Deserving of neither blanket condemnation nor blind exaltation, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a brave compromise.
A couple of years ago, speaking to a bipartisan group of college students about the Emancipation Proclamation, President Barack Obama commented, half jokingly, that if the executive order were signed today, headlines would scream, “Lincoln Sells Out Slaves.” His observation spoke not only to our sensationalist news culture, but also to the rocky reputation of the Proclamation itself, a document that has been both praised and damned by politicians, scholars, and activists on both sides of the ideological aisle since Lincoln announced it in 1862 and then signed it 150 years ago this year, on January 1, 1863.
The reasons behind the ups and downs in the Proclamation’s reputation are various. From the outset, it was roundly and predictably condemned by Democratic opponents, who characterized it as a brash and sweeping abuse of presidential power. Perhaps less predictably, Northern abolitionists also condemned it, but for the opposite reason. They argued that it didn’t do enough, didn’t go far enough. Since the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those slaves in rebel-held territory, abolitionists complained that it abandoned thousands of slaves, including the four loyal slave states: Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. Of the four million slaves in America at the time, the Proclamation applied to only about 3.1 million of them. It would take another three years and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 to abolish slavery throughout the United States. Adam Gurowski, a Polish radical working as a translator in the State Department at the time, despaired that “the proclamation is generated neither by Lincoln’s brains, heart or soul, and what is born in such a way is always monstrous.”
Despite Gurowski’s prediction, in the decades following the Civil War, until the middle of the twentieth century, the reputation of the Emancipation Proclamation expanded in most Americans’ estimation, reaching a rather exalted status in the American history textbooks in many of our childhoods. But then, in the 1960s, the Proclamation’s reputation began to shrivel again. Some historians began to find the prose wanting. It irked them that the Proclamation was written in legalese as a military measure, not as an expression of moral conviction—evidence, they thought, that the document was “merely” the product of political calculation and compromise. Lincoln was found wanting, too. Steeped in the realities of the nineteenth century, Lincoln’s racial attitudes seemed out of step with the times.
As the civil rights movement grew, many African Americans bristled at the high regard with which the Proclamation was remembered in American history. It may have promised freedom, they argued, but it left them with a political and economic reality that was far from free. Worse, by celebrating the Proclamation as the moment at which blacks were officially “freed,” it seemed that Americans were able to conveniently paper over the racial injustices that persisted in society. Others took umbrage at the image, immortalized in the bronze sculpture at the Emancipation Memorial in the nation’s capital, of Lincoln as Great Emancipator bestowing freedom upon a kneeling, grateful slave. Crusading young civil rights activists argued that the enslaved won their freedom not because of Lincoln but in spite of him, that slaves were the primary agents of freedom, not the white man in the White House.
More recently, some libertarians, returning to an argument first made by Lincoln’s political opponents in 1863, have again denounced the Great Emancipator as a dictator who exceeded his executive authority and issued the Proclamation not to advance freedom but to exercise power and lay the groundwork for a Leviathan state. The Emancipation Proclamation, contested in its own time, has become devalued in ours.
But like many historical events at the center of heated debate, the Emancipation Proclamation deserves neither the blanket condemnation nor the blind exaltation it has received. Instead, we should use the occasion of the sesquicentennial to take a fresh look at this embattled decree, to examine the historical context in which it emerged and to gain a renewed appreciation for its place in the story of American freedom. Above all else, we should remember Lincoln as a moral and patient politician. His pragmatic and gradual way of proceeding agitated those who wanted immediate results, but time allowed him to build public support for unpopular measures and to win allies through artful and effective compromise. “It is my conviction,” he said, “that had the Proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.”
In April 1864, a little more than a year after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln responded to critics, who decried the document as a weak half measure and its author as a cynical politician, motivated only by military ends. In a letter, Lincoln explained, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.”
That statement underscores the complex moral, social, and political reality that led Lincoln, in fits and starts over the course of more than a year, to embrace the need for the Emancipation Proclamation. When the Civil War began, he initially refused to consider a decree freeing the slaves, citing not moral qualms, but constitutional ones. In putting down what he viewed as the Southern states’ unconstitutional rebellion against the authority of the U.S. government, Lincoln would not violate his oath of office, which obligated him to uphold the Constitution. Since slavery was a state institution, governed by state law, Lincoln believed the president had no power to interfere in it.
Beyond his constitutional scruples, Lincoln had other concerns that prevented him from taking immediate, direct action against slavery. He feared that any precipitant action against the institution would deliver Kentucky, Missouri, or Maryland into Confederate hands, a shift in the balance sheet of war that could doom Union efforts. Although he probably never said it, Lincoln’s reputed comment speaks to the significance of the issue: “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” For months, Lincoln urged the border states to adopt plans of gradual emancipation that the federal government would fund, but they spurned his entreaties.
Lincoln also feared that any sweeping emancipation effort would be a gut punch to his soldiers, two-fifths of whom came from Democratic backgrounds. If he turned the war into an explicit assault on slavery, would the troops continue to fight? While they supported the Union, many would not embrace emancipation, in part because of a widespread fear that freed slaves would inundate the North. Such racial anxieties led many Americans, including Lincoln, to support far-fetched schemes of voluntary colonization to Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America as an answer to the problem of what to do with former slaves.
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