Between March and July of 1862, President Lincoln advocated compensated emancipation of slaves living in Border States. He also endorsed foreign colonization of freed slaves. But by July 1862, the Union war efforts in Virginia were going badly and pressure was growing to remove the Union commander, General George B. McClellan. Mr. Lincoln decided that emancipation of slaves in areas in rebellion was militarily necessary to put an end to secession and was constitutionally justified by his powers as commander in chief. Mr. Lincoln had been under considerable pressure from radical members of his own party in the Senate – especially Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler. They were critical, argumentative and impatient….sometimes even rude to Mr. Lincoln. But, the President was worried about how residents of key border states would react to a proclamation of emancipation. Mr. Lincoln believed that Union support in Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri was key to military success of Union military maneuvers.
President Lincoln’s authority to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was questioned by even a moderate pro-emancipation Senator like Maine’s William P. Fessenden. On a late November train ride from Philadelphia to Washington with Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, Fessenden “claimed that the President, as President had nothing to do with the condition of the negro. That as Commander in Chief of the army he might do whatever was demanded by the exigencies of the service to the extent that he could enforce his purposes with the army, but that the proclamation itself did not and could not affect the status of a single negro. That if the President desired to say in advance what he intended to do he should simply have said that on the first of January he would direct his Genls to seize all the negroes they could reach in the insurrectionary districts. That the proclamation was very unfortunately worded, and was, at best, but brutem fulmen.”1
The President was under increasing pressure from Radical Republicans in and out of Congress. Kentuckian Cassius M. Clay visited President Lincoln and pressed the case. “There is much in what you say which has had my serious thought, but we have as much as we can now carry, and I fear if the proclamation of freedom should be issued, Kentucky would go out to the South.”2 President Lincoln’s first priority had been to enact compensated emancipation in the Border States – and thus avoid a confrontation with them.. In June 1862 Lincoln met with Missouri Senator John B. Henderson, who was a consistent moderate supporter of his policies. Journalist Walter Stevens reported.
“Mr. Lincoln hesitated, not because he hadn’t made up his mind, but because he wanted to protect the loyal slaveholders of the Border States as far as he could. His idea was that a plan to pay for these slaves could be put in operation, and then he would by proclamation strike off the shackles of all whose owners were engaged in rebellion. While he was trying to get this programme going he sent often for Gen. Henderson to come to the White House to discus the White House to discuss the details, and to urge more rapid action. It was on the occasion of one of these talks that Mr. Lincoln told the sorry which Gen. Henderson called to mind a few evenings since.
“As I went in,’ said the General, ‘I noticed that the President was looking troubled. He was sitting in one of his favorite attitudes – in a rocking chair, with one leg thrown over the arm. I knew that he suffered terribly from headaches, and I said to him:
‘No,’ said he, ‘it isn’t a headache this time. Chandler has just been here to talk again about emancipation; and he came on the heels of Wade and Sumner, who were here on the same errand. I like those three men, but they bother me nearly to death. They put me in the situation of a boy I remember when I was going to school.’
General Henderson says the President’s face brightened, and he knew a story was coming. Mr. Lincoln leaned forward and clasped his hands around the knee of the leg resting on the arm of the chair. Then he proceeded with the story:
“‘The text book was the Old Bible. There was a rather dull little fellow in the class who didn’t know very much, and we were reading the account of the three Hebrews cast into the fiery furnace. The little fellow was called on to read, and he stumbled along until he came to the names of the three Hebrews – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. He couldn’t do anything with them. The teacher pronounced them over slowly and told the boy to try. The boy tried and missed. This provoked the teacher, and he slapped the little fellow, who cried vigorously. Then he attempted again, but he couldn’t get the names. ‘Well,’ said the teacher impatiently, ‘never mind the names. Skip them and go on.’ The poor boy drew his shirt sleeve across his eyes two or three times, snuffed his nose and started on to read. He went on bravely a little way and then he suddenly stopped, dropped the book in front of him, looked in despair at the teacher, and burst out crying. ‘What the matter now?’ shouted the teacher, and burst out of patience. ‘He – he – here’s them same – fellers agin,’ sobbed the boy.
“‘That is just my fix to day, Henderson. Those same three [damned] fellows have been here again with their everlasting emancipation talk.”
“He stopped a few moments to enjoy the story, and then becoming serious, continued:
“‘But Sumner and Wade are right about it, I know it, and you know it too. I’ve got to do something, and it can’t be put off much longer. We can’t get through this terrible war with slavery existing. You’ve got sense enough to know that. Why can’t you make the Border States members see it? Why don’t you turn in and take pay for your slaves from the Government? Then all your people can give their hearty support to the Union. We can go ahead with emancipation of slaves in the other States by proclamation and end the trouble.’
“Gen. Henderson says that as early as May, in 1862, Mr. Lincoln told him of his intention to issue the emancipation proclamation. The action was not taken until six months later, and then the proclamation was made to take effect January, 1863. The President held out as long as he could in the hope that he might be able to carry out his border States policy.
“The introduction of the bill to pay for the slaves of loyal owners in Missouri was the result of Mr. Lincoln’s earnest support of this plan. This was the first of the bills. It was followed by others for Kentucky, Maryland and other border States which had slaveholders.
“‘I do not remember,’ the General says, ‘whether Mr. Lincoln drafted the bill or whether I got it up, but the inspiration came from him. I did all in my power to press it. The proposition went through both House and Senate. But it was passed in somewhat different forms. The Senate increased the amount, and this difference had to be adjusted in conference. There was a good majority for the Missouri bill in both branches of Congress, and there was not much trouble about compromising the difference of opinion on the amount to be appropriated, but the session was almost at and end, and a small minority in the House was able by filibustering and obstructing to prevent the final action there. If the bill could have been got before the House in its finished form it would have passed as easily as it did in the Senate.’
“President Lincoln watched the progress of the legislation with a great deal of interest and did all he could to further it. He could not understand why the border State members should not be for it.
“‘And I could not either,’ says the General; ‘it was perfectly plain to me that slavery had got to go. Here was a voluntary offer on the part of the Government to compensate the loyal men in the border States for the loss of their property. I talked with the members from Missouri and from Kentucky and with the others who were most interested, but I couldn’t make them see it as I did. They had exaggerated ideas of the results which would ensue from a free negro population. They took the position that slavery must not be touched, and it was their determined opposition to the end that defeated the bill to give the Missouri slaveholders $20,000,000 for their slaves. If the Missouri bill had gone through the others would have followed undoubtedly and the loyal slaveholders in all of the border States would have received pay for their slaves.’
“Gen. Henderson was asked if he remembered what the compensation would have amounted to in the case of the Missouri slaveholders.
“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I recollect quite distinctly the calculation I made at the time. I found that the amount which the Government would have turned over to Missouri under the terms of the bill finally agreed upon would have paid the loyal owners in my State $300 for each slave – man, woman or child. That I considered a pretty good price, for, while we were legislating, the emancipation proclamation had gone into effect, and it was very evident to my mind that slavery was doomed, even among those slaveholders who had remained loyal.’3
Publicly during the late spring and summer, Mr. Lincoln continued to be skeptical about emancipation.
On June 20, Mr. Lincoln greeted a group of “Progressive Friends” who presented the President with a “memorial” urging him to pursue emancipation. The New York Tribune reported:
The President said that, as he had not been furnished with a copy of the memorial in advance, he could not be expected to make any extended remarks. It was a relief to be assured that the deputation were not applicants for office, for his chief trouble was from that class of persons. The next most troublesome subject was Slavery. He agreed with the memorialists, that Slavery was wrong, but in regard to the ways and means of its removal, his views probably differed from theirs. The quotation in the memorial, from his Springfield speech, was incomplete. It should have embraced another sentence, in which he indicated his views as to the effect upon Slavery itself of the resistance to its extension.
The sentiments contained in that passage were deliberately uttered, and he held them now. If a decree of emancipation could abolish Slavery, John Brown would have done the work effectually. Such a decree surely could not be more binding upon the South than the Constitution, and that cannot be enforced in that part of the country now. Would a proclamation of freedom be any more effective?
