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Reflections on the Emancipation Proclamation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2013 - On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in our history. 

Most Americans think this document freed the slaves but it didn’t. The Proclamation freed the slaves in the states that were in rebellion. In other words, it only freed the slaves in the Confederacy, a place where President Abraham Lincoln’s government had no power.

As Secretary of State, William Seward, put it in a note to Lincoln, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

Lincoln understood the irony. But even though the edict didn’t actually allow any slaves to walk away from their masters, it was  meaningful. It was important because it changed the conflict from a war strictly to preserve the Union into a struggle to also end slavery.

Lincoln detested slavery calling it an unqualified evil and was opposed to its expansion into the territories. But the president resisted calls for emancipation earlier in the war mainly because many in the North were not ready for it, and he felt that it would drive border states to secede as well. To further confuse things, Lincoln also believed that the Constitution protected slavery in any state that desired it.

Lincoln’s sole objective when the war began was to preserve the Union. In a letter to New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, the president had written, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it. If I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves I would do it. And if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that too.” Slavery wasn’t Lincoln’s top priority at the start of the war partly because he believed that it was on a course of extinction anyway.

Library of Congress history, timeline

But by the summer of 1862, Lincoln’s view on the issue began to change. He now felt that freeing the slaves in the rebelling states had become a military necessity. Liberating them would weaken the Southern labor force while adding to the Northern army. In fact, the declaration did turn the trickle of slaves escaping to the Union lines into a flood, in part, because it had also declared that the freed slaves could join the Northern army.  Thousands of former slaves ultimately joined the Union forces where they made a powerful contribution to the Northern war effort as they bravely fought for their liberty.

At the same time Lincoln had become concerned that England and France might intervene on the side of the Confederacy. The Northern blockade of the Southern ports was gravely harming their economies as it prevented cotton exports to those countries. This “cotton famine” led to severe unemployment in their textile industries.

Lincoln knew that by issuing the Proclamation he was framing the conflict as a war to end slavery, which made it politically impossible for England and France to aid the Southern cause because the Europeans had long been hostile to slavery.

Finally the president, being the crafty lawyer that he was, found a way around that pesky issue of the Constitution. He now argued that as commander-in-chief the Constitution gave him whatever powers he needed to preserve the Union and that, in time of war, he had the authority to use such powers --powers that included granting freedom to those enslaved in the mutinous states.

Based on these considerations, Lincoln informed his Cabinet in July 1862 that he planned to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in the rebellious territories. Although the Cabinet offered no objections in principle, Seward pointed out that with the recent string of Union defeats such a decree “may be viewed as a last measure of an exhausted government.” Therefore, he advocated waiting to issue it until after the Union forces defeated the Rebels in a major engagement. The president agreed.

Lincoln believed that if God gave the North a victory in the next battle he would consider it divine intervention and it would then be his duty to issue the Proclamation. That “victory” came on Sept. 17, 1862 at Antietam Creek in northern Maryland.

Perhaps there really was divine intervention at Antietam, as Union soldiers “mysteriously” found a mislaid copy of Gen. Lee’s battle plans. But even with God’s help, the battle was hardly the smashing Union victory Lincoln had hoped for. It was more like a tie as unfortunately the excessively cautious federal commander, George McClellan, dithered for 18 hours before attacking. In doing so he lost his opportunity to defeat Lee and possibly end the war.

McClellan was a God-fearing man but perhaps he feared General Lee a little more. As usual, the Northern forces significantly outnumbered the Confederate troops but suffered substantially more casualties in the engagement. However, in the end they checked Lee’s drive north, and that was good enough for Lincoln to act.

On Sept. 22, he issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that warned the seceded states that on Jan. 1, 1863, he would free their slaves unless they returned to the Union. Not surprisingly, no southern states took him up on the offer. So on New Year’s Day, the Emancipation Proclamation was announced.

Although no slaves were freed on day one, the Union armies eventually drove deep into Confederate territory, where the Proclamation turned into reality as thousands of slaves were liberated by the Federal troops. But Lincoln was well aware that, given the fact that the Proclamation was a war powers act, when the conflict ended the slaves might again be put into bondage. He, therefore, began his campaign for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which finally put an end to that “peculiar institution” throughout the country.

On New Year’s day, after signing the Proclamation, the president went to the telegraph office to watch as his words were transmitted to the nation. Lincoln sat in his favorite chair, put his feet up and relaxed, secure in his belief that he had done a great deed that day. He believed that this was his greatest accomplishment. 150 years later, many agree with that assessment.


By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

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.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN 
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

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