The Proclamation That Saved a Nation

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007 and 2017, All Rights Reserved


  • Introduction
  • Genesis
  • The Proclamation
  • Interpretations
  • Effects
  • The Thirteenth Amendment
  • Summary and Conclusion

I. Introduction

The Emancipation Proclamation is probably the strangest document in American history; strange because it is susceptible of at least three interpretations which appear to be mutually exclusive, but which are not, and strange because its genesis is equally enigmatic, with at least three solid reasons offered for it. The only thing not strange about it is its effects, North, South, and abroad, immediate and long term. It won the war, preserved the United States as one nation, and ended slavery. Quite a lot for a one page document. How could it be? Let’s see.

Abraham Lincoln delivers the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet

II. Genesis

A. The Moral Imperative

1. Lincoln

Some historians and students of the period are fond of pointing to this or that statement made by Lincoln prior to emancipation that evidences his unwillingness to think of the Negro as an equal, a refusal to accept him or her as such, and a refusal to interfere with the institution of slavery in those states of the Union where it already existed. These statements are easily explained in terms of political expediency, i.e., that to a degree, Lincoln, as with all politicians, was playing to his audience and the convictions he knew they held. But a careful reading of the literature and his record demonstrates beyond any doubt his utter loathing of the institution of slavery and his desire and intention to do something about it if and when he could, but not in such a way as to effect a cure that would be worse than the disease, which is to say to lose the Union in the process of destroying human bondage in that Union. If we want to know what Lincoln really felt about the institution, it is enough to know that the Southern leaders of his day announced in advance that if he were elected to the Presidency they would secede from the Union, and also to know that upon the fulfillment of that condition they promptly did so.

2. The Abolitionists

In addition to his personal imperative regarding the peculiar institution, Lincoln was under pressure from abolitionists who, though their hostility to slavery was no greater than his, appeared to be more principled than he because they openly advocated immediate and total freedom for all slaves regardless of consequences. Thus, men like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, John Greenleaf Whittier and Frederick Douglas, and women like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan B. Anthony, could and did question the antislavery credentials of a President who in their eyes moved so slowly on the issue. These people were anything but stupid Americans. They were, in fact, very bright. But they either didn’t know, or if they knew, they didn’t care, that precipitate and comprehensive action of the kind they advocated would very likely result in the loss of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to the Confederacy, border states whose loyalty to the government had, in some cases, been assured by Lincoln only by heavy-handed and even extra-constitutional means and therefore remained precarious. Lincoln knew and cared a great deal about the border states because he realized that to lose them was to lose the war, the Union, and, at least for the foreseeable future, emancipation.

3. The Radicals

From the radicals in his own party, too, came pressure. The South did not have a monopoly on fire-eaters. There were just as many in the North, but of a different stripe. Men like Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania in the House, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Benjamin Wade of Ohio in the Senate, and Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, spoke often and forcefully against the “evil” of slavery, made almost daily visits to the White House, and demanded that steps be taken as quickly as possible to assure the extinction of “the harlot, slavery.” Faced with secession of their southern brethren, they steadfastly opposed compromise of any kind with “the Slave Power.” As with the abolitionists, these men were intelligent and dedicated, but whereas the abolitionists’ altruism was unalloyed, the Radical Republicans’ was somewhat diluted by a strain of personal animus against slaveholders.

4. Commanders in the Field

On at least three occasions prior to Lincoln’s issuance of the Proclamation, the fear of loss of one or more of the border states to the Confederacy forced him to countermand, and in one case to sack the author of, orders of his commanders in the field who had taken it upon themselves to liberate slaves in their areas of command. These commanders were General Benjamin Butler, in command of Fort Monroe, Virginia, General John C. Fremont, Commander of the Union Army in St. Louis (who was sacked), and General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South.

5. Lincoln Redux

It was left to Lincoln to steer a safe and sane path between and around extremes, to wend his way through the forest of conflicting interests and ideologies. He did not have the luxury of being a radical, a conservative, or a liberal. He knew what he wanted – Union and Emancipation – but he knew, too, that he could accomplish both only in the fullness of time. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at flood, leads on to fortune” (said Shakespeare in Julius Caesar). None knew it better than Lincoln. None made decisions, based on that truism, with greater sagacity. None, ultimately, had better results.

But there was another factor that separated Lincoln from his abolitionist and radical Republican contemporaries. Like them, he detested slavery, but unlike them, he did not detest the slaveholders. As he so often did, Lincoln put himself in the place of his adversary and imagined that he would behave about the same if he had been a product of the same circumstances. It was for these reasons that he explored measures short of war to deal with the slavery issue, the issue that had bedeviled the Union since its inception, i.e., colonization, return to Africa, gradual emancipation with compensation, and action by individual states.

