The Truth about the Emancipation Proclamation
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* On the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation, the Surprising Truth: Today, on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Bob Enyart and guest Jamie Schofield analyze the meaning and actual intent of that sad document. For this was no abolitionist policy (as a contemporaneous report in the Rocky Mountain News makes clear), but an example of moral compromise that ended in failure.
The Proclamation was actually comprised of two announcements, not just one. The first half – the preliminary proclamation – set the policy and gave a deadline of 100 days. It was addressed not to the common citizens of the nation or to the Union military, but rather to the states in rebellion at that time. What was Lincoln’s declared policy on slavery at that time? He made that very clear in a letter to Horace Greeley on Aug. 22, 1862, just days before the issuance of the preliminary proclamation:
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, 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. 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 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 everywhere could be free.
Lincoln’s goal was not the abolition of slavery but rather the preservation of the Union, and if that meant keeping slaves in bondage everywhere, he would support and practice exactly that. And this non-abolitionist stance is reflected in the text of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Preliminary Proclamation, September, 1862
In short, the stated intent and purpose of this policy was to offer the Confederate states the opportunity to keep their slaves if they would choose to stop rebelling within a 100-day deadline. Essentially, it said that if your state ceases its rebellion against the union, you may keep your slaves.
I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy thereof, do hereby proclaim and declare that hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States... That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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;
Any state still in rebellion against the Union on Jan. 1 would be subject to the Proclamation, which would declare any current slaves in those areas to be free. The stated goal was not to free any slaves, but rather to preserve the Union. Was it a success? Before hearing the answer, Bob predicted that such a policy would bear no fruit, and he was right. In fact, not a single state took Lincoln up on his offer. By its own standard, the Proclamation was an abject failure! In fact, all the proclamation did in that regard was to infuriate the Confederate states more than ever, deepening their resolve to reject the Union.
Perhaps even worse, the preliminary proclamation also explicitly ordered slaves to be returned to their slave owners in specific circumstances, thus actually ordering the enforcement of keeping such men in bondage:
Sec.10. And be it further enacted, That no slave escaping into any State, Territory, or the District of Columbia, from any other State, shall be delivered up, or in any way impeded or hindered of his liberty, except for crime, or some offence against the laws, unless the person claiming said fugitive shall first make oath that the person to whom the labor or service of such fugitive is alleged to be due is his lawful owner, and has not borne arms against the United States in the present rebellion, nor in any way given aid and comfort thereto;
In other words, if a slave escaped to an area controlled by the Union, all a Southern slave owner had to do was show up, give an oath (no evidence required) that he was the lawful owner of that slave, and swear that he had never taken up arms against the Union, and then “here’s your slave back.”
The Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
This document was the culmination of the policy already given 100 days earlier. Not a single Confederate state had taken Lincoln’s offer to cease rebellion and keep their slaves. Therefore, this document declared (largely symbolically) the slaves in those non-Union-controlled areas to be free. But, at the same time, and as one should expect in such a compromised and non-abolitionist policy, it also explicitly listed all of the areas in the U.S. where slaves would be kept in bondage. Thus, this policy actually authorized the continuing wicked enslavement of innocent men, women and children, for example in many counties in Louisiana, especially around New Orleans, as well as in the newly-forming West Virginia.
Many abolitionists of the day decried the Emancipation Proclamation, rightly pointing out its moral compromise. Lincoln’s own secretary of state, William Seward, commented that "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free." Unlike Lincoln, Seward knew the atrocities of slavery firsthand, having been raised by a slave-owning family. "I early came to the conclusion that something was wrong... and [that] determined me to be an abolitionist."
On the other hand, in their coverage of the Proclamation, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News here in Colorado celebrated on their front page the fact that this policy was not abolitionist, and mocked abolitionists who disagreed with it, praising Lincoln for going against the “radical” abolitionists. The newspaper wrote:
“The last mail... brought scores of Eastern and Western papers with similar recommendations. The voice of the press is almost unanimous in its approval. That is a pretty correct index of popular opinion, and we may therefore set down that almost the entire loyal States endorse the action of the President. It must be expected that the ultra Abolitionists will kick against it, as too conservative [not going far enough] for their radical views. Let them squirm! ‘Honest Abe’ has shown that he will be no tool of theirs.”
How were slaves freed and slavery abolished, then?
It’s important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t outlaw slavery anywhere. It declared current slaves in those areas to be free, in areas where the Union had no control. It essentially “freed” them in word only, and was largely a symbolic gesture. As the Union military moved through the Confederate states in rebellion, they did free slaves they encountered. In truth, they could have done this with or without the Proclamation. The Proclamation was simply used as an excuse to do it, but they would have been right to do it, regardless. Lincoln gave orders to the Union Army to free those slaves, apart from the Proclamation, which wasn’t addressed to the Union Army, but to the Confederate States themselves. He could have ordered the Union Army to do this without such a proclamation. And even if Lincoln hadn’t issued that order, it would have still been right for Union forces moving through the South to free those slaves, anyway. If you are a military unit and have taken over an area from the enemy, and you find men who have been kidnapped and brutalized by the people there, the right thing to do would be to free those victims. The Proclamation didn’t free anyone, although it did serve as a political excuse to do so.
What of the abolition of slavery, then? That was accomplished later, in some areas at the state level, and in the rest of the nation through federal action. Unlike in the Emancipation Proclamation, in all of these cases it was a principled, no-compromise, abolitionist policy that required the complete abolition of slavery in each state.
For example, West Virginia (which had ironically seceded from Virginia while the latter was seceding from the Union) wasn’t allowed to join the Union as a new state unless their constitution abolished slavery without exception. In Maryland, Arkansas and Louisiana in 1864, they abolished slavery at the state level as their citizens ratified new state constitutions. In Missouri in January of 1865, that governor abolished slavery via executive order. In all other Southern states, slavery was ultimately abolished through the ratification of the 15thamendment to the U.S. Constitution, in December of 1865.
In all of these cases, it was a no-compromise policy that we would describe today as “pro-personhood.” Slavery was ultimately abolished despite the pro-slavery policy of the Emancipation Proclamation, not because of it.
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