Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Or so I was taught in grade school. Later, of course, I became much more knowledgeable and sophisticated. I learned that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation applied only to areas in actual rebellion against the Union—places not in control of federal forces. I learned that William Seward, Lincoln’s own Secretary of State, had dismissed the Emancipation Proclamation as “a puff of wind . . . emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” I read historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous observation that the Proclamation “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading” and “did not in fact free any slaves.”
Now, as the subtitle of his study of the Emancipation Proclamation suggests, Allen C. Guelzo seems ready to affirm that my boyhood understanding was right after all.
Guelzo lays out his case methodically in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, first showing us Lincoln’s underlying principles, then the way he applied them in the rapidly shifting landscape between 1861 and 1865. What was fixed and unalterable in Lincoln was his conviction that slavery was a grave moral evil that should be put “in the course of ultimate extinction.” This is platitudinous today (except in parts of Africa) but it certainly was not in antebellum America. Probably only a minority accepted the argument of slavery apologists such as George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun that slavery was a positive good, but a more common view was that slavery as a moral issue ought to be kept out of national public debate. In his famous 1858 debates with Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas played to this view, charging that it was fatuous, if not mischievous, for Lincoln to drag this moral issue (he also called it a “religious” issue) into the national public arena: “I do not discuss the morals of the people of Missouri, but let them settle the matter for themselves.” Lincoln not only stuck to his position but put it at the very center of the debate. “The real issue in this controversy,” he said, is “the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and another class that does not look upon it as a wrong.”
Throughout his public career, Lincoln never left any doubt about where he stood on the issue. In 1837, as a young Illinois legislator, he and another member denounced slavery as an institution “founded on injustice and bad policy.” In 1849, as a one-term congressman, he proposed abolishing it in the District of Columbia, and in 1854 he began publicly honing the moral case against slavery that he used against Douglas in 1858.
If he felt so strongly about slavery, why didn’t he abolish it at once when he took office, instead of waiting two years and then abolishing it only in the areas of actual rebellion? Guelzo offers a number of reasons, including Lincoln’s modest view of presidential authority in civil affairs (as opposed to his plenary concept of “war powers”), and his concern that the Supreme Court of Roger Taney—author of the Dred Scott decision—would pounce on any presidential proclamation freeing slaves that was not very narrowly tailored. But the most persuasive reason Guelzo offers is that an immediate, sweeping proclamation would have cost Lincoln the support of the border states—and thus the Union. Seven slaveowning states had already seceded by the time Lincoln was sworn into office on March 4, 1861, and in April another four followed. Four slaveowning states, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky, still remained in the Union, but Kentucky declared itself to be in a “position of strict neutrality” and two of the other three were very shaky. (Legislation affirming loyalty to the Union had passed in the Maryland legislature very narrowly, and in Missouri the governor and legislature were divided.) If these loyal, or semi-loyal, states ever heard that Lincoln was planning to free “their” slaves by decree, the game would have been up. Kentucky would have tipped first, Lincoln thought, then Missouri, and then Maryland, which bordered on the District of Columbia.
“These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us,” Lincoln said. “We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.” These were not imaginary fears. Already in Maryland, slaves were escaping into Union camps, and when their outraged Unionist owners showed up to demand their return under the Fugitive Slave Law, Union soldiers, “practicing a little of the abolition system,” as one complainant put it, rudely turned them away. If you are going to treat us like rebels, the Marylanders threatened, we might as well be rebels. The same complaints were surfacing in other loyal slaveholding states, and Lincoln was forced to assure Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky that he would do nothing to threaten “the institutions or property” of any loyal state. “Professed Unionists,” Lincoln confessed, gave him “more trouble than rebels.”
Whatever his desires about the future of slavery, Lincoln had taken an oath on March 4, 1861, to “preserve, defend, and protect the Constitution of the United States.” By that day, seven slaveowning states of the Deep South had torn up the Constitution; in the next month another four would do the same. Lincoln’s “paramount” duty, he wrote to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, was to restore it. “If I could save the Union without 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.”