Mr. Johnson replied as follows:
“True, Mr. President, the Constitution cannot now be enforced at the South, but you do not on that account intermit the effort to enforce it, and the memorialists are solemnly convinced that the abolition of Slavery is indispensable to your success.”
The President further said that he felt the magnitude of the task before him, and hoped to be rightly directed in the very trying circumstances by which he was surrounded.
Wm. Barnard addressed the President in a few words, expressing sympathy for him in all his embarrassments, and an earnest desire that he might, under divine guidance, be led to free the slaves and thus save the nation from destruction. In that case, nations yet unborn would rise up to call him blessed and, better still, he would secure the blessing of God.
The President responded very impressively, saying that he was deeply sensible of his need of Divine assistance. He had sometime thought that perhaps he might be an instrument in God’s hand of accomplishing a great work and he certainly was not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end which the memorialists have in view may be different from theirs. It would be his earnest endeavor, with a firm reliance upon the Divine arm, and seeking light from above, to do his duty in the place to which he had been called.4
During his nightly retreats to the Telegraph Office at the nearby War Department to find out the latest news of the war, Mr. Lincoln began to sketch out a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Major Thomas Eckert was the officer in charge of the telegraph office and he dated the origin of the Emancipation Proclamation to one morning in early June, 1862 when the President came to War Department office and asked for writing paper. Major Eckert later recalled:
…the President came to the office every day and invariably sat at my desk while there. Upon his arrival early one morning in June, 1862, shortly after McClellan’s ‘Seven Days’ Fight,’ he asked me for some paper, as he wanted to write something special. I procured some foolscap and handed it to him. He then sat down and began to write. I do not recall whether the sheets were loose or had been made into a pad. There must have been at least a quire. He would look out of the window a while and then put his pen to paper, but he did not write much at once. He would study between times and when he had made up his mind he would put down a line or two, and then sit quiet for a few minutes. After a time he would resume his writing, only to stop again at intervals to make some remark to me or to one of the cipher-operators as a fresh despatch from the front.5
Each day, Mr. Lincoln would give Major Eckert the papers to lock away his desk. Each day when Mr. Lincoln returned to the telegraph office he asked for the documents and went again to work. The work progressed slowly – sometimes the President wrote only a few lines and revised his previous work. “On one occasion he took the papers away with him, but he brought them back a day or two later. I became much interested in the matter and was impressed with the idea that he was engaged upon something of great importance, but did not know what it was until he had finished the document and then for the first time he told me that he had been writing an order giving freedom to the slaves in the South, for the purpose of hastening the end of the war. He said he had been able to work at my desk more quietly and command his thoughts better than at the White House, where he was frequently interrupted,” recalled Eckert.6
Mr. Lincoln was able to work at the War Department because there were fewer prying eyes than in his own office in the White House – where individuals and groups were always seeking to influence his policies. One of the first indications that President Lincoln was drafting an emancipation proclamation came on June 18. Mr. Lincoln seldom consulted Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, but on this occasion, he invited the former Maine Senator to dinner and a discussion about an end to slavery. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “By the summer of 1862, Hamlin and other radical Republicans were pressing Lincoln hard to issue an emancipation proclamation. The Vice-President called at the White House on June 18, and at the end of their visit, Lincoln asked, ‘Hamlin, when do you start for home?’ ‘Today,’ Hamlin replied and was amazed when the President retorted, ‘No, sir.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ Hamlin said and received the same answer. ‘Well, Mr. President, if you have any commands for me, of course I will stay.’ ‘…I want you to go with me to the Soldiers’ Home tonight. I have something to show you,’ the President explained.7 As grandson Charles Eugene Hamlin related the story:
In a short time the President and Vice-President, escorted by a file of soldiers, rode horseback out to the Soldiers’ Home, which Mr. Lincoln used as a summer resident. After supper President Lincoln invited Vice-President Hamlin into his library, and after locking the door, said: –
‘Mr. Hamlin, you have been repeatedly urging me to issue a proclamation of emancipation freeing the slaves. I have concluded to yield to your advice in the matter and that of other friends, – at the same time, as I may say, following my own judgment. Now listen to me while I read this paper. We will correct it together as I go on.’
While saying this, Mr. Lincoln opened a drawer in his desk and took therefrom the first draft of the military proclamation freeing four millions of slaves.
‘There is no criticism to be made,” Mr. Hamlin replied.
“Oh yes, there is; at least you can make some suggestions,’ answered Mr. Lincoln, laughingly, and he repeated his invitation.
“Finally,” said Mr. Hamlin in his account of this famous interview, ‘I did make, I believe three suggestions, two of which Mr. Lincoln accepted.”8
Hamlin’s biographer-grandson Charles Eugene Hamlin wrote that “this comprised the entire account he would give, and those who knew him can well understand and appreciate his motives in withdrawing into the background. One who knew Mr. Hamlin said that the man reflected himself when he explained his unwillingness to give more details of this interview by saying, ‘The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s own act, and no one else can claim any credit whatever in connection with it.”9 Hamlin Biographer Mark Scroggins wrote: “The vice president was honored and delighted to have been consulted by Lincoln about such an enormous matter, but Hamlin had no illusions about his modest role. ” Scroggins wrote that President Lincoln may have “wanted to test the waters on a Radical Republican who was not an anti-slavery fanatic. Or perhaps Lincoln knew that as a powerless member of the administration, Hamlin was in a position to be objective. At any rate, Lincoln knew that Hamlin would remain quiet until the time was right to issue the edict.”10
But other events were complicating Mr. Lincoln’s plans. General George B. McClellan and the Union Army were stalled by a smaller Confederate force outside of Richmond. “Independence Day, 1862, was not joyously celebrated at Washington. The martial pageant with which the day had been glorified years past had been replaced by the stern realities of war, and the hospitals were crowded with the sick, the wounded, and the dying,” reported journalist Benjamin Perley Poore.11 Historian Allan Nevins wrote that Senator Charles “Sumner had called at the White House twice on July 4 to plead that the President reconsecrate the day by a decree of emancipation. The first time Lincoln protested that while he might take such a step for eastern Virginia, a proclamation for the entire South was ‘too big a lick now.’ Sumner replied that the nation needed big licks. The second time Lincoln offered a detailed argument for delay, as if he might be weakening.”12 The President reportedly said: “I would do it if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and four more States would rise.”13
On July 12, 1862, President Lincoln had an unsuccessful meeting with representatives of Border States in an attempt to convince them that they should adopt a program of gradual, compensated emancipation. This meeting marked the termination of his active attempts to find a moderate course on the elimination of slavery. The President told them:
After the adjournment of Congress, now very near, I shall have no opportunity of seeing you for several months.
Believing that you of the border states hold more power for good than any other equal number of members, I feel it a duty which I can not justifiably waive, to make this appeal to you– I intend no reproach or complaint when I assure you that in my opinion, if you all had voted for the resolution in the gradual emancipation message of last March 2 the war would now be substantially ended– And the plan therein proposed is yet one of the most potent, and swift means of ending it. Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that, in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not, much longer maintain the contest. But you can not divest them of their hope to ultimately have you with them so long as you show a determination to perpetuate the institution within your own states. Beat them at elections, as you have overwhelmingly done, and, nothing daunted, they still claim you as their own– You and I know what the lever of their power is– Break that lever before their faces, and they can shake you no more forever-
Most of you have treated me with kindness and consideration; and I trust you will not now think I improperly touch what is exclusively your own, when, for the sake of the whole country I ask “Can you, for your states, do better than to take the course I urge? Discarding punctillio, and maxims adapted to more manageable times, and looking only to the unprecedentedly stern facts of our case, can you do better in any possible event? You prefer that the constitutional relation of the states to the nation shall be practically restored, without disturbance of the institution; and if this were done, my whole duty, in this respect, under the constitution, and my oath of office, would be performed– But it is not done, and we are trying to accomplish it by war– The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion – by the mere incidents of the war– It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it– Much of it’s [sic] value is gone already– How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is seen to be wholly lost in any other event. How much better to thus save the money which else we sink forever in the war. How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it– How much better for you, as seller, and the nation as buyer, to sell out, and buy out, that without which the war could never have been, than to sink both the thing to be sold, and the price of it, in cutting one another’s throats-
I do not speak of emancipation at once, but of a decision at once to emancipate gradually. Room in South America for colonization, can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance; and when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go.