B. Issuance as War Measure

Lincoln issued his Proclamation as a war measure, i.e., under his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief of the Union armies, as to which he had a plenary concept (Art. II, Section 2). He did so for several reasons. First, he believed that the Constitution did not otherwise empower him to interfere with the institution of slavery in those states in which it already existed. Second, he had tried and failed to persuade the border states to voluntarily and gradually free slaves within their jurisdictions with compensation to slaveholders from the Federal Government. Indeed, in December, 1862, after he had issued his Proclamation, but before its effective date, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to compensate slave owners in those states that agreed to legislate slavery out of existence. When he realized that the border states would not accept gradual emancipation, he resolved to accomplish what he could with the military edict that he had already prepared in the event of such refusal. He was convinced that the tide had reached flood stage, that events, foreign and domestic, required a bold stroke and that to fail to make it, and quickly, was to risk catastrophe. Thus, his resort to his constitutional war powers.

In what sense was the Proclamation a war measure? In several senses. In the second paragraph it refers to the preliminary Proclamation of September 22 wherein it is stated that “…the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons (i.e., slaves in those states or parts of states whose people were in rebellion against the United States)…” Accordingly, the slaves encountered by conquering Union armies in those states or parts of states previously in rebellion were free men and women who could never again be enslaved by any person under the jurisdiction of the United States. Further, and still alluding to the preliminary Proclamation, Lincoln unequivocally invoked the war powers of the Constitution for his authority, i.e., “…by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Still further, in the same paragraph, he makes the purpose of the Proclamation as a war measure crystal clear, i.e., “…and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion…”

So that there will be no mistake about his authority, purpose, or intent, and now no longer alluding to the Proclamation of September 22, he restates all three in the sixth paragraph:

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.

In the eighth paragraph he announces that newly freed slaves will be accepted into the armed service of the United States for non-combat duty and “to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” Again, in the final paragraph, he refers to the Proclamation as an act “…warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity.” The Proclamation was made as a military measure, and as a military measure it worked.

C. Foreign Intervention

1. England

In England’s case, the ruling class was, not surprisingly, pro-Southern. It easily identified with the planter aristocracy and had been, for many years, close to the South economically (cotton) and socially. The Times of London, its major mouthpiece, was strongly pro-Southern. The Confederacy, of course, made a concerted effort to tap into the veins of support for its cause. In March, 1861, i.e., even before the war began, it sent William L. Yancey, Pierrre A. Rost, and A. Dudley Mann to England, France, Russia, and Belgium for this purpose. Later, other missions were sent to Ireland, Spain, the Vatican, Mexico, and West Indian colonies. These missions failed largely because the countries solicited were chary of committing themselves to one side or the other in the conflict at such an early date. They failed, further, because of the efforts of the energetic and superbly able American Minister, Charles Francis Adams. It has been said that ultimate Union success owes as much or more to the work of this man than to all the battlefield victories.

Nevertheless, in the late summer of 1862, after Confederate successes on the battlefield (the Peninsular Campaign, Second Bull Run) gave the distinct impression that the Confederacy might indeed prevail, Adams warned Seward that a British offer to mediate the conflict was imminent. Such an offer would be tantamount to formal recognition of the Confederacy, because after it was rejected by the Administration, as it surely would be, the rejection would be taken by the British as justification for recognition and intervention. Earl Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, agreed that in late summer or early fall they would call a meeting of Palmerston’s Cabinet and ask for their approval of the offer of mediation. They agreed, further, however, to condition the calling of the meeting on the outcome of Lee’s invasion of the North in Maryland. If Lee were successful, they would go ahead with it. If not, they would postpone it and wait to see what developed. In a very real sense, then, the one in a million chance of Lee’s losing his battle plans and McClellan’s finding them changed the entire course of history by assuring the continuation of the United States as one country. After Antietam, the threat receded. After the Emancipation Proclamation, it was almost gone. After the twin Federal victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, it disappeared completely.

There was still another reason that mitigated against the British recognition and intervention. By chance, in the years leading up to the war, Europe had had poor grain harvests. Productivity in the United States remained high, despite the war, due to the use of new reapers and binders. American exports of grain went a long way toward relieving Britain’s food shortage. Bad as it wanted cotton, it wanted American wheat even more, and it was unlikely, therefore, to do anything that would jeopardize those imports.

2. France

As for France, she, like Britain, was a monarchy and therefore suspicious if not hostile to democracy. Napoleon III, her monarch, did not give a fig about the Union either and would have been only too happy to see the experiment on the other side of the Atlantic fail, but he would not do anything unilaterally, i.e., without the backing of England. France’s real interest was Mexico, where she had taken advantage of the war to set up a puppet government under Maximilian as Emperor. After Appomattox, Phil Sheridan was sent to the border with 50,000 troops. France got the message and pulled its troops out. The natives took over and Maximilian was executed.

