Monday, December 15, 2008

Emancipation Part 7: Aftermath

The reality of emancipation as part of the Lincoln Administration's policy met with some stiff resistance. Lincoln had felt that the time was right for shifting the nation's policy towards slavery from tolerance of the concept as a "necessary evil" to a proactive push towards its eventual eradication.

Resistance to the concept of Emancipation sprung up everywhere. Those who favored peace with the Confederacy (the so called "Copperheads") saw this as evidence that the war wasn't about keeping the union together, but to free slaves. (As an aside, the rage over the Emancipation proclamation shows that modern apologists for the Confederacy have a difficult time justifying their argument that the Civil War was not about slavery). Lincoln's political opponents used it as an excuse to block other important legislation. When the lack of military success was also considered, it seemed that Lincoln's choice of tactics was backfiring on him.

But Lincoln bided his time. The people of the North were generally in favor of continuing the war, and recognized now that slavery, and the economics of slavery, were primary causes in the destruction of the Union. Public opinion was changing, and the Proclamation was the catalyst.

For those who argue that the Emancipation Proclamation technically set no slaves free, and that Lincoln himself was a racist, who viewed the black race as inferior, and that the Proclamation was a political ruse to use blacks as soldiers (while not offering them equality) and to incite slave rebellions in the south, I offer you the history of Lincoln's enforcement of the Proclamation and his ever evolving attitude towards slavery and the black race as repudiation.

First, amending the Constitution to abolish slavery became Lincoln's next primary goal. Because the Proclamation didn't apply to slave states that stayed loyal to the Union, and there was a question regarding its ongoing application in the event the war came to an end, Lincoln knew that legally, it was the only way to truly ban slavery. After Congress ratified the Amendment in January of 1865, Lincoln made it a primary component of his reconstruction plan. If any Confederate state was to be readmitted to the Union, it would have to adopt the 13th Amendment. It heartened the President greatly when the border states began to consider the measure, and Maryland, West Virgina and Missouri (all slave states that did not join the Confederacy) ratified the amendment through a vote of the citizenry by the end of February, 1865. Thus, three of the key slave union-loyal slave states themselves voted to make slavery illegal long before the war was over, or even had turned in the Union's favor. This could not have happened without Lincoln's leadership with the Proclamation.

What about Lincoln's view of African Americans? Hadn't he said during the Lincoln/Douglas Debates that he believed Negros could never be the equals of Whites, and didn't he favor the collective relocation of freed slaves to a new colony in Africa or Central America? Yes, those had been his views. But Lincoln was never one to cling to a wrong idea once he realized it was wrong.

First off, Lincoln had allowed for Black men to serve in the army. This was a major change. Frederick Douglass had recognized that if Blacks could serve in the army, it would be harder for White society in general to look down on men who had served their country and given their lives. Douglass was even involved in the active recruiting of free Blacks in the North. But there were issues that came out of the recruiting of Blacks. Congress had passed regulations approving of Black recruitment, but had established the pay scale of black soldiers at significantly lower rates than whites. Also, no African Americans were allowed to be promoted as officers. Finally, the Confederate authorities promised to treat black soldiers taken prisoner harshly, vowing slavery or death for any such soldiers captured. Douglass was so infuriated with these three injustices that he refused to continue with his recruiting efforts, and asked to meet with Lincoln to demand change.

When Lincoln met with Douglass, he assured him that all of these issues would be addressed. The pay scale would be equalized, worthy black soldiers would receive their commissions as officers, and their would be recriminations brought and similar punishment dealt to a Confederate prisoner for each mistreated black soldier. Lincoln explained that the reason he had delayed these measures was that he wanted the African American soldiers to prove themselves in battle first -- for "white society" had not been ready to accept them as equals. Now that Black soldiers had proved their mettle, it was time to elevate their status. Douglass saw tremendous wisdom in these tactics, and was thrilled with the President's openness and acceptance of both him as an individual, and for his race as a whole.

When Lincoln's re-election looked bleak, he took action to ensure the spirit of the Proclamation. Fearing that a Democratic 'Copperhead" might be elected in his place, he called together a group of free African American leaders, and laid out a "secret plan." In the even he was defeated, he would secretly authorize federal agents (many of them needing to be African Americans to accomplish the task) to infiltrate Confederate territory and convince and help as many slaves as possible to escape into Union held territory. This way, even if the policy of emancipation would be reversed, as many people as possible would acieve their freedom.

Finally, Lincoln's reconstruction plan included full citizenship for Negros. "Black laws," common in many Northern states, which prohibited blacks from serving on juries, or owning property, or testifying in court, would be struck down. His most controversial concept, announced in a speech Lincoln gave in the wake of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, would allow for freed slaves to have the right to vote.