I am pressed with a difficulty not yet mentioned – one which threatens division among those who, united are none too strong– An instance of it is known to you. Gen. [David] Hunter is an honest man– He was, and I hope, still is, my friend. I valued him none the less for his agreeing with me in the general wish that all men everywhere, could be free. He proclaimed all men free within certain states, and I repudiated the proclamation. He expected more good, and less harm from the measure, than I could believe would follow– Yet in repudiating it, I gave dissatisfaction, if not offence, to many whose support the country can not afford to lose. And this is not the end of it. The pressure, in this direction, is still upon me, and is increasing– By conceding what I now ask, you can relieve me, and much more, can relieve the country, in this important point. Upon these considerations I have again begged your attention to the message of March last. Before leaving the Capital, consider and discuss it among yourselves– You are patriots and statesmen; and, as such, I pray you, consider this proposition; and, at the least, commend it to the consideration of your states and people. As you would perpetuate popular government for the best people in the world, I beseech you that you do in no wise omit this. Our common country is in great peril, demanding the loftiest views, and boldest action to bring its speedy relief. Once relieved, it’s form of government is saved to the world; it’s past beloved history, and cherished memories, are vindicated; and it’s happy future fully assured, and rendered inconceivably grand. To you, more than to any others, the previlege [sic] is given, to assure that happiness, and swell that grandeur, and to link your own names therewith forever.-14
Although a minority of the Border State congressmen agreed with the President, the majority refused to go along with his plans. On July 13, Mr. Lincoln took a carriage ride with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. Welles recorded in his diary: “It was on this occasion and on this ride that he first mentioned to Mr. Seward and myself the subject of emancipating the slaves by proclamation in case the Rebels did not cease to persist in their war on the Government and the Union, of which he saw no evidence. He dwelt earnestly on the gravity, importance, and delicacy of the movement, said he had given it much thought and had about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued, etc., etc.” Welles wrote:
This was, he said, the first occasion when he had mentioned the subject to any one, and wished us to frankly state how the proposition struck us. Mr. Seward said the subject involved consequences so vast and momentous that he should wish to bestow on it mature reflection before giving a decisive answer, but his present opinion inclined to the measure as justifiable, and perhaps he might say expedient and necessary. These were also my views. Two or three times on that ride the subject, which was of course an absorbing one for each and all, was adverted to, and before separating the President desired us to give the question special and deliberate attention, for he was earnest in the conviction that something must be done. It was a new departure for the President, for until this time, in all our previous interviews, whenever the question of emancipation or the mitigation of slavery had been in any way alluded to, he had been prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the General Government with the subject. This was, I think, the sentiment of every member of the Cabinet, all of whom including the President, considered it a local, domestic question appertaining to the States respectively, who had never parted with their authority over it. But the reverses before Richmond, and the formidable power and dimensions of the insurrection, which extended through all the Slave States, and had combined most of them in a confederacy to destroy the Union, impelled the Administration to adopt extraordinary measures to preserve the national existence. The slaves, if not armed and disciplined, were in the service of those who were, not only as field laborers and producers, but thousands of them were in attendance upon the armies in the field, employed as waiters and teamsters, and the fortifications and intrenchments were constructed by them.15
President Lincoln did not abandon compensated emancipation and two days later proposed such legislation that went nowhere in Congress – which was on the verge of adjournment. The day after he talked with Secretaries Welles and Seward, President Lincoln met with two Illinois congressman at the Soldiers Home in Northeast Washington where the Lincoln family stayed during the summer. Mr. Lincoln complained to Illinois Congressmen Owen Lovejoy and Isaac Arnold about the failure of his meeting with congressmen from the Border States: “Oh, how I wish the border states would accept my proposition. Then, you, Lovejoy, and you, Arnold, and all of us, would not have lived in vain! The labor of your life, Lovejoy, would be crowned with success.”16 A few weeks later, President Lincoln had a conversation at the White House with Massachusetts Congressman George S. Boutwell in which Boutwell urged him to adopt an emancipation policy:
To this he said: “You would not have it done now, would you? Must we not wait for something like a victory?” This was the second and most explicit intimation to me of his purpose in regard to slavery. In the preceding July or early in August, at an interview upon business connected with my official duties, he said, ‘Let me read two letters,’ and taking them from a pigeon-hole over his table he proceeded at once to do what he had proposed. I have not seen the letters in print. His correspondent was a gentleman in Louisiana, who claimed to be a Union man. He tendered his advice to the President in regard to the reorganization of that State, and he labored zealously to impress upon him the dangers and evils of emancipation. The reply of the President is only important from the fact that when he came to that part of his correspondent’s letter he used this expression: “You must not expect me to give up this government without playing my last card.” Emancipation was his last card.17
Welles biographer John Niven wrote: “During the weeks that followed, however, he began to understand why [Welles] had been brought in at the beginning. For many months Stanton had been exerting indirect pressure to emancipate all fugitive blacks and to enlist blacks as soldiers. He had permitted, if not encouraged, General David Hunter, who was commanding Union forces along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, to organize black regiments. Lincoln had overruled Hunter, but not before embarrassing questions had been asked by congressional conservatives – questions which Stanton dodged. Lincoln was well aware of the fact that Stanton and Chase were most intimate with those radicals in Congress who were demanding emancipation. He knew where both men stood. It is reasonable to infer that he consulted Welles and Seward first because both were spokesmen for moderate opinion; neither man was as conservative as Blair, Smith and Bates, nor as radical as Chase and Stanton. Emboldened by what he took to be their affirmative replied, Lincoln went ahead, and, during the next two weeks he drafted what he called an ‘order’ that would free the slaves in rebellious states.”18
Historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote: “And so the question which for a year and a half had split the Republican Party in two had at last come to a decision. Behind all the ferocious assaults of the radicals – the warfare on McClellan, the senatorial uprising of December , the wranglings over the army command, the angry debates in Congress, and the dissensions within the cabinet itself – had stalked the shadowy but still distinct figure of the black man. The war had found this disturbing character a slave; how was it to leave him? The patient, plaintive laborer had been the cause of the conflict; what effect would it have upon his fortunes? Lincoln settled this question, at least in part, when on July 22, amid all the gloom of military disasters, he called his cabinet, took from his pocket a carefully guarded paper, and read its fateful contents. What the startled gentlemen listened to was a document which, though it comprised less than five hundred words, was probably the most momentous state paper that had seen the light since the adoption of the Federal Constitution.”19
Just eight days after he broached the subject of emancipation with Seward and Stanton, Mr. Lincoln brought to the Cabinet several initiatives concerning slaves, including one for foreign colonization. The next day, July 22, the Cabinet met again for its normal Tuesday session. President Lincoln presented his draft Emancipation Proclamation. In this draft, noted historian Russell F. Weigley, “the President recurred still again to the theme of gradual, compensated emancipation; but referring to the Confiscation Act of July 17, he warned those in rebellion against its forfeitures and seizures…”20
In pursuance of the sixth section of the act of congress entitled “An act to suppress insurrection and to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate property of rebels, and for other purposes” Approved July 17, 1862, and which act, and the Joint Resolution explanatory thereof, are herewith published, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim to, and warn all persons within the contemplation of said sixth section to cease participating in, aiding, countenancing, or abetting the existing rebellion, or any rebellion against the government of the United States, and to return to their proper allegiance to the United States, on pain of the forfeitures and seizures, as within and by said sixth section provided-
And I hereby make known that it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of Congress, to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure for tendering pecuniary aid to the free choice or rejection, of any and all States which may then be recognizing and practically sustaining the authority of the United States, and which may then have voluntarily adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, gradual adoption abolishment of slavery within such State or States – that the object is to practically restore, thenceforward to be maintain, the constitutional relation between the general government, and each, and all the states, wherein that relation is now suspended, or disturbed; and that, for this object, the war, as it has been, will be, prosecuted. And, as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixtythree, all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.21
Some of his Cabinet members were caught unawares. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase reported in his diary the discussion of that Cabinet meeting:
The question of arming slaves was then brought up and I advocated it warmly. The President was unwilling to adopt this measure, but proposed to issue a Proclamation, on the basis of the Confiscation Bill, calling upon the States to return to their allegiance – warning the rebels the provisions of the Act would have full force at the expiration of sixty days – adding, on his own part, a declaration of his intention to renew, at the next session of Congress, his recommendation of compensation to States adopting the gradual abolishment of slavery – and proclaiming the emancipation of all slaves within States remaining in insurrection on the first of January, 1863.
