September 23, 2012


Lincoln's Great Gamble (RICHARD STRINER, 9/21/12, NY Times)

The Emancipation Proclamation wasn't always part of the plan. Republicans, Lincoln included, tried push their anti-slavery program by measured degrees, since they feared a white supremacist backlash. That was what made Lincoln's decision to issue an emancipation edict, and to do it before the mid-term congressional elections of 1862, so extraordinarily risky.

In the first half of 1862, he had tried to institute a program of gradual and compensated emancipation in Delaware, Kentucky and Maryland, the slave states that had not fallen under the control of secessionists. But the border-state leaders refused to listen. So Lincoln decided in July that he would turn his attention to rebellious slave states, and there, in the name of preserving the Union, he would institute immediate and uncompensated emancipation.

In the months that followed, he worked to soften public opinion in the North -- to get the public ready for the fact that he intended to free some slaves. In August, he wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune. This letter would soon become famous. Lincoln claimed that his "paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. 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."

This was a clever deception in light of the fact that no breach in the Union would have happened in the first place had Lincoln and his fellow Republicans not refused to admit more slave states to the Union. Lincoln's letter to Greeley was misleading; he wrote it in an effort to appeal to patriotic Unionists and get them used to the idea that he might start freeing slaves. What he hoped was that people would view the proclamation as a patriotic necessity.

Some observers got the point; Sydney Howard Gay, a leading abolitionist, wrote to Lincoln:

Your letter to Mr. Greeley has infused new hope among us at the North who are anxiously awaiting that movement on your part that they believe will end the rebellion by removing its cause. I think the general impression is that as you are determined to save the Union tho' slavery perish, you mean presently to announce that the destruction of Slavery is the price of our salvation.

Lincoln himself confided to Representative Isaac N. Arnold that, as Arnold recounted, "the meaning of his letter to Mr. Greeley was this: he was ready to declare emancipation when he was convinced that it could be made effective, and that the people were with him."

Posted by at September 23, 2012 6:30 PM

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