Though the Emancipation Proclamation may be the most celebrated event in Abraham Lincoln's life, it is surprisingly one of the least chronicled or appreciated. Historian Richard Hofstadter once dismissed the Emancipation as having "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." It has been fashionable to follow Hofstadters' lead in denigrating one of the most important documents in American history.
Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo has written: "If the language of the Proclamation sounded flat and legalistic, there was good reason. The use of presidential "war powers" has long been a sore point in constitutional theory. And once a wartime emergency ended, anything a president did on the strength of the "war powers" would inevitably be challenged in federal court, and possibly overturned. Strange as it may seem, bitter end slaveowners had every prospect, even after military defeat, of appealing any emancipation edict of Lincoln's all the way up to the Supreme Court. And the chief justice of the court was Roger Brooke Taney, the same chief justice who had written the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott case (which denied that blacks could be citizens). Taney had tried to strangle the Union war effort at the very beginning in ex parte Merryman (making arrests of Confederate agents impossible), and was, in 1863, trying to have the Union blockade of Confederate ports declared unconstitutional. If the Proclamation hadn't been written in the strictest, flattest, most precise legalese, Taney and the court would have picked it to pieces, and the cause of black freedom would have been set back again."1
Guelzo begins his book on Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery by writing: "The Emancipation Proclamation is surely the unhappiest of all of Abraham Lincoln's great presidential papers. Taken at face value, the Emancipation Proclamation was the most revolutionary pronouncement ever signed by an American president, striking the legal shackles from four million black slaves and setting the nation's face toward the total abolition of slavery within three more years. Today, however, the Proclamation is probably best known for what it did not do, beginning with its apparently failure to rise to the level of eloquence Lincoln achieved in the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural."2
Mr. Lincoln approached emancipation with caution. He had reentered politics in 1854 determined to stop the spread of slavery and he refused as President-elect to yield on that principle. But when Generals John C. Frémont in the summer of 1861 and David Hunter in the spring of 1862 asserted their powers to free slaves within their jurisdictions, President Lincoln reversed their decisions. He was determined to proceed in a way that would keep Border State slaveholders, northern War Democrats and Radical Republicans united behind the war effort.
As historian Philip Shaw Paludan has written: "Lincoln needed to place the emancipation of blacks in a package that whites would accept. The Union was the almost universal ideal of northerners; everything that anyone did in the course of fighting the war was going to be to save the Union, Lincoln was preached to the choir here, but it was a big choir, and he had to rally and reassure them that the very dramatic act of freeing other people's slaves would be in service of the very conservative goal of saving their union."3
From early March to early July 1862, President Lincoln tried to line up Border State representatives behind his plans for compensated emancipation. His efforts were unavailing. Gulezo wrote that "Lincoln recognized by July 1862 that he could not wait for the legislative option - and not because he had patiently waited to discern public opinion and found the North readier than the state legislatures to move ahead."4
Even after on September 22 President Lincoln issued the draft emancipation following the Union victory at Antietam, Republicans and blacks worried that he might back off from issuing it in final form - especially after the Republican Party suffered serious losses in the November elections. Historian Edna Greene Medford wrote: "Throughout the closing months of 1862, blacks remained fearful that Lincoln would bow to the slaveholding interests and withhold the final proclamation scheduled to become effective the first day of the new year. When the South failed to accede to his terms and Lincoln honored the promise of the preliminary document, African-Americans throughout the North reacted to the news with unbridled joy. Black organizations held parades and assembled in mammoth gatherings to listen to prominent abolitionists extol the virtues of the president. At one such rally in New York, the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet (who like many blacks in the North had escaped southern slavery before the war) presided over the massive meeting at the Cooper Institute which had been organized by the 'Sons of Freedom.'"5
But the President had his eyes clearly set upon emancipation, which was based upon military necessity. It was, he told Gideon Welles "absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued..."6