I said that I should give to such a measure my cordial support, but I should prefer that no new expression on the subject of compensation should be made, and I thought that the measure of Emancipation could be much better and more quietly accomplished by allowing Generals to organize and arm the slaves (thus avoiding depredation and massacre on the one hand, and support to the insurrection on the other) and by directing the Commanders of Departments to proclaim emancipation within their Districts as soon as practicable; but I regarded this as so much better than inaction on the subject, that I should give it my entire support.
The President determined to publish the first three Orders forthwith, and to leave the other for some further consideration. The impression left upon my mind by the whole discussion was, that while the President thought that the organization, equipment and arming of negroes, like other soldiers, would be productive of more evil than good, he was not unwilling that Commanders should, at their discretion, arm, for purely defensive purposes, slaves coming within their lines.
Mr. Stanton brought forward a proposition to draft 50,000 men. Mr. Seward proposed that the number should be 100,000. The President directed that, whatever number were drafted, should be a part of the 300,000 already called for. No decision was reached, however.22
Historian John Niven wrote of the President’s announcement that Secretary of War Edwin M. “Stanton, who urged the immediate promulgation of this order, was startled at its scope. ‘The measure goes beyond anything I have recommended,’ he jotted down hastily on a piece of note paper. Attorney General Bates, whose inveterate conservatism sometimes took unusual turns, was the only Cabinet member who supported Stanton. Welles remained silent. Chase favored arming the Negroes, but he thought emancipation could be accomplished more efficiently, more quietly, and more safely by delegating it to the various theater commanders. Seward surprised everyone by vehemently opposing the issuance of any proclamation at that time. Stanton recorded Seward’s argument in his memorandum of the meeting. ‘Seward, ‘he wrote, argues that foreign nations will intervene to prevent the abolition of slavery for the sake of cotton – argues in a long speech against its immediate promulgation – wants to wait for troops. Wants Halleck here. Wants drum & fife & public spirit. We break up our relations with foreign nations and the production of cotton for sixty years.’ Seward’s alarming remarks and Chase’s timidity prompted Lincoln to say that he would postpone the proclamation. But apparently he was still undecided, because Thurlow Weed visited him that night for one of his confidential chats. Weed thought that emancipation by Executive fiat would stir up hatred and bring about ‘serious disaffection in the border stares; that it could work no good and probably would do us much harm.’ Though his politics had been Whig, Lincoln was anything but Whiggish where the Constitution was concerned. Unless driven by harsh necessity, he was as tender as any Jacksonian Democrat to the reserve rights of states. Welles drew a faithful picture when he characterized him as ‘always cautious and habitually but inquiringly reticent on controversial and unsettled questions.’ Lincoln filed his draft in one of the pigeonholes of his lofty desk – to wait, as Weed had urged, the logic of events.”23
There is no record that another Cabinet member, Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith spoke up, but his assistant and successor, John Palmer Usher, later recalled that both he and Smith had opposed the emancipation proclamation and Smith had declared to him that if the President issued it, “I will resign and go home and attack the administration.”24 The discussions must have changed Smith’s mind, however, because he stayed in the Cabinet and backed the draft proclamation. The President’s mind was not changed by the discussion, however.
President Lincoln had many different ways of trying out his ideas. One person with whom he evidently bounced ideas off was fellow Illinois attorney Leonard Swett. A mutual friend recalled:
One day, during the course of the war, when Mr. Swett was at his home in Bloomington, Illinois, he received a telegram asking him to come immediately to the President. The second morning afterwards found him in Washington. Thinking that something unusual was at hand, he went to the White House upon arrival and before eating his breakfast. Mr. Lincoln asked him immediately into the cabinet room, and after making a few inquiries about mutual friends in Illinois, pulled up his chair to a little cabinet of drawers. Swett, of course, awaited in silence the developments. Opening a drawer, Lincoln took out a manuscript which, he said, was a letter from William Lloyd Garrison, and which he proceeded to read. It proved to be an eloquent and passionate appeal for the immediate emancipation of the slaves. It recalled the devotion and loyalty of the North, but pointed out, with something like preemptoriness, that unless some step was taken to cut out by the roots the institution of slavery, the expectations of the North would be disappointed and its ardor correspondingly cooled. It went into the moral wrong that lay at the bottom of the war, and insisted that the war could not, in the nature of things, be ended until the wrong was at an end. The letter throughout was entirely characteristic of Garrison.
Laying it back without comment, Mr. Lincoln took out another, which proved to be a letter from Garrett Davis, of Kentucky. It too, treated of emancipation; but from the Border States point of view. It carefully balanced the martial and moral forces of the North and South, and pointed out that if the Border States, now divided almost equally between the belligerents, were thrown unitedly to the South, a conclusion of the war favorable to the North would be next to impossible. It then proceeded to recall that slavery was an institution of these Border States with which their people had grown familiar and upon which much of their prosperity was founded. Emancipation, especially emancipation without compensation, would, in that quarter of the country, be looked upon as a stab at prosperity and a departure from the original Union purposes of the war. It begged Mr. Lincoln to be led by the Northern abolition sentiment into no such irretrievable mistake.
Laying this back, Mr. Lincoln took out another, which turned out to be from a then prominent Swiss statesman, a sympathizer with the Northern cause, but whose name I cannot recall. I breathed all through an ardent wish that the North should succeed. The writer’s purpose was to call attention to the foreign situation and the importance of preventing foreign intervention. This he summed up as follows: The governing classes in England and Napoleon in France were favorable to the success of the Confederacy. They were looking for a pretext upon which to base some sort of intervention. Anything that, in international law, would justify intervention would be quickly utilized. A situation justifying such a pretext must be avoided. The writer then pointed out that from the earliest times any interference with the enemy’s slaves had been regarded as a cruel and improper expedient; that emancipation would be represented to Europe as an equivalent of inciting slave insurrection; and would be seized upon, the writer feared, as a pretext upon which forcibly to intervene. The letter went over the whole foreign situation, bringing out clearly this phase of the consequences of emancipation.
“Laying this letter back, the President turned to Mr. Swett, and without a word of inquiry, took up himself the subject of emancipation, not only in the phases pointed out by the letters just read, but every possible phase and consequence under which it could be considered. For more than an hour he debated the situation, first the one side and then the other of every question arising. His manner did not indicate that he wished to impress his views upon his hearer, but rather to weigh and examine them for his own enlightenment in the presence of his hearer. It was an instance of stating conclusions aloud, not that they might convince another, or be combatted by him, but that the speaker might see for himself how they looked when taken out of the region of mere reflection and embroidered in words. The President’s deliverance was so judicial, and so free from the quality of debate, or appearance of a wish to convince, that Mr. Swett felt himself to be, not so much a hearer of Lincoln’s views, as a witness of the President’s mental operations. The President was simply framing his thought in words, under the eye of his friend, that he might clear up his own mind.
