Emancipation ultimately was the penalty for the Southern rebellion According to Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 stemmed from a promise the President made that “if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” In the Proclamation, Mr. Lincoln gave the South 100 days of warning that if they did not cease the rebellion, he would cause slavery to cease within the borders of rebellious states.
The Civil War was a war of contradictions. The South seceded to perpetuate slavery and instead ended up destroying it. The North vowed not to interfere with slavery and then won sufficient support to abolish it. The longer the South delayed defeat, the more inevitable change was. Unlike many abolitionists, Lincoln understood he couldn’t eliminate slavery without first saving the union. And unlike many conservative Republicans and Democrats, he realized he couldn’t save the union without eliminating slavery. In 1861, President Lincoln told Senator Charles Sumner, a strong abolitionist: “Well, Mr. Sumner, the only difference between you and me on this subject of emancipation is a difference of a month or six weeks in time.” 1 & 2
It took another six months, however, for Mr. Lincoln to reach his decision. Historian T. Harry Williams wrote that President Lincoln “was on the slavery question, as he was on most matters, a conservative. Unlike the ultra Radicals, he could tolerate evil, especially when he feared that to uproot it would produce greater evils. But he was not the kind of conservative who refused to move at all against evil, who let his pragmatism fade into expediency, who blindly rejected change when it could not be denied. Yet there were just such men among the ultra Conservatives of his party, and Lincoln opposed them as he did the ultra Radicals. He knew that he was not completely with them, and…he would not let the Conservatives control the slavery issue. He knew too that he was against the Radicals and also with them. Speaking of the Missouri Radicals but doubtless having the whole genre in mind, he said: ‘They are utterly lawless – the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with – but after all their faces are set Zionwards.’ He did work with the Radicals but he also resisted them. He used them – as he did the Conservatives – to effect a great social change with the smallest possible social dislocation. It would indeed be an error…to make too much out of the conflict in the Republican party over slavery. It would be a greater error to dismiss this unique episode and its unique issue as something normal or average and to treat it on the level of ordinary politics. There is little about the Civil War that is ordinary.” 3
Mr. Lincoln finally determined that he needed to use his war powers to abolish slavery in areas the Union army did not control. The decision was often ridiculed but had a dramatic effect on the slaves behind Confederate lines. Historian Edna Greene Medford wrote: “In those areas of the South occupied by Union troops, black men and women celebrated ‘the day of jubilee’ in much the same way as did African-Americans in the North. Although not included in the emancipating provisions of the proclamation, enslaved men and women in cities such as Norfolk and New Orleans – where the Union presence had already weakened slavery’s hold – welcomed the president’s pronouncement as a sure sign of the inevitability of their own freedom. In Norfolk thousands watched and cheered as Union troops and representatives from the black community paraded down the main streets in celebration of Lincoln’s decree. Even in the border states, enslaved people recognized the significance the document held for their future liberation. In Kentucky, for instance, news of the preliminary proclamation had convinced African-Americans that their freedom was imminent, despite efforts on the part of local slaveholders to dispel the belief.”
Another historian, Don E. Fehrenbacher, wrote: “In a sense, as historians fond of paradox are forever pointing out, it did not immediately liberate any slaves at all. And the Declaration of Independence, it might be added, did not immediately liberate a single colony from British rule. The people of Lincoln’s time apparently had little doubt about the significance of the Proclamation. Jefferson Davis did not regard it as a mere scrap of paper, and neither did that most famous of former slaves, Frederick Douglass. He called it ‘the greatest event of nation’s history.'”4
- E.E. Hale, Memories, Volume II, p. 189-196 (memorandum of April 1862).
- John Y. Simon Harold Holzer and William D. Pederson, editor, Edna Greene Medford, Lincoln, Gettysburg and the Civil War, p. 51.
- Don E. Fehrenbacher, editor, T. Harry Williams, The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln, p. 109-110.
- Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Context, p. 109.