3. Russia

Russia, the other major power, presented an interesting case. Because of her distance from the United States, intervention would have been much more difficult for her than for the other two major powers. Regardless, it now appears that St. Petersburg had no inclination to support the Southern cause, though elements of its ruling class may have been sympathetic. The economic ties that bound the United States to England and France were all but nonexistent in the case of Russia. That two Russian fleets dropped anchor in the fall of 1863 in American waters, one at San Francisco and the other at New York, had nothing to do with supporting the North. Their purpose was to prevent them from being icebound in their own waters in the event of war with England and France, which, at the time and due to the imperial ambitions of all three countries, notably in Central Asia, was a distinct possibility.

III. The Proclamation

Lincoln’s state of mind in July 1862, is best described in his own words. In a conversation with the painter, Frank Carpenter, who painted the famous illustration of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, he said:

It had got to be midsummer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game. I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy; and without consultation with, or knowledge of, the cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and after much anxious thought called a cabinet meeting upon the subject… I said to the cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them, suggestions as to which would be in order after they had heard it read.

Actually, Lincoln omitted to say that on July 13, 1862, the day after his last meeting with representatives of the border states and nine days before the cabinet meeting to which he refers, he discussed emancipation with the two cabinet members who were closest to him, Gideon Welles and William Seward. He read a draft of the Proclamation to them. They were left nearly speechless, but what they did manage to say was generally favorable. Encouraged, Lincoln, at a regularly scheduled meeting on July 22, 1862, presented his entire cabinet with what he called his “preliminary” Emancipation Proclamation, advising them that he wished to issue it immediately. Their reaction, not surprisingly, was mixed, but Lincoln had taken the precaution of telling them in advance that he was asking for their advice only as to the form of the document, not its substance. The latter, he said, he was firmly committed to. Seward suggested that because of recent military reversals in the Eastern Theater (the Peninsular Campaign), immediate issuance would be construed as an act of desperation (which, in a sense, it was) and that it would be better, therefore, to wait for a more propitious time, i.e., after a Union victory, to issue it. This was sage advice and Lincoln accepted it. Assured that foreign intervention was not imminent (though it remained a serious threat), he would wait for a Union victory. Thanks to the loss of Lee’s battle plans during his invasion of Maryland, McClellan gave Lincoln his victory at Antietam on September 17. Again, in Lincoln’s own words:

When Lee came over the river, I made a resolution that if McClellan drove him back I would send the proclamation after him. The Battle of Antietam was fought Wednesday, and until Saturday I could not find out whether we had gained a victory or lost a battle. It was then too late to issue the proclamation that day; and the fact is I fixed it up a little Sunday, and Monday I let them have it.

This was September 22. After reading a second draft to the Cabinet, he issued his preliminary Proclamation, which announced that emancipation would become effective on January 1, 1863, in those states “in rebellion” that had not, during the interim period, ceased hostilities. He issued and signed the supplementary or real Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It is not a particularly long document, so here it is in full:

“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-defense; 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 testimony 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.

Abraham Lincoln”

Just before affixing his signature, Lincoln said to the few friends who were with him in his study, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”

IV. Interpretations

A. Background

In truth, the Emancipation Proclamation was both an end and a beginning. It was the capstone on all the measures that had until then been taken to prohibit slavery or to free slaves and that had therefore seriously eroded the institution and prepared the nation for the Thirteenth Amendment. These included:

  • The Northwest Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787, wherein Congress prohibited slavery in the area north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes and west of Pennsylvania to the Mississippi River;
  • Article I, Section 9 (I), of the Constitution, which authorized Congress to prohibit the importation of slaves after 1807, a clear signal that the framers – most of them – found the institution to be loathsome and planned for its eventual extinction;
  • Lincoln’s order of March 13, 1862, forbidding all Union officers to return fugitive slaves, thus in effect annulling the fugitive slave laws despite the fact that they were enacted pursuant to Art. IV, Section 2, of the Constitution;
  • Congress’s abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (by the Senate on April 3, 1862; by the House on April 11, 1862; signed into law by the President on April 16, 1862);
  • Congress’s declaration on April 10, 1862, that the Federal Government would compensate slave owners who freed their slaves;
  • Congress’s prohibition of slavery in United States territories, on June 19, 1862, thus nullifying the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and putting to rest the question that had set region against region since 1847, i.e., would the territories acquired from Mexico be slave or free?;
  • The Second Confiscation Act (signed into law on July 17, 1862), which provided for the liberation of the slaves (in addition to other penalties) of persons convicted of rebelling or in any way aiding and abetting the rebellion against the authority of the United States, as well as those slaves who escaped from such persons and sought refuge within Union lines, or who were captured by Union forces or deserted by their masters and came under control of the United States Government, or who were in places occupied by rebel forces that were afterwards occupied by Union forces.

