(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.