By the time the war had come to an end, Lincoln's views had come full circle. He not only believed slavery was wrong, but believed it should be eradicated. He not only believed that African Americans should not be held as chattel, but that they deserved equal standing with all other American citizens.

I often wonder what would have happened had Lincoln not been killed by an assassin right as these policies were maturing. Had his sure hand and discerning mind shepherded our country through the reconstruction of the Union, would there have been the reverses in policy that allowed for institutionalized segregation and the limits of the rights of freed slaves? We will never know, but I can't help but think that Lincoln's leadership, proven and tested true in the eyes of the American people, would have helped make the civil rights movement a reality generations before it became a reality. And we might not have waited as long as the 2008 election to see our first African American President.

Emancipation is Lincoln's true legacy. The Emancipation Proclamation was just the beginning. And while the darker side of our society's soul has prolonged racial injustice far too long, the seed Lincoln planted has borne great fruit, despite ourselves. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln spoke of the concept of the "better angels of our nature." Freedom, emancipation, and equality sprang from that concept. And while it has been a struggle, it lives on today, stronger than ever.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Emancipation Part 6: Following Through

The overall reaction to Lincoln's announcement in September 1862 of the pending issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation was decidedly mixed. While many hailed the concept as right and necessary, there were negative reactions all over the political landscape. Radical Republicans who wanted to abolish slavery everywhere thought the Proclamation didn't go far enough. Conservative Democrats who wanted to end the war begrudgingly recognized the military necessity of depriving the Confederacy of its slave labor. Many feared it would demoralize the army. Indeed, commanding general George McClellan wrote to Lincoln that he could not bear the concept of fighting a war for "such an accursed doctrine" as Emancipation, which he considered a backhanded attempt to arouse a slave rebellion, which he viewed as undignified. Confederate authorities were of course especially critical, castigating the President for inciting a slave insurrection that would destroy their society.

Not a lot of commentary flowed from the White House after the announcement of the Proclamation. Many predicted that Lincoln would lose his nerve, and not follow through. The many military setbacks suffered by the North, particularly the disaster at Fredricksburg, seemed to indicate that pushing the issue of fighting slavery AND the war a difficult combination, if peace and leaving slavery intact was a possibility.

But Lincoln remained resolute. Even though the warning signs were there, that issuing the Proclamation could damage the Union's war effort, Lincoln refused to consider going back on his word.

And as he prepared to officially issue the Proclamation on New Year's Day, 1863, there was one major revision to the draft Proclamation that would be included. Lincoln was going to include a statement authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers for the first time in U.S. History.

Lincoln had hesitated to do this in the original draft. He feared that white soldiers in the Union ranks would not tolerate fighting beside blacks. He feared such a radical move would splinter the delicate coalition of conservatives who favored slavery, but also wanted to preserve the Union. But as the general public began to understand the requirements for waging a prolonged war, one thing was clear -- thousands of men were fighting and dying on any given day. There was a need for recruits. Lincoln felt the time was right for crossing this threshold.

On New Year's Day, 1863, Lincoln started his day in his office, making the final revisions to the historic document, and sent his hand written notes via messenger to the State Department, where it would be printed. He met with military leaders, and by 11 am was ready for the formal ceremony to execute the Proclamation. But as he took his pen in hand, he read over the printed page and realized there was a glaring typographical error. This would not due. It would have to be reset and reprinted. Because the traditional White House New Year's reception was about to begin, the execution of the Proclamation wold have to wait.

Its interesting to note that those who met the President at the reception noted he had a tired, worn look. He seemed preoccupied and distant. Many attributed this to Lincoln still being in mourning over the death of his son the previous year. But the members of his cabinet understood that Lincoln was anxious about the Proclamation.

At around 2 pm, having finished shaking thousands of well wishers' hands, Lincoln returned to his office. The Secretary of State appeared with the corrected Proclamation. Lincoln dispensed with his usual "small talk," and insisted he sign the document immediately. The parchment paper was unrolled, and Lincoln "took a pen, dipped it in ink, moved his hand to the place fo the signature," but then stopped. Those around saw that his hand trembled, and he put the pen down.

"I never in my life felt more cetain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper," Lincoln mused, "If my name goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it." He complained that his arm was nearly numb from shaking hands for the previous three hours. "If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation," he said, "all who examine the document hereafter will say, `He Hesitated.'" Lincoln therefore waited in silence for a minute or so, took up the pen again, and very "slowly and carefully" wrote his name. An assistant commented that the signature appeared "unusually bold, clear, and firm, even for him," which brought a laugh from everyone in the room. Secretary of State Seward then signed in his place, and the document was taken back to the State Department to be copied for the press.

