A Nation Divided: Civil War Politics and Emancipation
The debate over emancipation of the slaves was born out of the South’s refusal to believe that the President’s true intention was to preserve the Union. Even abolitionists did not wholly accept that he would end slavery, though the prospect of emancipation was precisely why many of them supported him. These perceptions were largely constructed in response to Lincoln’s reciprocal assault and defense of slavery during his campaign. However, his ostensibly hypocritical platform became necessary during the war in order to maintain support from Northern voters as well as appease the Border Slave States to avoid further fragmentation.
While contemplating the future of the war and the Union in a meeting with Quaker abolitionists, Lincoln expressed that a decree of emancipation was futile if improperly timed; stating that if such a proclamation could abolish slavery “John Brown could have done the work” (Brands, 2009). Therein, he conveyed that any piece of legislation was only as durable as the voter cohesion at its foundation. Lincoln never questioned the inherent inhumanity of slavery. He was merely being realistic in considering how the process of emancipation should be initiated.
Rather than immediately issue such a decree, President Lincoln began by proposing compensation to slaveholders for their loss of “property” so as to lessen the economic impact of abolition. As this program seemingly justified the ownership of human beings, he proposed it to his constituency by comparing the monetary cost of war to the cost of such compensation on taxpayers. He implored the Border State members of Congress to accept his deal while it was being offered, lest they lose the entire perceived value of their slaves as it was extinguished upon the military victory of the North. The representatives refused outright, primarily based upon their inability to determine exactly what would be done with their slaves following emancipation; a paradox contemplated by Lincoln himself.
Subsequently, he admitted to an assembly of freed slaves at the White House that their race was suffering “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.” However, he professed that even if given freedom, African-Americans would not obtain “equality with the white race.” He simply could not envision an America wherein multiple races could co-exist as equals. Therefore, and as the slaves had not initially chosen to come to the United States, he encouraged their descendants to leave the country for Central America or Liberia; attempting to deflect the potential inequality through emigration (Brands, 2009).
Amid a dismal array of defeats suffered by the North, Lincoln viewed the Emancipation Proclamation as a drastic effort to redefine the Union mission and achieve victory. It was not born out of moral reflection nor reverence for individual liberty, but of military necessity. Accordingly, on the advice of Secretary of State William Seward, he tabled the decree pending a victory in battle so that it would not be viewed as a hopeless bluff or the death pangs of an exhausted force.
The time came following McClellan’s disputable victory over Lee at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862. Though McClellan’s 90,000 troops were unable to wholly defeat Lee’s force of 50,000, Lee necessarily retreated. Five days later, the proclamation was published, declaring that all slaves shall be forever freed within the borders of the United States (Brands, 2009).
The Emancipation Proclamation produced its intended effect. In April of 1864, in response to unprecedented public demand, the Senate proposed the Thirteenth Amendment, which was affirmed by the House in January of the following year. The United States Government had officially declared an end to slavery on American soil. Notably, the legislation inspired more blacks to enter into the service of the Union army, transforming the meaning of the Civil War from preservation to liberation for many. Consequently, legions of the 4 million newly freed slaves deserted Southern plantations and became a potential force for whichever side could enlist them.
The Confederacy was at a crossroads; it could reach an amicable agreement with the slaves and employ them to prolong the conflict or surrender to the North and hope that the emancipation order could be renegotiated. Ultimately, the South acquiesced as blacks joined the Union cause in droves. As noted by James McPherson, “Without [the slaves’] help, the North could not have won the war as soon as it did, and perhaps…not have won at all” (Zinn, 2003, pp. 143-144).
Conclusion and Reflection
President Lincoln never intended to embark on a benevolent crusade to free his enslaved Negro countrymen. Rather, he methodically employed abolition as a means to improve the dire military situation of the North without alienating either his moderate or radical supporters. When the military success of the Union Army seemed most improbable, he proposed emancipation in order to redefine the meaning of the campaign and force the Confederacy into submission.
Nonetheless, his ulterior motivations behind the proclamation did not lessen its profound impact. It was the nation’s first quantifiable step away from hypocrisy and toward true equality. He successfully championed legislation which complimented his political and military objectives, while simultaneously adhering to his own personal moral convictions (Guelzo, 2002). Any president could have issued such a decree, but the notion of an equal society would have been irrelevant in an America divided by internal war. Through emancipation, the United States embodied Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of an “empire of liberty” (Foner, 2011).
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