Some observers felt that this last Act made the Emancipation Proclamation superfluous, but it was not so: the former was much more limited than the latter. It did not, for example, apply to loyal slaveholders. Further, by its language, slaves could be freed only on a case by case basis in Federal courts. The Proclamation, by contrast, freed all slaves, of loyal slaveholders and of disloyal ones, in all areas of the country in rebellion against the national authority, i.e., its duly elected government – all 4,000,000 of them in one fell swoop.

At the same time that it was the capstone of all the piecemeal measures that had preceded it and that had eroded the peculiar institution, it represented the beginning of the end of the Confederacy, made possible the freedom of slaves everywhere in the country, de jure and de facto, and paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment, which guaranteed that the institution would never reappear within our borders.

There are basically three interpretations of the Proclamation, all three of them true or substantially true.

B. The First Interpretation

The first interpretation is that the Proclamation freed no slaves. Those slaves who were in states and parts of states that were in rebellion remained slaves because the power of the Federal Government could not reach them, or in any case had not reached them. Their masters, obviously, completely ignored Lincoln’s edict. Those slaves who were in states or parts of states that had never been in rebellion, or that were no longer in rebellion because they were then in Union hands, were exempt from emancipation. Therefore, it follows that the document did not free one single slave.

Though there was much truth in this sentiment, it was never entirely true, which is to say that the Proclamation did in fact give de facto as well as de jure freedom to some slaves, albeit only a few, immediately. These were slaves who were being held by Union forces as “contraband of war,” in contraband camps, after escaping from their masters and reaching Union lines. Upon the effective date of the Proclamation, they were told by their keepers that they were free to leave. Still other slaves had stayed behind on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia after their occupation by Union forces early in the war and after whites had fled to the mainland. They, too, were told that they were free to leave after the Proclamation became effective and after it was read to them.

It needs to be said, further, that Lincoln did not have the constitutional authority to abolish slavery in the entire nation. He could do so in the South because of his war prerogatives, but that authority did not extend to areas where there was no war, i.e. free states and border states.

C. The Second Interpretation

The second interpretation is that the Proclamation freed some slaves, but left others in bondage. The only distinction between this and the first interpretation is the recognition that the slaves in states and parts of states that were in rebellion were free de jure even if not yet free de facto – a distinction of enormous significance. According to the first interpretation, the slaves in the Confederacy were simply, and conveniently for the scoffers, interpreted as being still in bondage because their masters willed it and because the physical power to undo their masters’ will had not reached them. The second interpretation rests upon the premise, as Lincoln and his Attorney General, Edward Bates, contended, that the states that comprised the Confederacy were never out of the Union; that the Constitution made no provision for secession; and that the Union was, therefore, perpetual.

Accordingly, the slaves in states and parts of states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863 (and they are named in the Emancipation Proclamation), were, from that date forward, free in law, and when the Union armies regained control of those states and parts of states, they would encounter not slaves, but free men and women whose status as such had already been proclaimed by a document that had the force of law (unless and until a court of competent jurisdiction would declare otherwise) because it had been prepared and issued by the Commander in Chief of the Union Armies as a measure whose purpose was to subdue persons who had taken up arms against those armies. The slaves remaining in bondage, of course, were those in border states and those in areas that were then in Union hands but could not yet be said to be parts of states that were not in rebellion.

D. The Third Interpretation

The third interpretation is that the Proclamation freed all the slaves everywhere. As with the second interpretation, this interpretation rests on the premise that the states and parts of states that were in rebellion were never out of the Union, but also upon the premise that once the slaves in the states or parts of states that were in rebellion were given their de facto freedom by conquering Union armies, slavery was as good as dead in the border states as well because its maintenance therein would have been a hopeless anachronism in a Union of free states. All of this was quite likely foreseen by William Lloyd Garrison, the foremost and fervent abolitionist, when he said that the Emancipation Proclamation was “an act of immense historical consequence,” and by Frederick Douglas, who wrote that “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.”

V. Effects

A. In General

If the genesis of the Proclamation was multifaceted, and the interpretations fluid, there never was the slightest ambiguity about its effects. They were immediate, profound, and changed the course of history. Lincoln, of course, knew that his Proclamation would be very controversial. But Lincoln also knew that the benefits far outweighed the risks. When the dust had cleared, it was obvious that the Proclamation had changed the whole character of the war because it had infused the Federal Government and the forces fighting for it with a new purpose, greater even than the cause of Union. That purpose, of course, was freedom and its extension to a class of persons who had been torn from their native habitats and brought to our shores by force and under the most despicable conditions and who, once here and for two and half centuries thereafter, had been yoked to endless toil and poverty and made to suffer virtually every indignity, every cruelty and every atrocity that one people could conceive of visiting upon another. This, more than any other factor in the Civil War, with the possible exception of John Frances Adams’s diplomacy, assured Union victory.

