Decisions Leading to Emancipation: An Overview

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Decisions Leading to Emancipation: An Overview

In Abraham Lincoln's (1809–1865) first inaugural address, he assuaged southerners' fears regarding his Republican stance on slavery. The March 7, 1861, issue of the Fayetteville Observer printed the speech in which he assured them:

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the southern states that by the accession of a republican administration their property and their permanent peace and security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of these speeches when I declare that I have 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.

Lincoln's transformation over the next four years seems remarkable. The Great Emancipator began his career as president adamant that slaveholders need not worry about the institution of slavery, yet only a few years later Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation and pushed for the Thirteenth Amendment.

During the Civil War (1861–1865), Lincoln explained that his ultimate aim was to preserve the Union. He was not concerned about the institution of slavery, as he explained in a letter to the antislavery editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley (1811–1872). On August 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it—if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it—and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that" (Lincoln 1863, p. 8). Although at the time he wrote the letter Lincoln had already decided his course of action would be to free some of the slaves, his statement to Greeley demonstrates his political aims in doing so.

Even if Lincoln had ulterior motives, such as a genuine belief that American republicanism and democracy could not coexist with slavery, Lincoln seemed wary of alienating the slave states that remained loyal to the Union. Indeed, since his election, Lincoln had been extremely careful not to antagonize slave states out of fear of secession. In a December 15, 1860, letter to John Gilmer, a Unionist congressman from North Carolina, Lincoln assured him the following:

I have no thought of recommending the abolitions of slavery in the District of Columbia, nor the slave trade among the slave states, even on the conditions indicated; and if I were to make such recommendation, it is quite clear Congress would not follow it…. In one word, I never have been, am not now, and probably never shall be, in a mood of harassing the people, either North or South. (Perman 1991, p. 122)

His mention of Washington, DC, specifically may indicate that Lincoln realized that secession was imminent. As the president-elect, Lincoln could not afford to have the nation's capital secede should the slaveholding states leave the Union. Before the Civil War, Lincoln's primary concern was the unity of the nation regardless of the implications for the institution of slavery.

Even after fighting broke out in the Civil War, Lincoln worried that the slaveholding border states would join the Confederacy as well. By taking measures to placate the border states, Lincoln forestalled emancipation for several years. He saw the preservation of the Union as relying on the preservation of slavery. His military, in effect, initially took the lead on emancipation.

Even before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves had run away en masse. Some historians, such as Orville Burton and Steven Hahn, have noted that the Civil War allowed for a great slave rebellion, citing the number of fugitive slaves as its success. Usually, runaway slaves fled to the Union army camps. The sheer number of slaves running away to Union troops had caused headaches for both sides. Slave owners wanted their slaves returned to them, and the Union troops did not have the infrastructure or supplies to support the large number of refugees. Still, Union officers recognized returning fugitive slaves would only strengthen the Confederacy. The 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court case had ruled that slaves were property, not people. Early in the war, in May 1861, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818–1893) offered an ironic twist on the decision, declaring that fugitive slaves were "contraband of war" and so the Union could use them against the South (Burton 2007, p. 161).

Butler demanded of his troops, "You will, on the other hand, so long as any State within which your military operations are conducted remains under the control of such armed combinations, refrain from surrendering to alleged masters any person or persons in the services to which they will be best adapted" (Wilbur 1914, p. 61). That August, Congress legitimized this order by passing the First Confiscation Act. The following March, Congress forbade the military from sending fugitive slaves back to their owners in the Article of War Act, and in April 1862, Lincoln emancipated the District of Columbia slaves and compensated their owners. Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act in July 1862, which declared that slaves from rebellious owners were a military asset to the Union army and so "shall be forever free" (Burton 2007, p. 162). All of these military actions seemed to be leading to a more sweeping act of emancipation, but Lincoln apparently was not yet ready to take such action.