The delay into the afternoon of issuing the Proclamation caused a lot of consternation for those waiting for its news. It was not until late in the evening that Abolitionist leaders in places like Boston, where Frederick Douglass was waiting for the news, would receive word that the Proclamation was law. An immediate celebration broke out all over the North, particularly in communities where free blacks resided.

There was criticism, yes. The immediate effect of the Proclamation was limited. It affected only the slaves in the Confederate States, behind enemy lines (the exact language of the Proclamation even exempted territory in the South currently under the control of the Union Army, such as portions of Louisiana, Virginia and Tennessee). But the one thing the Proclamation did was effect a paradigm shift in the attitude of the North, and the way the national government treated the issue of slavery.

Up until this point, slavery had been the Union's "dirty little secret." Well, not a secret, but it was like the bad habit you have that you want to stop doing, but just can't. Or like the annoying relative you have to invite over for Christmas. It was part of the framework of American society, and even though most folks admitted it wasn't necessarily a moral, uplifting concept, it was defended, because such a huge segment of the country insisted it needed to be defended.

The Proclamation changed all that. The Fugitive Slave laws required that escaped slaves be returned to their rightful owners, even if the slave had escaped into a "free state." Now, not only were these laws inapplicable in the South, but the army that once was required to return these fugitive slaves would recruit them, arm them, and use them to help secure the freedom of other slaves. A Boston newspaper editor expressed what most of the country was now realizing -- "Slavery from this hour ceases to be a political power in this country." Lincoln knew all too well -- once this bridge was crossed, there was no return. In his annual address to Congress in December, Lincoln had noted "We cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."

I have gleaned most of the information on the Proclamation which I share with you in these entries from the book "Team of Rivals," by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Ms. Goodwin connects the speech Lincoln gave in December of 1862 to the Proclamation, even though Lincoln didn't mention it in the speech. For later, Lincoln was visited by an old friend from Illinois who had known him from the beginning. Lincoln, as a younger man, had suffered through a severe depression after the death of a woman he had planned to marry, and from a sense that his life was worthless, because he "had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived." Recalling those darker days, Lincoln noted to his friend that in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, "my fondest hopes will be realized." Indeed, preserving the Union was a very high ideal. But even if the war failed, Lincoln had followed his conscience. When asked about what he felt was his life's greatest accomplishment up to that point, in his remaining years, Lincoln would remember that New Year's Day in 1863, and note that he could not have done a greater thing.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Emancipation Part 5: Going Public

On September 17, 1862, the Union and Confederate armies clashed in a field just adjacent to the Antietam Creek in Maryland. The Confederate High Command felt an invasion of Union territory would bring the horror of war closer to the Northern people. They also believed that the residents of Maryland, a "border state" (a slave state that had stayed loyal to the Union) would rise up in support of the rebellion. Confederate commanders were mistaken. The citizens of Maryland viewed the rebel army as invaders. And, the Union army was ready for them, having discovered General Lee's secret battle plan by mistake (a Confederate courier had used a copy of the invasion plan as a wrapper for cigars, and dropped it on the roadside).

The battle of Antietam proved to be the single most bloody day in American history. Over 3.600 American soldiers died that day (which doesn't count the tens of thousands wounded and missing, and for those who died of their wounds later). But the Union army held their ground, and drove the Confederates back into Virginia. While Union forces would fail to follow up with the crushing blow that could have wiped out the Army of Northern Virginia, it was the first bit of positive news for the North in the Eastern Theater after over a year of the war.

It was all President Lincoln needed. He had been waiting, holding his draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his "back pocket," and now he had the battlefield victory that would give the publicizing of the Proclamation the authority it needed.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln convened his cabinet to make the announcement. In the midst of the historic occasion, Lincoln opened the meeting by telling one of his usual humorous anecdotes. But he quickly became somber. He noted that he had waited for a military triumph to release the Proclamation, and that even as Lee's army had come into Union territory, he had decided "as soon as it should be driven out," he would make the Proclamation public. "I said nothing to anyone, but I made the promise to myself . . . " Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, recalled that Lincoln's voice trailed off at that moment, and he was silent for a time, and then added "and to my Maker." Welles noted that it was not common for Lincoln to reference his faith or religious beliefs in his dealings with the cabinet, except "there were occasions hen, uncertain how to proceed . . . he would in this way submitted the disposal of the subject to a Higher Power, and abided by what seemed the Supreme Will. "

As before, Lincoln made it clear he was not seeking his advisors' advice regarding the wisdom of the document; he only sought help with potential revisions to strengthen the wording. He then unfolded the document, and began to read. It was essentially the same as the draft he had shared months before, but he had revised it some to strengthen the arguments regarding the issue of his "war powers," that is, one of the arguments for emancipation was the prevention of the Confederate use of slave labor to assist them in the war effort.