B. The Political Fallout

Reaction, of course, was mixed. Predictably, the radicals and abolitionists said the Proclamation did not go far enough. Conservatives and Northern Democrats, particularly Copperhead Democrats, who opposed the war and who were willing to accept both secession and slavery, said it went too far. But most Northerners were neither radical, nor abolitionist, nor anti-war Democrats; they were a part, rather, of the great middle ground that eschews extremes, and it was not long, therefore, before there were celebrations all over the land as the new spirit – the moral impetus provided by the Proclamation – took hold of the minds and hearts of most citizens, black and white. Later, however, the enemies of emancipation would have their say, expressing themselves violently in the New York draft riots of July, 1863, in which blacks were specially targeted, even a black orphanage, and in which many were killed, including orphans. In the mid-term elections, the Democrats, running on an anti-emancipation platform, gained 28 seats in the House and also captured the governorships of New York and New Jersey. The results persuaded some historians to conclude that most Northerners were opposed to the Proclamation, but it was not so. Critics pointed out that Democratic victories were by narrow margins, that the Republicans had actually gained five seats in the Senate and that soldiers who were unable to vote because they were in the field were mostly Republican. Moreover, even with the Democratic gains, and even with the loss of support of some War Democrats, who had supported Lincoln on the goal of Union, but who would not support emancipation as a war goal, the Republicans maintained a comfortable control of the Congress due to their alliance with the Unionist Party of pro-war Democrats.

C. The Slaves

The slaves heard and believed, because, of course, they wanted to believe. Legal niceties had no meaning for them. All they knew was that they were free because “Mistuh Linkum” said they were. His Proclamation was read to them wherever it could be, usually by a Union soldier. They rejoiced, they wept. Booker T. Washington, writing 35 years later (Up From Slavery (1901)), remembered 1865, when he was a nine-year-old boy:

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom… Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper – the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

The slaves did not have to be literate (word of mouth would do) to know that the Proclamation was an open invitation to desert their masters and make their way to Union lines, where they would not only acquire their de facto freedom, but also be “received into the armed service of the United States.” What more could a slave ask for? – freedom and a uniform to go with it! The effect was immediate and electric. A Union officer in Virginia said that he saw slaves in his camp that had come all the way from North Carolina, that the slaves “know all about the Proclamation and they started on the belief in it.” Then and later, slaves told how they had been motivated to run by the Proclamation, how they considered it their ticket to freedom. The Union officers noted that the attitude of “the negroes” had changed dramatically, that they no longer considered themselves slaves, but free and independent men and women. Nothing could more unfit a man or women for slavery than a belief that he or she was no longer a slave, but free. And why should they not believe it? Did not the Proclamation say that “…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”? And did it not also say 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”? If the invitation had been embossed in gold it could not have been clearer or more effective. All it lacked was an R.S.V.P. The meaning of these lines was as clear to Southern leaders as it was to slaves. On January 12, 1863, Jefferson Davis said that the Proclamation meant the extermination of the Negro race. He also said that it encouraged mass assassination of their masters. Well, not quite, but Davis knew that the trickle of runaway slaves would soon become a flood and that the Union’s gain in manpower and soldiers was the Confederacy’s loss in labor.

Interestingly, when the war was over and as time passed, it was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation rather than any of the piecemeal measures that had preceded it, and rather, even, than the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, that blacks remembered as the defining moment in their long and painful march from bondage. For many years, they would assemble on New Year’s Day, at some convenient location – most likely a church – and listen to a reading of the Proclamation, usually accompanied by singing, prayer and/or an oration. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Proclamation (1913), James Weldon Johnson, a black poet, penned these memorable lines:

Fifty Years

O Brothers mine, to-day we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,

Since God, through Lincoln’s ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

Just fifty years–a winter’s day–
As runs the history of a race;
Yet, as we look back o’er the day,
How distant seems our starting place!

Then, in a more assertive tone, making certain that humility did not replace self-confidence, he said:

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

To gain these fruits that have been earned,
To hold these fields that have been won,
Our arms have strained, our backs have burned,
Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun.

Then should we speak but servile words,
Or shall we hang our heads in shame?
Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,
And fear our heritage to claim?

No! stand erect and without fear,
And for our foes let this suffice–
We’ve brought a rightful sonship here,
and we have more than paid the price . . .

That for which millions prayed and sighed
That for which tens of thousands fought,
For which so many freely died,
God cannot let it come to naught.

Blacks, indeed, had a very long way to go to achieve true equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Years, decades, more than a century of intimidation, violence, lynchings, disenfranchisement, and discrimination lay ahead of them. But the Proclamation represented a beginning, a first step, and no one knew it better than they.

D. The Armies

Many in the military protested the Proclamation, as Lincoln knew they would. It was not, they said, what they had signed on for, not what they were fighting for. Some soldiers even deserted. But when it became clear that the effect of the Proclamation would be to put more numbers in their ranks, thereby increasing their chances of victory and hastening the war’s end, the great majority of servicemen accepted the Proclamation and the blacks who were soon in uniform, if not as equals, then at least as the enemy of my enemy and therefore my friend. Further, it would not be long before they proved their worth on the battlefield and therefore came to be regarded as more than the enemy of my enemy, but as comrades in arms.