“When the President concluded, he asked for no comment, and made no inquiry, but rising, expressed his hope that Mr. Swett would get home safely, and entrusted to him some messages to their mutual friends. The audience thus ended.25
Though Mr. Lincoln seemed to take particular comfort in discussing emancipation with old Illinois friends, the positions of these friends was not always comforting. Even the Illinois congressional delegation was divided. Senator Orville H. Browning reported in his diary on July 21 that after leaving the White House, he met Congressman Isaac “Arnold between the War Department and the Presidents. He is eager for the President to issue a proclamation declaring all the slaves of rebels free. He thinks it would ‘fire the public heart,’ encourage enlistments and go far towards ending the war. I have always been in favor of seizing and appropriating all the slaves of rebels that we could lay our hands on, and make any valuable use of, but I have no faith in proclamations or laws unless we follow them by force and actually do the thing – and when done we don’t need either the proclamation or law.”26 While Congressmen Arnold and Lovejoy were strong supporters of emancipation, Browning was not. Indeed, Browning had reversed the position he had held in September 1861 when he backed General John C. Frémont’s unauthorized proclamation of emancipation in Missouri.
The next day, Senator Browning recorded in his diary a fuller report of Mr. Lincoln’s thinking about emancipation and the war: “Then went to the Presidents and had an interview with him. He took a map and pointed out the Counties on each side of the River from Memphis down, showing me that blacks averaged 75 or 80 to 20 whites – Spoke of the importance of having the Mississippi opened, and said, ‘I will tell you – I am determined to open it, and, if necessary will take all these negroes to open it, and keep it open’. At this moment Mr Seward came in, whereupon I rose to leave, but he requested me to remain saying he had rather I was present than not. He then said to the President that he wished to send [John G.] Nicolay the Presidents private Secy to England with despatches to Mr [Charles Francis] Adams relative to Mexican and South American affairs. The President assented and it was agreed he should go. I asked Mr Seward if there was any danger of intervention in our affairs by England and France. He said there was unless volunteering went on rapidly, and our army was greatly increased. During the morning I told the President I wished to give him a piece of advice, – That there were many persons, and many cliques who thought they understood how public affairs should be managed better than he did and who would seek to control him, and force their opinions upon him as his rule of conduct – that the views of such would be various and conflicting – that he had, at the same time, a more comprehensive and more minute view of the entire field of public affairs than any other person could have – and that he should hear all suggestions and get all the facts that he could, and then do himself justice – make up his mind calmly deliberately, and conscientiously what was proper to be done, and adhere firmly to his own opinions, and neither to be bullied or cajoled out of them. He answered that he had done so to a greater extent than was generally supposed – that when he made up his mind to send supplies to Fort Sumter he was sustained by only two members of his cabinet Blair and Chase, and that when he determined to give the rebels at Charleston notice of his purpose the entire cabinet was against him, tho they all now admitted that he was right.”27
Historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote: “The President’s critics in the Senate who had complained that Lincoln made important decisions without consulting his cabinet – and that, indeed, he declined to regard that aggregation as an executive council, with authority almost equal to his own – could have found their most impressive illustration in this instance. For more than a year, the subject of emancipation had been revolving in Lincoln’s mind; he had discussed it with intimates, inside the cabinet and out. He had been closely following the argument in Congress and the press and had been attentively listening to visiting delegations, urging action one way or another. But none of these several exponents of public opinion had obtained any inkling as to his decision. Before reading the momentous paper to the cabinet, Lincoln emphasized the fact that the act was his own. He had settled the question, he declared, in his own conscience and did not wish their advice as to its propriety and wisdom.”28
A key Cabinet meeting was held on Sunday, August 3, shortly after Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act which limited the ability of Union officers to return escaped slaves to their masters. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase recalled in his diary:
There was a good deal of conversation [in the Cabinet meeting] on the connection of the Slavery question with the rebellion. I expressed my conviction for the tenth or twentieth time, that the time for the suppression of the rebellion without interference with slavery had long passed; that is was possible, probably, at the outset, by striking the insurrections wherever found, strongly and decisively; but we had elected to act on the principles of a civil war, in which the whole population of every seceding State was engaged against the Federal Government, instead of treating the active secessionists as insurgents and exerting our utmost energies for their arrest and punishment;- that the bitternesses of the conflict had now substantially united the white population of the rebel States against us;- that the loyal whites remaining, if they would not prefer the Union without Slavery, certainly would not prefer Slavery to the Union; that the blacks were really the only loyal population worth counting and that, in the Gulf States at least, their right to Freedom ought to be at once recognized, while, in the Border States, the President’s plan of Emancipation might be made the basis of the necessary measures for their ultimate enfranchisement;- that the practical mode of effecting this seemed to me quite simple;-that the President had already spoken of the importance of making of the freed blacks on the Mississippi, below Tennessee, a safeguard to the navigation of the river;- that [Ormsby] Mitchell with a few thousand soldiers, could take Vicksburgh;-assure the blacks freedom on condition of loyalty; organize the best of them in companies, regiments &c., and provide, as far as practicable, for the cultivation of the plantations by the rest;-that [Benjamin] Butler should signify to the slaveholders of Louisiana that they must recognize the freedom of their workpeople by paying them wages;-and that [General David] Hunter should do the same thing in South Carolina.
Mr. Seward expressed himself as in favor of any measure likely to accomplish the results I contemplated, which could be carried into effect without Proclamations; and the President said he was pretty well cured of objections to any measure except want of adaptedness to put down the rebellion; but did not seem satisfied that the time had come for the adoption of such a plan as I proposed.29
In the meantime, having failed to capture Richmond, the large Union army on the Yorktown Peninsula was slowly withdrawn to northern Virginia – very slowly, far too slowly in the eyes of General George B. McClellan’s critics. President Lincoln himself had his own critics – such as New York Tribuneeditor Horace Greeley, who published on August 20 a widely-read editorial called “The Prayer of Twenty Millions.” In it, Greeley attacked President Lincoln for not implementing the Confiscation Act that had been passed by Congress the month before. Greeley thought the act could free many slaves and end the rebellion.
