November 10, 2016


LINCOLN'S EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION : a review of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America by Allen C. Guelzo (George McKenna, June 2004, First Things)  

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. 

Posted by at November 10, 2016 5:35 AM