Lincoln’s focus on saving the Union was in no way incompatible with his desire to end slavery. First of all, if the Union were not preserved, if the South were allowed to go its own way and do its own thing, all hopes for ending slavery in the foreseeable future would be ended. Second, Lincoln left open a radical option (“if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it”) while hinting at what he was then planning to do in his Emancipation Proclamation (“freeing some and leaving others alone”). Third, Lincoln had never given up the idea, which he had first broached in 1855, of voluntary and compensated emancipation. He brought it up again in the fall of 1861, hoping to make tiny Delaware a laboratory to demonstrate its success and encourage other states to try it, and in 1862 he persuaded Congress to pass legislation extending the offer to all loyal states, but even this voluntary proposal produced a storm of indignation over interference in “states’ rights.” Its Delaware sponsors dropped it when the votes weren’t there for final passage, and none of the other border states showed any interest in it. At his most cautious, then, Lincoln was still far ahead of most other white Americans in moving toward the abolition of slavery.
What Lincoln could do unilaterally, as he understood it, was to use his military power as commander-in-chief to deprive the rebels of the slaves they were using to grow their crops. Yet he wanted to give the rebel areas an opportunity to return to the Union on their own. On September 22, 1862, he issued a Preliminary Proclamation, setting a deadline of January 1, 1863, for a return to the Union. If the areas in rebellion failed to comply by that date, their slaves would be “thenceforward and forever free.” The armed services were ordered to protect and maintain “the freedom of such persons” and to do nothing to repress them “in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” This last phrase set off a new uproar, even in the North, because it was viewed as an incitement to bloody slave rebellions. According to one Boston “moderate,” it would make the slaves think that they “should be made free by killing or poisoning their masters and mistresses.” In the Final Proclamation of January 1, 1863, Lincoln enjoined the slaves “to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense”; but this tacitly left open other means of self-liberation, including simply running away, which is what Lincoln hoped they would do.
The Final Proclamation made good on the ultimatum Lincoln had delivered in his Preliminary Proclamation one hundred days earlier: “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” The night before issuing it, Lincoln was getting last-minute telegraphic reports on the “parts of states” that had come under federal control. Referring to them, the Proclamation said, “These excepted parts are, for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.” Hence Seward’s jibe about Lincoln’s “emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” (An editorialist in the London Times compared it to “a Chinaman beating his two swords together to frighten his enemy.”)
But Guelzo gives us reason to believe that this was no empty gesture. He quotes a Union officer in Virginia who saw slaves running into his camp from as far away as North Carolina; this officer said they “know all about the Proclamation and they started on the belief in it.” Many slaves themselves later named the Proclamation as the instrument that motivated them to escape. “When the Proclamation was issued,” one told a congressional committee, that was when he decided to flee his master. Another said, “I have been a slave from my childhood up to the time I was set free by the emancipation proclamation.” In the summer of 1863, a Union officer noticed among “the negroes” a very different attitude from former times. He attributed it to the Proclamation: “a spirit of independence—a feeling they are no longer slaves.” It is hard to keep people in slavery when they no longer think of themselves as slaves.
There is much more about Lincoln in Guelzo’s book, including his promotion of the Thirteenth Amendment, his use of black troops in the war, and his support for at least selective black suffrage at its conclusion. Indeed, we probably learn more about Lincoln in this book than we need to, given its limited scope. Guelzo reprises his earlier speculations about Lincoln’s religiosity (Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, 1999; reviewed in FT August 2000), portraying him as “a kind of secularized Calvinist” who feigned religiosity for political reasons until the summer of 1862, when the deepening crisis finally caused him to think seriously about God’s purposes. (For a different and better supported view, see Joseph R. Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith, 2003). Even within its scope one finds some rhetorical overkill in a few places. In one passage, for example, Guelzo replies to Richard Hofstadter’s wisecrack about the Emancipation Proclamation having “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading”—by defending bills of lading. Wisely, he consigns that to a footnote.
Nevertheless, Guelzo presents a well-documented account of a president who stretched his powers as far as the Constitution and the climate of the times permitted in order to set the nation on a course leading to what he had hoped for many years earlier: the “ultimate extinction” of slavery. I do not know whether that is still taught in our public schools. Guelzo makes a persuasive case that it should be.
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy (1994).