Lincoln biographers John M. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “It may be truly said that at no time were political questions so critical and embarrassing to Mr. Lincoln as during this period. His own decision had been reached; his own course was clearly and unalterably marked out. But the circumstances surrounding him did not permit his making it known, and he was compelled to keep up an appearance of indecision which only brought upon him a greater flood of importunities.” Nicolay and Hay wrote:. “During no part of his Administration were his acts and words so persistently misconstrued as in this interim by men who gave his words the color and meaning of their own eager desires and expectations. To interpret properly Mr. Lincoln’s language it must be constantly borne in mind that its single object was to curb and restrain the impatience of zealots from either faction. If grouped together his several letters and addresses of this period, we may see that his admonitions and rebukes were given to both with equal earnestness and impartiality. Occasions were not wanting; for all request and advice which came to him were warped to one side or the other by the culminating contest, in which he alone could give the final and deciding word.”30
Nicolay and Hay cited complaints Mr. Lincoln received from Louisiana. In a letter to Reverdy Johnson, who was in Louisiana on behalf of the State Department, President Lincoln responded to the concerns of White Louisianans about the use of black troops: President understood that his mandate was to restore the Union and win the war. He concluded by saying “What I cannot will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.31
Nicolay and Hay wrote: “In these two letters the President’s reproof was addressed to conservatives to correct ill-timed complaints that the interests of slaveholders were allowed to suffer in the rude necessities of military operations and administration. But complaints equally unreasonable were assailing him from other side Greeley wrote: “We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight Slavery with Liberty. They prescribe that men loyal to the Union, and willing to shed their blood in her behalf, shall no longer be held, with the nation’s consent, in bondage to persistent, malignant traitors, who for twenty years have been plotting, and for sixteen months have been fighting to divide and destroy our country. Why these traitors should be treated with tenderness by you, to the prejudice of the dearest rights of loyal men, we cannot conceive.”32
Hay and Nicolay wrote: Mr. Greeley of the ‘New-York Tribune‘ was criticizing the President for exactly the alleged fault of not doing more of that which had brought these complaints from Louisiana. In his paper of August 20 he addressed a long open letter to Mr. Lincoln, accusing him of failure to execute the Confiscation Act, of ‘mistaken deference to rebel slavery,’ and alleging that he was ‘unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the border slave States. ‘We complain,’ he continued ‘that a large proportion of our regular army officers, with many of the volunteers, evince far more solicitude to uphold slavery than to put down the Rebellion.’ These phrases are samples of two columns or more of equally unjust censure. Mr. Lincoln always sought, and generally with success, to turn a dilemma into an advantage; and shrewdly seizing the opportunity which Mr. Greeley had created, he in turn addressed him the following open letter through the newspapers in reply, by which he not merely warded off his present personal accusation, but skilfully laid the foundation in public sentiment for the very radical step he was about to take on the slavery question:”33 Greeley concluded:
I close as I began with the statement that what an immense majority of the loyal millions of your countrymen require of you is a frank, declared, unqualified, ungrudging execution of the laws of the land, more especially of the Confiscations Act. That Act gives freedom to the slaves of Rebels coming within our lines, or whom those lines may at any time inclose – we ask you to render it due obedience by publicly requiring all your subordinates to recognize and obey it. The Rebels are everywhere using the late anti-negro riots in the North, as they have long used your officers’ treatment of negroes in the South, to convince the slaves that they have nothing to hope from a Union success – that we mean in that case to sell them into a bitterer bondage to defray the cost of the war. Let them impress this as a truth on the great mass of their ignorant and credulous bondmen, and the Union will never be restored-never. We cannot conquer ten millions of people united in solid phalanx against us, powerfully aided by Northern sympathizers and European allies. We must have scouts, guides, spies, cooks, teamsters, diggers, and choppers, from the blacks of the South, whether we allow them to fight for us or not, or we shall be baffled and repelled. As one of the millions who would gladly have avoided this struggle at any sacrifice but that of principal and honor, but who now feel that the triumph of the Union is indispensable not only to the existence of our country, but to the well-being of mankind, I entreat you to render a hearty and unequivocal obedience to the law of the land.”34
Greeley was erratic and sometimes eccentric in his political opinions but he had influence and could not be ignored. In his reply to Greeley published five days later, President Lincoln declared that preservation of the Union, not destruction of slavery, was his paramount objective. Historian Allen Guelzo wrote: “A coldly irritated Lincoln replied…as though he had had enough of the abolitionists.”35 According to Robert S. Harper in Lincoln and the Press, President Lincoln “wrote a reply to Greeley in the form of a personal letter and notified the editors of the Washington National Intelligencer that he had prepared an article for publication. James C. Welling, political editor of the Intelligencer, went over the letter with the President word for word. At Welling’s suggestion, one sentence was eliminated.”36 The President wrote:
“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’ If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union with freeing any slave, I would do it, and 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so far as they shall appear to be true views.
“I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, every where could be free.”37
Robert S. Harper wrote in Lincoln and the Press: “Lincoln’s motive in choosing the National Intelligencer to carry his answer to Greeley raises an interesting question. Edited by the distinguished William W. Seaton, it was one of Lincoln’s favorite newspapers from early manhood, but with all its former nationalism it was only lukewarm to the Lincoln administration and made no secret of its sympathy for the slavery system. Lincoln might have chosen it to tease Greeley. On Saturday, August 23, the Intelligencer published Lincoln’s reply at the top of its editorial column, under the heading, ‘A Letter from the President.’ The President had ordered italicized the words he deemed most important….”38
A few weeks earlier, the National Intelligencer had editorialized about the Second Confiscation Act and what it suggested should be the President’s response: “We have more than once been called during the past week or two to express our regret at the lamentable fact that at the present time, when all loyal journals should be directing their best and undivided energies to the promotion of enlistments, a small class of malcontents should be seeking to divert public attention from this most immediate duty by engaging in discussions extrinsic to the paramount issue, and by especially proclamation under the confiscation and emancipation act. For ourselves we have to repeat, what we said on Saturday last, that since the terms of this act, in its ninth section, declaring the circumstances under which slaves of rebels are free, do not depend at all for their force on a public proclamation by the President, we cannot see the necessity for any such step on the part of the Executive, who, it is to be presumed, has taken care that our commanders in the field should be officially apprized through the war Department of the will of Congress in the premises. At the same time, as we have heretofore said, we see no objection to a reduction by the President of the terms of the ninth section of this act into the shape of a proclamation, whether meant for the instruction of our Generals or for the enlightenment of slaves in the revolted States. Indeed there is one aspect of the question which rather inclines us to wish that the President might find it compatible with his convictions of public duty to issue some such paper as these complainants ask at his hands.”39
Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell, “The ‘Greeley faction,’ as it was called, not only pursued Mr. Lincoln through the press and pulpit and platform; an unending procession of radical committees and delegations waited upon him. Although he was at that time, by his own statement, adding or changing a line of the proclamation, ‘touching it up here and there,’ he seems almost invariably to have argued against emancipation with those who came to plead for it.” As a good lawyer, Mr. Lincoln could present arguments for both sides. “It was only his way of making his own judgment surer. He was not only examining every possible reason for emancipation; he was steadily seeking reasons against it.”40 Prior to the publication of his letter, President Lincoln met with James Gillmore who had met separately with Greeley and with President Lincoln:
‘I infer from the recent tone of the Tribune that you are not always able to keep Brother Greeley in the traces,’ said Lincoln.
No, Gilmore admitted, he wasn’t. But he said that Greeley’s new managing editor, Sidney H. Gay, with whom he had been dealing, had at least ‘softened Mr. Greeley’s wrath on several occasions.’
‘What is he so wrathy about?’ asked the President – according to Gilmore’s account.
‘The slow progress of the war – what he regards as the useless destruction of life and property, and especially your neglect to make a direct attack upon slavery,’ said Gilmore. ‘On this last point I am told by Mr. Gay that he is now meditating an appeal to the country, which will force you to take a decided position.’
‘Why does he not come here and have a talk with me?’ asked the President.
Gilmore answered that Greeley refused to come and had said that he didn’t want to have Abraham Lincoln presuming to act as advisory editor of the New York Tribune. Would it be all right for Gilmore himself to run up to New York and tell Greeley about the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation, in order to head off a Tribune storm?
At first the President was reluctant. He said he feared Greeley’s ‘passion for news.’ He may also have feared that Greeley, if told the full story of this all-important document, might blackmail the White House into issuing it at once. Yet finally he agreed to let Gilmore go.
Gilmore started at once for New York. When he arrived next morning he picked up a copy of the day’s Tribune. There he found splashed across its editorial page. Under the startling heading, ‘The Prayer of Twenty Millions,’ a lengthy open letter addressed by Horace Greeley to President Lincoln, and beginning….
Meanwhile, Mr. Lincoln opened another front in the emancipation battle. Historian Benjamin Thomas wrote: “While waiting to issue the preliminary edict of emancipation, Lincoln called certain intelligent free colored men to confer with him. It was the first time that a Negro group had been invited to the White House. Lincoln spoke to them frankly. There were certain ineradicable differences between the races, he declared. Freedom would improve the Negro’s chances of self-betterment, but it would not assure him equality, and the President could not change this if he would. Except for the presence of the Negro in the United States there would have been no war, though many men on each side cared not at all about the black man.”41 The New York Tribunepublished an extensive report on the August 14 meeting:
The President of the United States gave audience to a Committee of colored men at the White House, They were introduced by the Rev. J. Mitchell, Commissioner of Emigration. E.M. Thomas, the Chairman, remarked that they were there by invitation to hear what the Executive had to say to them. Having all been seated, the President, after a few preliminary observations, informed them that a sum of money had been appropriated by Congress, and placed at his disposition for the purpose of aiding the colonization in some country of the people, or a portion of them, of African descent, thereby making it his duty, as it had for a long time been his inclination, to favor that cause; and why, he asked, should the people of your race be colonized, and where? Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration. You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. You here are freemen I suppose.