When the Civil War first began, Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) wrote a series of editorials in the Pittsburgh Gazette. His editorial from April 18, 1861, stated clearly:

[T]here is but one … effectual way to suppress and put down the desolating war which the slaveholders and their rebel minions are now waging against the American Government and its loyal citizens. Fire must be met with water, darkness with light, and war for destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery. The simple way, then, to put an end to the savage and desolating war now waged by the slaveholders, is to strike down slavery itself. (McPherson 1965, pp. 37-38)

Lincoln, increasingly coming to the same conclusion Douglass had reached years earlier, continued to stall because he recognized that the Union soldiers had not enlisted to fight to free slaves. He was also keenly aware, however, that Union soldiers knew that slave labor considerably aided the Confederacy's war effort (Burton 2007, p. 163). After a year and a half of delaying, by mid-1862 Lincoln had firmly decided the way to win the Civil War was through emancipating the slaves in the Confederacy. His secretary of state, William Seward (1801–1872), advised him to wait until a military victory before delivering his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation so that it would not appear that he made the decision out of desperation. Luckily, the Union soon claimed victory at Antietam, and on September 22, 1862, Lincoln gave the Confederate states 100 days either to return to the Union or Lincoln would free their slaves. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared "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" (Franklin 1965, p. 91).

Officially, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to free slaves. Confederates did not see Lincoln as their president, so his proclamation had no jurisdiction over them, and the Union army could not enforce emancipation in areas not under their control. As the Richmond Whig had predicted on September 26, 1862, "Its effects will, in no wise, differ from the effects already experienced in those districts of the South which have been subjected to the rule of the enemy…. Whenever a Yankee army has appeared practical emancipation has followed" (Franklin 1965, p. 64).

Although Lincoln could not enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in the rebelling states, his decision to emancipate the slaves of the Confederacy strengthened the northern war effort in several ways. By making the war about slavery, not only did the Union take the moral high ground, but European nations no longer contemplated aiding the South. Also, the South now had to concentrate more resources on controlling their enslaved labor, which took away from their concentration on the war. Finally, the Union army began enlisting African American soldiers, who largely came from slaveholding southern states (Burton 2007, p. 166).

Despite a surge of new recruits in the military, Lincoln received criticism from northerners. In a August 26, 1863, reply to James Cook Conkling (1816–1899) and other Illinois representatives, Lincoln wrote, "You say that you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter. Fight you then, exclusively, to save the Union" (Lincoln 1863, p. 21). And although troops remained segregated by race and black soldiers faced pay discrimination, tens of thousands of African Americans were willing to fight for the Union (Franklin 1965, p. 123). While Lincoln saw his Emancipation Proclamation as "an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution," he called on others to support the decision, at least for military purposes (Franklin 1965, p. 93).

Because Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a military measure, at least in part, he limited freedom to the slaves of the Confederate states. Not until the Thirteenth Amendment did Lincoln offer freedom to all Americans. Drafted January 31, 1865, and ratified by the end of the year, the Thirteenth Amendment promised "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) extolled the Thirteenth Amendment, telling Lincoln, "As an instrument in His hands, you have done a mighty work for the freedom of millions" (1971–1981, p. 258).

President Lincoln was assassinated before the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. Yet his stance on abolition did much to shape the Civil War. First concerned with preserving the Union no matter the cost, Lincoln began to see not only the military benefits of emancipation, but that the democratic ideals of the United States demanded such action. Pressure from fugitive slaves, abolitionists, and his own generals helped transform Lincoln into the Great Emancipator. However, the Thirteenth Amendment did not end the plight of the thousands of freedmen, and in the following years of Reconstruction, the government would ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to continue in the quest to extend liberty to all peoples.


Burton, Orville Vernon. The Age of Lincoln. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1965.

Garrison, William Lloyd. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, ed. Walter M. Merrill. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971–1981.

Lincoln, Abraham. The Letters of President Lincoln on Questions of National Policy. New York: H.H. Lloyd, 1863.

Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1979.

McPherson, James M. The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. New York: Pantheon, 1965.

"Mr. Lincoln's Inaugural Speech," Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, NC), March 7, 1861.

Perman, Michael, ed. Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1991.

Wilbur, Henry Watson. President Lincoln's Attitude toward Slavery and Emancipation: With a Review of Events before and since the Civil War. Philadelphia: W.H. Jenkins, 1914.

                                 Beatrice Burton