On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in all parts of the U.S. in rebellion free on January 1, 1863 if they did not rejoin the United States. While not a complete abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation signaled slavery’s death knell and is one of the most important presidential acts in U.S. history. It also made taking away the labor system that led the South to secede from the Union away from its leaders, undermining the economic stability of an already beleaguered rebellion.
While Lincoln abhorred slavery personally, as president, he was very cautious about acting against it. There were several reasons for this. First, he had campaigned on the idea that slavery was recognized in the Constitution for the states and the real battle was in the territories. Given the intense hatred of Lincoln from the Democrats who were still a real force in many states after 1861, including the political powerhouse of New York, such a reversal of his campaign rhetoric would have been hard to imagine. Second, Lincoln was very nervous about what millions of free blacks would mean for the country. Could they live together in peace? Even into the war, Lincoln was toying with colonization schemes to send slaves back to Africa. Third, Lincoln’s biggest problem other than the rebellion itself was keeping the border states in the Union. Baltimore had to be placed under martial law while Kentucky had “neutrality” that needed to be respected. Freeing the slaves would have just stirred up more anger in those states and perhaps made it impossible to keep them from seceding. Finally, Lincoln consistently deluded himself, to the point of his death, that the majority of the white South really wanted to be part of the Union and so tried to give them incentives to rejoin. Freeing the slaves would have made that impossible.
On the other hand, African-Americans, north and south, knew what the war was about. While many in the North were trying to say it wasn’t about slavery per se, like southern whites, African-Americans never had any question of the stakes. Frederick Douglass and other northern black leaders urged Lincoln to immediately emancipate the slaves and organize black regiments for the Army. Perhaps more importantly, slaves themselves took advantage of nearby U.S. troops, fleeing to the military. Generals such as Benjamin Butler quickly recognized the potential of taking away the South’s labor force and turning that into a Union labor force. But Lincoln, nervous about the effects of making this an official policy on his plans to lure the South back into the Union, originally rejected the idea.
By mid 1862, Lincoln began to change his mind about the expediency of freeing slaves. The situation in the border states was more secure, with the ardent secessionists now significantly outnumbered by unionists. Congress pushed him on this, passing in March 1862 a law barring the military from returning escaped slaves to their owners. Still, Lincoln decided to avoid Congress and issue the proclamation as Commander in Chief, thus avoiding a tense debate and possible rejection. Lincoln wanted a major victory by Union forces before he issued it so it didn’t look desperate. Unfortunately, he had George McClellan as his commanding general, which meant that no major victories was likely. With the partial victory at Antietam a few days earlier as good as Lincoln was going to get, he decided this was the time.
Currier and Ives print on Lincoln using the Emancipation Proclamation to crush the rebellion
The Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in areas of the South under rebellion on January 1, 1863. People criticize Lincoln today for the partial nature of the Emancipation Proclamation and for the fact that it provided immediate freedom for no one. For slaves in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, not to mention the subjugated areas of the Confederacy like parts of Tennessee, slavery did not end at the beginning of 1863. The morally pure thing to do was to free all the slaves immediately. Certainly that is what Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison demanded. And yes, it mandated the Union actually win the war for the slaves to be freed instead of freeing the slaves it actually had control over. But the partial nature of the proclamation was political genius. No, it didn’t free anyone. On the other hand, it made the ending of slavery in the Confederacy official federal and military policy. And slavery simply could not survive in Kentucky if it was ended in Mississippi. Plus it gave a moral reason to fight the war, one with increasing importance as soldiers who might have been racist but had never personally witnessed slavery were outraged when they went to the South and saw the horrors of this labor system first hand. When combined with the doctrine of free labor that already drove Republican policy, the eradication of slavery becoming central to the war effort was both morally correct and politically savvy.
It’s not as if word about the Emancipation Proclamation immediately spread around the South. But as rumors leaked out, slaves began fleeing by the thousands to Union lines. By 1865, this would have a severe impact upon the plantation economy. Booker T. Washington remembered the day the Emancipation Proclamation became knowledge at his home:
As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom…. Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.
On the other hand, Democrats were outraged. Horatio Seymour, running for governor of New York and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 1868, called it, “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine, and of arson and murder, which would invoke the interference of civilized Europe.” But in fact, Europe largely approved of the move, although the commonly held myth that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to keep Europe from recognizing the Confederacy is significantly overstated and was only a minor factor in its existence or its timing.
By June 1865, 4 million slaves would be free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.
We see the Emancipation Proclamation as a key moment in the African-American freedom struggle, and for good reason. But it’s also an absolutely central moment in American labor history because it was the decisive moment when the nation officially rejected the system of slave labor that had built so much of the antebellum country.
This is the 118th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.