150 years ago today, people were talking about Abraham Lincoln's bold new declaration on Emancipation. That anniversary deserves more notice than it has received. So I am pleased to pass along this New York Times column on the event.
Lincoln’s Great Gamble
Countless school children have been taught that Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. Others have been taught - and many have concluded - that the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln announced on Sept. 22, 1862, has been overemphasized, that it was inefficacious, a sham, that Lincoln's motivations were somehow unworthy, that slavery was ended by other ways and means, and that slavery was on the way out in any case.
The truth is that Lincoln's proclamation was an exercise in risk, a huge gamble by a leader who sought to be - and who became - America's great liberator.
Since before his election in 1860, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans had vowed to keep slavery from spreading. The leaders of the slave states refused to go along. When Lincoln was elected and his party took control of Congress, the leaders of most of the slave states turned to secession rather than allow the existing bloc of slave states to be outnumbered.
The Union, divided from the Confederacy, was also divided itself. Many Democrats who fought to stop secession blamed Republicans for pushing the slave states over the brink; some were open supporters of slavery. And if the Democrats were to capture control of Congress in the mid-term elections of November 1862, there was no telling what the consequences might be for the Republicans' anti-slavery policies.
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."
Others, however, concluded from the letter that Lincoln was hopelessly obtuse in regard to the moral issues of the war. Wendell Phillips, another abolitionist leader, called the letter a "disgraceful document" and asserted that Lincoln "can only be frightened or bullied into the right policy . . . . He's a Spaniel by nature - nothing broad, generous, or highhearted about him."
In early September the deceptions thickened as Lincoln pretended he had not yet decided on the matter; he even played devil's advocate and told a group of visiting abolitionists that he was plagued with doubts about emancipation: "how can we feed and care for such a multitude," he asked a group of Chicago anti-slavery petitioners who visited him on Sept. 13. Once again, he was being deceptive; not only was he positive that he would take this step - the proclamation had been written already - but he was ready to act in advance of the November elections. He was waiting for a battlefield victory that would permit him to issue the proclamation from a position of strength. At one point he made this very clear to his listeners: "There is a question of expediency as to time, should such a proclamation be issued. Matters look dark just now. I fear that a proclamation on the heels of a defeat would be interpreted as a cry of despair. It would come better, if at all, immediately after a victory."
After Lee's invasion of Maryland was stopped in the battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, Lincoln made up his mind to go ahead. He later told a Massachusetts congressman that "when Lee came over the river, I made a resolution that if McClellan drove him back I would send the Proclamation after him." On Sept. 22, he read the proclamation to his cabinet.
The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is called "preliminary" because it was framed as a warning to rebels, a threat to take action by a certain date if they refused to lay down their arms. Lincoln warned that if the rebellion continued past Jan. 1, 1863,
All persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."
The warning was clear: the rebels were risking the permanent loss of their slaves if they refused to lay down their arms by New Year's Day. Lincoln's armies would not only "recognize" the freedom of slaves, they would work to "maintain" that freedom.
When the proclamation was released to the press later that day, reactions spanned a very broad range. The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained that it "touched neither justice nor mercy. Had there been one expression of sound moral feeling against Slavery, one word of regret and shame that this accursed system had remained so long the disgrace and scandal of the Republic, one word of satisfaction in the hope of burying slavery and the rebellion in one common grave, a thrill of joy would have run round the world." The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote that "it was done reluctantly and stintedly . . . . It was merely a war measure, to which we were forced by our own perils and necessities." "How cold the president's proclamation is," remarked abolitionist Sallie Holley.
But other anti-slavery leaders were ecstatic. Theodore Tilton wrote that he was "half crazy with enthusiasm." Samuel J. May Jr. wrote that "joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, renewed hope and courage fill my soul." The Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner wrote that "the skies are brighter and the air is purer now that Slavery is handed over to judgment." Horace Greeley editorialized thus: "Let the President know that everywhere throughout the land he is hailed as Wisest and Best . . . . He re-creates a nation." The editor of The Pittsburgh Gazette called the proclamation "the most important document in world history." Even Frederick Douglass, despite his doubts, spoke words of praise for public consumption: "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree."
On Sept. 24, some administration revelers met at the home of Salmon P. Chase, the Treasury secretary, an ardent pre-war Free Soiler and a rival of Lincoln's for the 1860 nomination. "They all seemed to feel a sort of new and exhilarated life; they breathed freer," one of Lincoln's secretaries, John Hay, recorded. "They gleefully and merrily called each other and themselves abolitionists."
Some regarded the proclamation as an act of great political shrewdness. The editor of The Boston Commonwealth wrote that while "we complained bitterly that the President was slow," it was obvious that "his slowness has been the means of committing the whole flock of you to a rule of loyalty, which you cannot abandon . . . . Those who do not stand by the Proclamation will be branded as those who would rather see the United States Government overthrown than the end of Human Bondage on this continent."
But others worried that Lincoln's proclamation might prove a political mistake. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair warned that it would "endanger our power in Congress, and put the next House of Representatives in the hands of those opposed to the war, or to our mode of carrying it on."
White supremacist Democrats vilified the proclamation. The Louisville Democrat editorialized that "the President has as much right to abolish the institution of marriage, or the laws of a State regulating the relation of parent and child, as to nullify the right of a State to regulate the relations of the white and black races." The New York Express excoriated the proclamation; no president had ever before "conceived a policy so well fitted, utterly to degrade and destroy white labor, and to reduce the white man to the level of the negro."
Lincoln's gamble was dangerous indeed. But he did what he believed he had to do. It was not, in the end, a political calculation.
According to the diary of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln told his cabinet on Sept. 22 he had made a promise to God. "He had made a vow, a covenant," Welles recounted, "that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would . . . move forward in the cause of emancipation."
And so the stakes of the war would be raised to a level commensurate with all of the carnage and all of the sacrifice. The meaning of the war would be changed - forever changed - by Lincoln's proclamation.
Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, is the author of "Lincoln and Race."