Between 1863 and 1865, 300,000 blacks fought for the Union. By the end of the war, 186,000 blacks were in uniform, armed and fighting for the cause of Union and “a new birth of freedom,” 93,000 from Confederate states, 40,000 from border states and 53,000 from free states. In addition, another 19,000 blacks served in the Navy. This was a tremendous plus for the Union cause and a deathblow to the Confederacy. Further, it should not go unsaid that 38,000 black Union soldiers gave the last full measure of devotion, many of whom were killed in cold blood when they were taken prisoner.

E. Foreign Intervention

The Proclamation put an immediate end to the threat of recognition of the Confederacy and intervention in the war by England or France, the only countries that posed the threat of either. Regardless of what the ruling classes in each country thought about the democratic experiment across the ocean, and regardless of the advantages that might accrue to them by a division of the United States, their governments simply could not ignore public opinion, which, after the issuance of the Proclamation, was solidly on the side of the Federal government now that it had committed itself to the abolition of slavery, which both countries had previously abolished. Neither country’s government could afford to be seen as supporting slavery.

VI. The Thirteenth Amendment

Towards the end of the war, when it became increasingly clear that the Union would prevail, Lincoln and those who supported emancipation, by then a clear majority in the North, became concerned that the Proclamation, as a war measure, would not survive a legal challenge when the war was finally over. “A question might be raised,” Lincoln said, “whether the proclamation is legally valid. It might be urged that it only aided those that came into our lines, and that it was inoperative as to those who did not give themselves up.” There was also concern for the freedom of those slaves who had not been freed by the Proclamation (about 40,000 in Kentucky; somewhat less than 2,000 in Delaware) as well as for the children of slaves who had been freed by it, but whom, the court’s might decide, were not affected by it. For these reasons, Lincoln pushed hard, during his 1864 campaign for re-election, for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit involuntary servitude throughout the country and thus make its return to any part of the country impossible. His work was made easier by the abolition of slavery by state action in the border states of Maryland and Missouri. Maryland’s new constitution, which abolished slavery, passed by a narrow vote of its people, including its loyal soldiers in the field, in October, 1864, and took effect the following month. In Missouri, the institution was ended on January 11, 1865, by an executive proclamation of Governor Thomas C. Fletcher.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provided that:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Amendment was first introduced in the House in the spring of 1864 and failed to pass. It was re-introduced and finally passed by the House on January 31, 1865, after Lincoln took energetic measures to support it. He insisted that its passage be added to the Republican Party platform for the Presidential election of 1864. Further, he persuaded fence-sitters of the necessity of passage, sometimes with promises of patronage. He even went as far as to release from military prisons certain Confederates who were related to Democratic members of Congress. Lincoln prevailed, but by means that caused Thaddeus Stevens to remark that “The greatest measure in the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

The Amendment was proposed to the legislatures of the several states by the 38th Congress on January 31, 1865. The following day, Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed Amendment. It was declared, in a proclamation of the Secretary of State (Seward), dated December 18, 1865, to have been ratified by the legislatures of 27 of the 36 states. Dates of ratification extended from February 1, 1865, through December 6, 1865. The Amendment was subsequently ratified by eight additional states, from December 8, 1865, through March 1995.

The last nail had finally been driven into the coffin of slavery in the United States, but it was a nail that would not have been driven had not the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way by preserving the United States as one nation. The Amendment, of course, made the Proclamation superfluous and moot any challenge that might have been made to its legality. But all of this was merely legal conclusion. Though superfluous in law, it remained a beacon in fact, a brilliant burst of light that had illuminated a dark and dreary landscape and that finally brought reality in line with the principle set forth in the Declaration of Independence four score and seven years earlier: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

VII. Summary and Conclusion

I am of the opinion that major historical events, and some minor ones too, occur only in the fullness of time, which is to say that they occur only when conditions are ripe for their happening. Attempts to accomplish them in unconducive circumstances, or at inappropriate times, will fail. Examples are endless and superfluous, but I shall give one because it is especially relevant.

The Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Continental Congress on July 13, 1787, under the Articles of Confederation (which created the Northwest Territory as the first organized territory of the United States out of the region south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River), contained the following language: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Observe that the language is virtually identical to that of Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted 78 years later. Clearly, the former was the template for the latter. In 1787, four years after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War by thirteen united colonies, circumstances were such that the inclusion of this language in a document that was applicable north of the Ohio River made sense, but 78 years had to pass before its inclusion in another document that was applicable south of that river would make sense.

