This month marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most famous, important and misinterpreted documents in American History, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Many Americans still believe that with one stroke of the pen, President Lincoln freed all the slaves, however this is not true. Even less commonly known is the story behind the document.
First, let us look at why Lincoln issued it. Lincoln was an abolitionist; however he knew in the early days of the Civil War that if the war was seen as being about freeing the slaves, the cause would lose northern support. (In most of the diaries and journals I read from Sherman’s men who marched through South Carolina in 1865, most of the soldiers still viewed the war as a war to save the Union and not to free the slaves.) However, as the North suffered numerous defeats in the early years of the war support for the war waned. Consequently, Lincoln started viewing freeing the slaves as a way to boost Northern morale.
More importantly, Lincoln was scared that England and France might recognize the Confederacy and lend support for the Southern war effort. This fear dictated much of Lincoln’s foreign policy throughout his administration. He correctly surmised that if the Civil War became a war about slavery, European support for the South would decline.
However, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, was concerned that if the Emancipation Proclamation was issued without a major Union victory, Europeans might view it as a desperation act by the U.S. government. He persuaded Lincoln to shelve the order until the North had a significant military victory. The Battle of Antietam gave Lincoln the opportunity he needed. (Yes, technically the battle was a draw, but that was good enough for Abe.)
Another reason for issuing the document is that it solved an embarrassing problem that had haunted the administration during the first two years of the war: what to do with slaves in occupied Southern territories?
Prior to the proclamation, some Federal generals took it upon themselves to declare slaves in the area they controlled freed. Others claimed slaves as contraband and kept them for their own use or tried to sell them for profit. This occasionally led to the Lincoln administration having to order slaves returned to their masters. Needless to say, both of these situations left the administration politically battered and bruised.
As for the document itself, a careful reading of it shows that it only freed the slaves “Within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.”
This means that slavery was still legal in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia. It did not apply to Tennessee, as that state was viewed as subdued by the North. Significantly, Lincoln issued it as “Commander-in- Chief of the Army and Navy” making this a military order, not a civilian one.
Furthermore, slavery was protected by the U.S. Constitution and remained so until the 13th Amendment to the constitution was adopted in 1865. For these reasons, many scholars argue that had the proclamation been challenged in court, which it never was, it would have been struck down.
Consequently, some view the Emancipation Proclamation as “the Great Fraud” of American History. Others view it as one of this nation’s greatest documents. And while I feel both sides have valid points, I prefer to see it as one of the savviest political moves in American history.