A VOICE: Yes, sir.
The President-Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.
I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you. We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition – the country engaged in war! – our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.
It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. I know that there are free men among you, who even if they could better their condition are not much inclined to go out of the country as those, who being slaves could obtain their freedom on this condition. I suppose one of the principal difficulties in the way of the colonization is that the free colored man cannot see that his comfort would be advanced by it. You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life [as easily], perhaps more so than you can in any foreign country, and hence you may come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country. This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.
But you ought to do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves. There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us. Now, if you could give a start to white people, you would open a wide door for many to be made free. If we deal with those who are not free at the beginning, and whose intellects are clouded by Slavery, we have very poor materials to start with. If intelligent colored men, such as are before me, would move in this matter, much might be accomplished. It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.
There is much to encourage you. For the sake of your race you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people. It is a cheering thought throughout life that something can be done to ameliorate the condition of those who have been subject to the hard usage of the world. It is difficult to make a man miserable while he feels worthy of himself, and claims kindred to the great God who made him. In the American Revolutionary war sacrifices were made by men engaged in it; but they were cheered by the future. Gen. Washington himself endured greater physical hardships than if he had remained a British subject. Yet he was a happy man, because he was engaged in benefiting his race – something for the children of his neighbors, having none of his own.
The colony of Liberia has been in existence a long time. In a certain sense it is a success. The old President of Liberia, Roberts, has just been with me – the first time I ever saw him. He says they have within the bounds of that colony between 300,000 and 400,000 people, or more than in some of our old States, such as Rhode Island, or Delaware, or in some of our newer States, and less than in some of our larger ones. They are not all American colonists, or their descendants. Something less than 12,000 have been sent thither from this country. Many of the original settlers have died, yet, like people elsewhere, their offspring outnumber those deceased.
The question is if the colored people are persuaded to go anywhere, why not there? One reason for an unwillingness to do so is that some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race. It does not strike me that you have the greatness reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events.
The place I am thinking about having for a colony is in Central America. It is nearer to us than Liberia – not much more than one-fourth as Liberia, and within seven days’ run by steamers. Unlike Liberia it is on a great line of travel – it is a highway. The country is a very excellent one for any people, and with great natural resources and advantages, and especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land – thus being suited to your physical condition.
The particular place I have in view is to be a great highway from the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and this particular place has all the advantages for a colony. On both sides there are harbors among the finest in the world. Again, there is evidence of very rich coal mines. A certain amount of coal is valuable in any country, and there may be more than enough for the wants of the country. Why I attach so much importance to coal is, it will afford an opportunity to the inhabitants for immediate employment till they get ready to settle permanently in their homes.
If you take colonists where there is no good landing, there is a bad show; and so where there is nothing to cultivate, and of which to make a farm. But if something is started so that you can get your daily bread as soon as you reach there, is a great advantage. Coal land is the best thing I know of which to commence an enterprise.
To return, you have been talked to upon this subject, and told that a speculation is intended by gentlemen, who have an interest in the country, including the coal mines. We have been mistaken all our lives if we do not know whites as well as blacks look to their self-interest. Unless among those deficient of intellect everybody you trade with makes something. You meet with these things here as elsewhere.
If such persons have what will be an advantage to them, the question is whether it cannot be made of advantage to you. You are intelligent, and know that success does not as much depend on external help as on self-reliance. Much, therefore, depends upon yourself. As to the coal mines, I think I see the means available for your self-reliance.
The political affairs in Central America are not in quite as satisfactory condition as I wish. There are contending factions in that quarter; but it is true all the factions are agreed alike on the subject of colonization, and want it, and are more generous than we are here. To your colored race they have no objection. Besides, I would endeavor to have you made equals, and have the best assurance that you should be the equals of the best.
The practical thing I want to ascertain is whether I can get a number of able-bodied men, with their wives and children, who are willing to go, when I present evidence of encouragement and protection. Could I get a hundred tolerably intelligent men, with their wives and children, to “cut their own fodder,” so to speak? Can I have fifty? If I could find twenty-five able-bodied men, with a mixture of women and children, good things in the family relation, I think I could make a successful commencement.
I want you to let me know whether this can be done or not. This is the practical part of my wish to see you. These are subjects of very great importance, worthy of a month’s study, [instead] of a speech delivered in an hour. I ask then to consider seriously not pertaining to yourselves merely, nor for your race, and ours, for the present time, but as one of things, if successfully managed, for the good of mankind-not confined to the present generation, but as
“From age to age descends the lay,
To millions yet to be,
Til far its echoes roll away,
The above is merely given as the substance of the President’s remarks.
The Chairman of the delegation replied that “they would hold a consultation and in a short time give an answer.” The President said: “Take your full time-no hurry at all.”
The delegation then withdrew.42
Lincoln chronicler Harold Holzer wrote: “Just as Lincoln hoped, the speech was quickly published verbatim in newspapers across the North. To the detriment of his future reputation, Lincoln had set the stage for releasing his proclamation beyond the controversial realm of humanitarianism, by advocating colonization – a flirtation he soon abandoned. It was a risky strategy, if Lincoln was worried about his legacy. He might have contributed more by beginning to educate Americans about the inevitability of a biracial society. But this he calculated he could not do without losing the border states, the military, the Congress, and, as he put it, proclamation or not, ‘the whole game.’ Ultimately, he left a record of cautionary and intentionally misleading caveats; and some observers seem to take them far more seriously today than his reminder to Horace Greeley that he still wished privately that ‘all men every where could be free.'”43
One of those who was upset by President Lincoln’s speech was Frederick Douglas: “The President of the United States seems to possess an ever increasing passion for making himself appear silly and ridiculous, if nothing worse….In this address Mr. Lincoln assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for negroes and his canting hypocrisy….Mr. Lincoln takes care in urging his colonization scheme to furnish a weapon to all the ignorant and base, who need only the countenance of men in authority to commit all kinds of violence and outrage upon the colored people…The genuine spark of humanity is missing it, no sincere wish to improve the condition of the oppressed has dictated it. It expresses merely the desire to get rid of them, and reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt.”44
An article in the Washington Negro backed colonization: “In this city, the question is still discussed by the people of color – Shall we go to Hayti, and enjoy the blessings of citizenship in that free and independent Republic, or shall we remain in the United States, in ignorance and degradation?…Let us emigrate to Hayti, where we shall be free from the white man’s contumely, and where we can secure for ourselves and our children after us, a home, a far, and all the rights which citizenship confers.”45 But such black advocates of colonization were in the minority. More prevalent was the attitude represented by the Anglo-African:
It is true, a great many simple-minded people have been induced to go to Liberia and to Hayti, but, be assured, the more intelligent portion of the colored people will remain here; not because we prefer being oppressed here to being freemen in other countries, but we will remain because we believe our future prospects are better here than elsewhere, and because our experience has proved that the greater proportion of those who have left this country during the last thirty years have made their condition worse, and would have gladly returned if they could have done so. You may rest assured that we shall remain here – here, where we have withstood almost everything. Now, when our prospects begin to brighten, we are the more encouraged to stay, pay off the old score, and have a reconstruction of things.”46
There were numerous objections to the President’s presentation expressed by blacks in the North. A group of African-Americans in Long Island prepared a response: “This is our native country; we have as strong attachment naturally to our native hills, valleys, plains, luxuriant forests, flowing streams, mighty rivers, and lofty mountains, as any other people….This is the country of our choice, being our fathers’ country. We love this land, and have contributed our share to its prosperity and wealth… We have the right to have applied to ourselves those rights named in the Declaration of Independence.”47