This is not to say (to plunge into a time-honored debate) that men (the word used herein to mean both men and women) are driven totally by historical circumstances rather than the other way around, because there can be no historical circumstances without men. To put the matter plainly: History makes men, yes, but men also make history. And occasionally, very occasionally, certain men make much and very profound history. The record of our species is replete with the names and deeds of such men – Pericles, Caesar, Jesus, Justinian, Theodora, Mohammed, Charlemagne, Leonardo, Columbus, Luther, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Catherine the Great, Voltaire, Rousseau, Washington, Napoleon – and Lincoln, to name but a tiny number and not to mention post-Lincoln individuals who, for better or worse, left their mark.

Institutionalized slavery had largely run its historical course in the western world by 1860, the year of Lincoln’s election. In England the slave trade was prohibited in 1807 and made a capital crime in 1827. In 1833 and 1834, Parliament outlawed slavery and emancipated all slaves in the Empire, and in 1838 it abolished indentured servitude. Twenty million pounds was paid in compensation to plantation owners in the Caribbean, an example that might have been followed in the United States, but wasn’t. France finally abolished the institution in its Empire in 1848, after prior repeals and re-establishment in some of its colonies. In Russia, slavery was abolished by Peter the Great, and serfs were emancipated in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II.

In addition to these major powers, some 17 other nations had formally abolished slavery by 1860, and another dozen or so would do so in the century following the Civil War, though the practice persists secretly in many countries, for labor and for sex. Its existence in the American South, therefore, was anachronistic, and it was thus only a matter of time before it would come to an end, peacefully, as in England, France, Russia, etc., or violently. It ended violently because the regions had grown very far apart economically and culturally, because slaveholders had invested billions of dollars in their slaves and felt that they could not weather such an economic loss, and because Southern leadership and citizenry could not imagine what they would do with almost 4,000,000 suddenly free blacks in their midst.

This was the history, then, that would make men. Now let us talk about the man who would make history.

Was Lincoln a truly great man? Yes. Was he a truly great President? Yes. Was he a complex man, both good and bad, with strengths and weaknesses? No, there was nothing bad about him, and he had no weaknesses worth talking about. Was he, then, a perfect human being? No, because he made mistakes, but to make mistakes is not necessarily to be weak. Was he forced into glory? No, he earned it and paid the ultimate price for it.

Lincoln, and at times it appears that only Lincoln, during his period, realized that goals had to be not only praiseworthy, but accomplished gradually, in stages, in the fullness of time. Without that acumen and foresight, it is likely that the Rebellion would have succeeded, that the United States would have ceased to exist as one nation, and that human bondage would have continued in a country whose organic law, i.e., its Constitution, guaranteed it, and this despite the fact that it was anachronistic in the world even at that time. Even with the acumen and foresight, this scenario came perilously close to reality. The North, the Federal Government, the United States, was truly not out of the woods until 1863 and even then might have lost the war if Gettysburg had gone the other way. No one who knows anything about the war can doubt the fighting qualities of the Southern man, the superb generalship the South brought to the conflict, and the tenacity of the people of the South in the face of an adversary that substantially outnumbered them and that had substantially more of virtually everything – gold, railroads, ships, armaments, manufactured goods, lumber, food, etc. – than they had. Despite this lopsided balance in resources, Lincoln would say in late 1862, that if there was a place worse than hell, he was in it. And why not, after Union disasters on the Peninsula and at Second Bull Run and at Fredericksburg and with one commander who had a chronic case of “the slows,” another whose braggadocio and cruelty made Lincoln cringe, and another who did not hesitate to admit that he was unfit to command an army.

Lincoln knew that he could not get too far ahead of public opinion and that to try to accomplish too much too quickly would lose the whole game. Thus it was that he could entertain the notion of colonization of blacks, despite, or perhaps because of, his profound sympathy for black Americans and his loathing of slavery. Under the then prevailing circumstances and taking account of the attitudes of most whites toward blacks at that time, colonization was not such an outrageous idea. But Lincoln had the good sense to withdraw the suggestion when it was made clear to him by black leaders that they had no interest in it.

And thus it was, too, that Lincoln would resist – because he had to resist – the demands of the abolitionists and the radicals and the unauthorized liberation of slaves by overly zealous commanders in the field who knew their departments well enough, but did not have the comprehensive overview of the big picture that only the Commander in Chief in the White House had. Had he not so resisted when he did and to the degree that he did, one or more and very likely all four of the border states would have joined the Rebellion, and the cause of Union would then have been lost. Indeed, Lincoln felt that the loss of even one of them – Kentucky – would have been fatal to the cause. It’s a good thing he knew this, because it appears that no one else of consequence knew it.