Guelzo interprets Lincoln's pursuit of emancipation through the prism of prudence - which he calls the "most important among the Enlightenment's political virtues for Lincoln."7 He writes that "Lincoln never intended the Proclamation to be a substitute for a long-term legislative solution, and in fact that hope for a legislative solution eventually bore fruit as the Thirteenth Amendment. The Proclamation was an emergency measure, a substitute for the permanent plan that would really rid the country of slavery, but a substitute as sincere and profound as the timbers that shore up an endangered mine shaft and prevent it from collapsing entirely."8
Historian Gerald Sorin wrote: "Republicans followed a prudent course between abolitionist demands and Northern racism. Their bow to anti-black sentiment was in large measure defensive. They felt that in order to have the power to abolish slavery, they must be politically successful. And this meant dissociating the party from the idea of equality. Thus, as the party moved toward emancipation, Lincoln and other Republicans insisted that they were not trying to 'Africanize' the North. Congressman George Julian and Senator Salmon P. Chase advanced the theory that emancipation would actually decrease the North's black population. Northern blacks, these Republican leaders predicted, would be attracted by the more congenial, 'natural' environment of the post-emancipation South, and would emigrate there."9
President Lincoln proclaimed emancipation as a military necessity for the war to preserve the union. He thus applied it to the areas under rebellion - not the areas then under the control of the federal government. Although his action has been criticized as an empty gesture, it was far from that. It encouraged thousands of slaves to self-liberate. But, noted Guelzo, "Without the legal freedom conferred first by the Emancipation Proclamation, no runaway would have remained 'self-emancipated' for very long."10
Guelzo reviews a broader swath of Lincoln's policy toward slavery and black Americans - from the first policy conflicts of his administration with generals who emancipated slaves on their own authority to the use of black soldiers to confront the Confederacy. Guelzo wrote that "black enlistment made the Emancipation Proclamation irrevocable. No one in their right mind could seriously recommend canceling the Proclamation after ordering black soldiers into the nightmare of war."11
Historian James M. McPherson has written that "the Emancipation Proclamation... liberated Abraham Lincoln from the agonizing contradiction between his "oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free" and his oath of office as president of a slaveholding republic. It fused the "organizing principle" of liberty that guided Lincoln before 1861 with the "single central vision" of Union that became his lodestar during the war. Liberty and Union became "the one big thing" instead of two big things, enabling Lincoln to become a true hedgehog."12
A month before the draft Emancipation Proclamation was issue, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote an open "Prayer of Twenty Millions" to President Lincoln to abolish slavery - to which the President replied that his priority was the preservation of the Union. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote that "the [Greeley] letter will be misunderstood if it is read as a straightforward statement of Lincoln's political and ethical priorities, with the Union counting for everything and slavery, nothing. Lincoln's ostensible neutralism about slavery was misleading - and intentionally so. He had, in fact, already committed himself to emancipation, had drafted a proclamation, and was using the exchange with Greeley 'to prepare the people for what was coming.' Preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery were already bound together as twin purposes of the Civil War. Saving the Union had become more than an end in itself. It was also the indispensable means of achieving emancipation. But Lincoln, for reasons of political strategy, had to put it the other way around, viewing emancipation as a means, and very likely a necessary means, of saving the Union. Still there is more to be said. To this perception of cool calculation and dissembled purpose in the Greeley letter one should add some understanding of the deeper uncertainties with which Lincoln contemplated the relation of the war to emancipation, and of emancipation to the future of the nation." McPherson added: "Along with the intended meaning of Lincoln's words, one must consider their effective meaning - that is, what they were understood to mean by his primary and his secondary audiences, and also what consequences they may have produced."13
Mr. Lincoln's concern with conflicting constituencies often frustrated Radical Republicans. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, notes Guelzo, "chided Lincoln without end over emancipation."14 However, n a eulogy of President Lincoln delivered seven weeks after his death, Sumner recognized the genius of his prudence and passion: "In the statement of moral truth and the exposure of wrong, he was at times singularly cogent. There was fire as well as light in his words. Nobody exhibited Slavery in its enormity more clearly. On one occasion he blasted it as 'a monstrous injustice'; on another he pictured the slave-master as 'wringing his bread from the sweat of other men's face'; and the, on still another he said, with exquisite simplicity of diction, 'If Slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.'"15
Within the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the limits of the Constitution, President Lincoln was determined to end the wrong.