At a Cabinet meeting on August 22, President Lincoln announced that he had prepared a draft Emancipation Proclamation. According to historian Allan Nevins, “Seward and Welles were of course prepared, but the others were taken aback. The apparent suddenness of the step bewildered one or two, and its boldness startled others. Even Stanton had never proposed going as far as a general emancipation in rebellious territory. He and Welles rallied to the defense of emancipation in rebellious territory. He and Welles rallied to the defense of the proposal. Chase promised to give the measure cordial support, but as he was fearful of slave insurrections, he thought that emancipation could be accomplished more safely by directing the commanders of departments to proclaim it as soon as feasible, and allowing generals in the field to arm and organize slaves. Montgomery Blair, coming in late, gave a response characteristic of his political-minded family: he apprehended that the proclamation would have a bad effect on the fall elections. No objection, however, moved Lincoln until Seward spoke up.”48
Writing of the August Cabinet meeting, presidential aide William O. Stoddard observed: “His demeanor suddenly underwent a change. The amused humorist vanished. In his place was a man who had reached a new grandeur of moral elevation to which he was profoundly anxious to raise each soul among them. He announced his purpose and read the paper which he had prepared. He stated, in good set terms, that he 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. It was not so much for general consultation, therefore, as to finally announced a settled purpose and to receive counsel on minor points.”49
Historian Frederic Bancroft wrote: “Seward was influential in persuading the President to delay the Proclamation until after a significant Union victory over the Confederacy. He was afraid that otherwise the proclamation might be seen as a meaningless attempt to substitute a paper principle for a military victory.”50 Mr. Lincoln later said: “The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force. It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was that I put the draft of the proclamation aside, as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory. From time to time I added or changed a line, touching it up here and there, anxiously watching the progress of events. Well, the next news we had was of [General John] Pope’s disaster, at Bull Run. Things looked darker than ever.51
Seward biographer Frederic Bancroft noted that President “Lincoln generously gave him full credit for the suggestion that the proclamation should be ‘borne on the bayonets of an advancing army, not dragged in the dust behind a retreating one.’ So the draft was laid aside to await the first victory, which was always expected soon.52 Artist Francis Carpenter, in early February 1864, heard President Lincoln explain his version history of the Proclamation which led up to a final cabinet meeting on September 22, 1862 after the Battle of Antietam:
“It had got to be,” said he, “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 the knowledge of the Cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and, after much anxious thought, called a Cabinet meeting upon the subject. This was the last of July, or the first part of the month of August, 1862.” (The exact date he did not remember.) “This Cabinet meeting took place, I think, upon a Saturday. All were present, excepting Mr. Blair, the Postmaster-General, who was absent at the opening of the discussion, but came in subsequently. 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….. Various suggestions were offered. Secretary Chase wished the language stronger in reference to the arming of the blacks. Mr. Blair, after he came in, deprecated the policy, on the ground that it would cost the Administration in the fall elections. Nothing, however, was offered that I had not already fully anticipated and settled in my own mind, until Secretary Seward spoke. He said in substance: “Mr. President, I approve of the proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reverses, is so great that I fear the effect of so important a step. It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.” His idea,” said the President, “was that it would be considered our last shriek, on the retreat.” (This was his precise expression.) “Now,’ continued Mr. Seward, ‘while I approve the measure, I suggest, sir, that you postpone its issue, until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war!'”53
Journalist Alexander K. McClure noted that “from July until September, during which time there was the greatest possible pressure on Lincoln for an Emancipation policy, his proclamation had been formulated, but his usual caution had prevented him from intimating it to any outside of his Cabinet. It was the gravest step ever taken by any civil ruler in this or any other land, and military success was essential to maintain and execute the policy of Emancipation after it had been declared. Had McClellan been successful in his Peninsula campaign, or had had Lee been defeated in the second conflict of Manassas, without bringing peace, the proclamation would doubtless had been issued with the prestige of such victory.”54 Unfortunately for the Union, General John Pope was badly defeated at the end of August at the Second Battle of Bull Run, which the South referred to as Second Battle of Manassas.
Nicolay and Hay wrote: “Under his fixed purpose, in addition to his many other perplexities, the President grew sensitive and even irritable upon this point. He was by nature so frank and direct, he was so conscientious in all his official responsibilities, that he made the complaints and his own. The severe impartiality of his self-judgment sometimes became almost a feeling of self-accusation, from which he found relief only by a most searching analysis of his own motive in self-justification,” wrote John G. Nicolay and John Hay in their 10-volume biography of the President. “In the period under review this state of feeling was several times manifested. Individuals and delegations came to him to urge one side or the other of a decision, which, though already made in his own mind, forced upon him a reexamination of its justness and its possibilities for good or evil. Imperceptibly these mental processes became a species of self-torment, and well-meaning inquirers or advisers affected his over strung nerves like so many persecuting inquisitors. A phlegmatic nature would have turned them away in sullen silence, or at most with an evasive commonplace. But Lincoln felt himself under compulsion, which he could not resist, to state somewhat precisely the difficulties and perplexities under which he was acting, or rather, apparently refusing to act; and in such statements his public argument, under hypothesis assumed for illustration, was liable to outrun his private conclusion upon facts which had controlled his judgment.55
- Theodore Calvin Pease, editor, Orville Hickman Browning, Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, p. 587-588.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 304 (Cassius M. Clay).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, A Reporter’s Lincoln: Walter B. Stevens, p. 170-173.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 278-279 (New York Tribune, June 21, 1862).
- David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the Unisted States Military Corps during the Civil War, p. 138-139.
- David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the Unisted States Military Corps during the Civil War, p. 141.
- Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863, p. 147.
- Charles Eugene Hamlin, The Life and Times of Hannibal Hamlin, Volume II, p. 428-429.
- Charles Eugene Hamlin, The Life and Times of Hannibal Hamlin, Volume II, p. 429.
- Mark Scroggins, Hannibal: The Life of Abraham Lincoln’s First Vice President, p. 183.
- Benjamin Perley Poore, Perley’s Reminiscences, Volume II, p. 128.
- Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863, p. 147.
- Ralph Korngold, Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great, p. 185 (From Edward L. Pierce, Memoirs and Letters of Charles Sumner, Volume IV, p. 83).
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Abraham Lincoln, Address to Border State Representatives, [July 12, 1862]).
- Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 70-71.
- Isaac N. Arnold, Abraham Lincoln, p. 251.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 124-125 (George S. Boutwell).
- John Niven, Gideon Welles: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, p. 418.
- Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 349-350.
- Russell F. Weigley, A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865, p. 173.
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation – Earliest Draft, [July 22, 1862]).
- David H. Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, Inside the Cabinet, p. 99-100 (July 22, 1862).
- John Niven, Gideon Welles: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, p. 419-420.
- John Palmer Usher, President Lincoln’s Cabinet, p. 17, .
- Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 113-115.
- Theodore Calvin Pease, editor, Orville Hickman Browning, Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, p. 361-362 (July 21, 1862).
- Theodore Calvin Pease, editor, Orville Hickman Browning, Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, p. 562-563 (July 24, 1862).
- Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 351-352.
- David Donald, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, p. 105-106 (August 3, 1862).
- John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, p. 148-149.
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Reverdy Johnson [Copy in John Hay’s Hand], July 26, 1862).
- >John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, p. .
- John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, p. 151-152.
- Harold Holzer, editor, Dear Mr. Lincoln, p. 156-161 (Letter from Horace Greeley to Abraham Lincoln, August 19, 1862).
- Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 340.
- Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 173.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 388-389 (August 22, 1862).
- Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 173.
- Herbert Mitgang, editor, Abraham Lincoln: A Press Portrait, p. 298 (National Intelligencer, July 31, 1862).
- Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 118.
- Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 362.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 370-375 (New York Tribune, August 15, 1862).
- Harold Holzer, Lincoln Seen and Heard, p. 185.
- James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, p. 92.
- James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, p. 90.
- James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, p. 91 (Anglo-American).
- James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, p. 94.
- Allan Nevins, War for the Union, War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863, Volume II, p. 165.
- William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, p. 332.
- Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, Volume II, .
- Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House, p. 22.
- Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, Volume II, p. 335.
- Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House, p. 22.
- Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln and Men of War-Times, p. 102.
- John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, p. 156-158.