So Lincoln was sagacious, more so than any of his contemporaries. He was also perceptive and patient. He also knew a great deal about human nature, no less than Shakespeare. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it. He would be forceful only when he absolutely had to be, when the success or failure of the cause was in the balance, which is to say when the continuation of the United States as one nation demanded it. Thus it was, for example, that he would suspend the writ of habeas corpus for a period without Congress’s constitutionally mandated authority. Thus it was, as another example, that he would order the arrest and incarceration in Fort McHenry of the Mayor and the City Council of the City of Baltimore, as well as several Maryland legislators who were preparing to vote to recognize the Confederacy, as well as Congressman Henry May, rather than allow the nation’s capital to be geographically cut off from the states that supported it. And thus it was, too, that there was some interference with free speech and other civil liberties during his administration. However, these measures were taken not with alacrity, but with much pain, because they offended his love of justice, of liberty, and of the rule of law, as well as his finely tuned sense of right and wrong.

For the rest, he was the soul of kindness, of gentleness, of thoughtfulness, and of generosity, material and spiritual. His Bixby letter is a splendid example of it, but so are his major addresses as President – the First Inaugural, the Gettysburg Address, and especially his Second Inaugural, which David Lloyd George, a great admirer of Lincoln, is said to have described as the finest thing ever written with a pen. His love and sympathy for humanity was so great, in fact, that it even extended to slaveholders, whom, he knew, had inherited a system not of their making.

His capacity for mercy was legendary even in his own time. Time and time again he intervened to save the lives of soldiers who had run afoul of military discipline, who were charged with criminal negligence, cowardice or desertion. With a heavy heart, he would defer to the executioners only in the severest cases, i.e., multiple offenders, those who had already received clemency more than once, and those who ignored repeated warnings. And time and time again he would make himself available to the lowly, to those without status, power, or influence, to those who had only a need. So pervasive and well known were these attributes of Lincoln’s character, in fact, that Robert E. Lee is said to have said that he surrendered as much to Lincoln’s kindness as he did to Grant’s cannons. No greater tragedy ever befell the South, before or after the war, than the half inch of lead that John Wilkes Booth’s derringer sent into Lincoln’s brain.

He was a man, too, who knew what pain, suffering, and grief were about. He had experienced much, before as well as during the war, which no doubt had a lot to do with his gentle and merciful spirit. In 1850, he and his wife, Mary Todd, were devastated by the loss of their not quite four-year-old son, Eddie Baker Lincoln, whom his parents called “a tender boy,” to pulmonary tuberculosis. Having weathered that and much else by 1862, the Lincoln’s were again driven to the edge by the loss of their eleven-year-old son, William (Willie), on February 20 of that year, to a typhoid-like disease. Willie, who was probably his parents’ favorite, had been described by Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, Mary’s cousin, as a “noble, beautiful boy…of great mental activity, unusual intelligence, wonderful memory, methodical, frank and loving, a counterpart of his father, save that he was handsome.” His death plunged both of his parents into inconsolable grief. But grief of a different kind was to follow in that terrible year for the North, with one lost battle following another, culminating in the debacle at Fredericksburg and the Mud March of January 1863. Lincoln would at least be spared the loss of his third son, Thomas (Tad), who died on July 16, 1871, at the age of 18, a death that pushed Mary over the edge into insanity.

Lastly, a word about one other feature of his personality. It is said that there are only three things in life: God, human folly, and laughter; that we can’t understand the first, that we can’t do anything about the second, and that we must therefore make the most of the third. Lincoln would probably agree that God is unknowable. He would not agree that we can do nothing about human folly; he did a great deal about it. But he most assuredly would agree with the value of laughter, which is why, when he wasn’t grieving or despairing, he did a lot of it and tried to get other people to do a lot of it and often. His sense of humor was as much a part of him as his height and his stovepipe hat. He loved a good joke and a good story and told both often. Sometimes his humor was a bit too earthy or ribald for some ears, but if he didn’t always amuse his audience, he certainly had no problem amusing himself. When retiring, he was as likely – perhaps more so – to facilitate sleep with Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby than with government reports.

So what do we have? A very intelligent man, a self-taught man who rose from the humblest beginnings to the highest office in the land, a perceptive man, a patient man, a man who could be forceful, but who preferred to be, and therefore most often was, a compassionate man. A kind, gentle, thoughtful, and generous man. A merciful man, a humble man. A man who loved to laugh and to make others laugh. In a word, a man who had all the tools necessary to shepherd his country from a largely agrarian and loosely joined federation of semi-autonomous states to an industrial and commercial giant that would think of itself and present itself to the world as one nation, indivisible.

It seems probable that no other man of his time could have succeeded in holding the country together, so great were the forces tearing it apart. Indeed, even with the qualities that he brought to the task, he came perilously close to failing. When we think of the long train of mediocre Presidents (not to say mediocre men) who followed him, that probability does not appear to be overstated: Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison. To a degree, therefore, history made Lincoln. But to an even greater degree, Lincoln made history as only a few others have made it.

Related links:
President Lincoln on Emancipation Proclamation Day, January 1, 1863
The Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives
The Emancipation Proclamation at the Library of Congress
Chronology of emancipation during the Civil War