s autumn election prospects.
The meeting adjourned with no decision. However, Senator Charles Sumner learned of the discussion. He pressed Lincoln for each of the next five days to make the announcement. Finally, Lincoln told the senator, “We mustn’t issue it until after a victory.”
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 did not object to their proposal based upon any argument that he lacked the legal authority make such a proclamation. Then he added that he would not object to their proposal 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 my offer to the suppression of the rebellion.
In short, Lincoln was prepared to run the risk of a Southern slave uprising if emancipation would give the Union an important wartime advantage. On September 22, nine days after meeting with the Chicago delegation and admitting the possibility of provoking a slave uprising, Lincoln publicly announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It is described as “preliminary” because the formal proclamation would not be effective until January 1, 1863.
A question that merits consideration but is seldom analyzed by modern historians is whether some influential Northerners advocated emancipation as a deliberate attempt to provoke a Southern slave rebellion and whether Lincoln was among them.
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 members of the nearly 70% of families in the Confederate states that did not own slaves such a rebellion 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 at the battle of Chickamauga. Out of 7,000 blacks in the Turner’s region, he was only able to recruit about sixty followers. There were even reports that some masters gave weapons to their wards and that the armed 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 revolt culminated in the formation of the Free Haitian Republic in 1804. Although most whites had departed by that time, the 5,000 or so who remained were systematically massacred. Some women who took black husbands or lovers were spared.
As the bulk of the African slave trade terminated in the Caribbean and South America, Western Hemisphere slave uprisings outside of North America were more common. As shall be explained, their potential to disrupt Atlantic commerce was a serious worry to Europeans.
Following the September public announcement many voices condemned the proclamation 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 includes 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 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 and 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. He was on the court during the Dred Scott decision and sided with the minority who felt Scott should have been freed. After the ruling went against him, Curtis resigned from the court. 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.”
Robert Forbes, a Boston maritime mogul and friend to abolitionist Charles Sumner concluded that the Sumner’s followers genuinely wanted the slaves to “be made free by killing or poisoning their masters and mistresses.” US Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who was a primary abolitionist leader and chief architect of Civil War Reconstruction, validated Forbes’s conclusion. Stevens later admitted to hoping 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 US presidents later stated 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 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.
Grosvenor Lowery, a US 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 legal as a 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 he 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 Emancipation Proclamation might provoke slave rebellions was also common in Europe, even though Lincoln anticipated it would gain sympathy for the Union overseas. Moreover, the Europeans 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 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 [in America’s Civil War.]
[British Foreign Secretary] Russell…told [the House of] Lords that the war must come to a halt on the basis of southern separation. Otherwise a full scale race war would result.
Jones further writes that “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 that “like the British [Mercier concluded] 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 22 September proclamation was released. While he was gone, Lyons’s role at the legation 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 principal is not that a human being cannot justly own another but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.
Historian Dean Mahin, however, opines that the initial British reaction was at least partly influenced by memories of uprisings in other parts of the world involving other races:
The upper class’s reaction in Britain to the proclamation seems to have been influenced by concern about native uprisings in the British Empire… Most upper class Englishmen had relatives or friends in the British colonies and vivid memories of native uprisings, especially the Great Mutiny in India in 1857 – 58. Winston Churchill would later write about the Mutiny that “the atrocities and reprisals of the blood-stained months of the Mutiny left an enduring and bitter mark on both countries.”
News of the proclamation arrived in Great Britain on October 5, which was near the midpoint of a two-month period when the British came close to diplomatically recognizing the Confederacy and intervening in the American war. Two days later William Gladstone, who held a cabinet post comparable to that of a US Treasury Secretary, minimized Lee’s set-back at Antietam and publicly implied that the Confederacy should be diplomatically recognized.
At a banquet in his honor he said, “We may have our own opinions about slavery; we may be for or against the South, but there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more difficult than either; they have made a nation.” On 13 October Foreign Secretary Russell sent a memorandum to all cabinet members explaining why he believed Britain should intervene to settle the war.
Russell’s memorandum was to provide background for a cabinet meeting scheduled for 23 October. The meeting was prompted by an exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and Russell in mid-September when the late August Confederate victory at Second Bull Run was the latest American news.
Palmerston wrote Russell, “The Federals got a very complete smashing, and it seems not altogether unlikely that still greater disasters await them, and that even Washington or Baltimore may fall into the hands of the Confederates. If this should happen, would it not be time for us to consider whether…England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?” He concluded by suggesting that the cabinet should meet in late October to discuss the question. Russell concurred and added in replying that if mediation failed, “we ought ourselves to recognize the Southern states as an independent state.”
Before the 23 October cabinet meeting, however, news of Lee’s repulse at Antietam arrived and Palmerston cooled to the idea. Since he did not attend the meeting, nothing official could happen. Other members argued the question during in his absence. Gladstone and Russell favored intervention whereas War Secretary Sir George Lewis and George Campbell, who held a ceremonial post “Keeper of the Privy Seal,” opposed it.
Others were mostly silent. After the October meeting, Russell learned from his ambassador to the Court of Napoleon III that the French were prepared to join Britain in an intervention. The British cabinet met on 11 November to debate the French proposal. That time all members opposed it except for Russell and Gladstone, although the debate extended over two days. On 13 November Russell officially notified the French that Britain was declining the proposal. Thereafter, the chances of British intervention steadily withered.
As events evolved and no servile insurrection ensued, European apprehensions subsided. Although both the Union and Confederacy operated propaganda machines in Great Britain, the North began to win that battle as well. In December 1862 British labor groups sponsored huge rallies supporting the Union. Workers cheered Lincoln for promoting human rights everywhere. Pro-Union clubs such as the Committee on Correspondence with America on Slavery were formed to resist efforts to recognize the Confederacy. Ambassador Adams received numerous petitions and resolutions praising Lincoln. An officer at the American legation in London wrote in his diary in January 1863, “Applications for service in our army strangely fluctuate. For some time past they have been but few. Since the announcement of the President’s determination to adhere to his emancipation policy they have again become numerous.”
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:
“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.”
Schoolboy impressions of the sixteenth president make it difficult to believe he intended to provoke slave uprisings, but instead may have been willing to run the risk of such insurrections in order to win the war. The president’s pamphleteer on constitutional law, Grosvenor Lowery, implied that very point. Contrary to popular belief, however, the absence of slave rebellions may have reflected a stronger bond between white and black Southerners than is presently admitted by most historians. Consider the comments of former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who is commonly cited for his earlier “Cornerstone Speech” proclaiming white supremacy. When addressing the Georgia legislature less than a year after the war ended and before the state had a carpetbag government 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.
I speak of them as we know them to be, having no longer the protection of a master or legal guardian; they now need all the protection which the shield of law can give. But above all, this protection should be secured because it is right and just…
The murders of Union African-American soldiers at battles such as Fort Pillow, Poison Springs, Petersburg’s Crater, and Olustee leave little doubt about how the typical armed Southerner would have responded to a homegrown slave rebellion. Simultaneously, it must be conceded that the normal Confederate soldier was selective in his vengeance. Retaliation was almost exclusively targeted at African-American soldiers and their white leaders. There was no genocide against the much larger number of slaves, and ex-slaves, who declined to enlist in Union military forces. As evidenced by Stephens’s statement above the typical Confederate soldier’s selective vengeance against armed black soldiers did not imply hostility toward the far greater number of slaves, and ex-slaves, who did not enlist.