There was little debate. Several of Lincoln's cabinet secretaries who leaned toward teh abolitionist position were thrilled, while the more conservative members were still concerned about the reaction of the loyal slave states. Ultimately, the only change made was to take out language that limited the enforcement of the document to the current administration. Lincoln had initially been hesitant to promise to bind future administrations. They all agreed -- once this bold move was made, it had to be upheld forever.

And thus, the Emancipation Proclamation was published on September 23, 1862. It would not take effect until January 1, 1863, allowing for rebel states to have one last chance to return to the Union before it took effect. Lincoln believed it would change the course of the war, but still wondered how it would be received. "I can only trust God I have made no mistake," he would say to a crowd of well wishers the day he released the news, "It is now for the country and the world to pass judgment on it."

Interestingly, most Abolitionist leaders still didn't trust Lincoln. The Proclamation was too much like a legal document, and in reality, as one critic put it, "it did not and could not affect the status of a single negro." But even Frederick Douglass, who had been especially critical of the President's slavery policies up to this point, saw this as a complete change. "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree," he declared. While many thought that negative reaction might cause the President to reconsider, Douglass was quite open about his own observations of Lincoln's character. "No, Abraham Lincoln will take no step backward," he noted. "Lincoln may be slow . . . but [he] is not the man to reconsider, retract, or contradict words and pirposes solemnly proclaimed over his official signature. . . If he has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word." Lincoln made this all too clear on several occasions -- he had made a promise to the African American community he would never back down on. "My word is out to these people," he said to a legislator, "and I can't take it back."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Emancipation Part 4: Lincoln Prepares

Thus, after presenting his draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, and getting no strong objection from any of the men he trusted as his closest advisers, Lincoln's course was set. While time passed, and there was no public indication that Lincoln was considering this bold move, Lincoln noted in his private writings that he thought about the Proclamation constantly. He was continually re-reading and editing the document, "touching it up here and there, anxiously watching the progress of events" for a positive military development that would allow him to present the Proclamation. But while he waited, he also personally resolved to educate the general public, to "prepare the ground" for the Proclamation's acceptance, and to sway public opinion in favor of the concept of emancipation. One of Lincoln's guiding principles as a politician had always been "with the public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed."

Lincoln knew that one of the concerns the general public in the North would have with the concept of universal emancipation was the pervasive fear that the white and black races could not live together peacefully in a free society. Part of this grew out of the misguided concept that blacks were inherently inferior. Others, like Lincoln himself observed in the Lincoln/Douglas debates, were concerned that the general backwardness and lack of education in the slave population would make it difficult for freed slaves to meld with society in general. Lincoln's answer to this problem was to propose a plan for the voluntary emigration of freed slaves, either back to Africa or to a destination in Central America, which would purportedly solve the thorny problem of intermixing white and black society.

To foster this idea, Lincoln invited a leadership delegation of freed slaves to a meeting at the White House (the first time in history African Americans had ever been asked to the White House to do anything but act as servants). He hoped to convince them of the efficacy of his plan, and then have them "sell it" to the African American community -- it would be better to have free slaves colonized elsewhere in their own new country, like Liberia in Africa, then to attempt to stay and try and fit in with whites.

While Lincoln felt positive about the meeting, and the African American leaders who participated apparently agreed to help, the response from prominent blacks across the country was not positive. Black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, argued that they had all been born in America, and had as much right to be American citizens as any native born citizen. They viewed Lincoln's proposal as hypocritical -- a country that prided itself on being a haven of refuge for the oppressed of other countries would consider sending its most oppressed class of people into exile -- "the entire colored population, sent to a distant shore." Frederick Douglass himself called the plan "ridiculous," and accused the President of showing "pride of race and blood" and a "contempt for Negroes." Douglass argued that his people had originally been forced to come to America in chains. Slavery was the problem, not the African race. Had Blacks come to America as free immigrants, like the sizeable Irish and German populations in America, they would not have become "the objects of aversion and bitter persecution."

Lincoln had apparently guessed wrong on this concept. He had tried to exercise empathy, placing himself in the black man's shoes, and suggest what he thought was best for them. He had no idea that freed blacks all over America had a deep sense of patriotism and were outraged at the concept of being sent away. Lincoln's views of African Americans appeared to be evolving, as he learned more about them, and came into more close contact with them, especially with men like Frederick Douglass. He was soon to come to the conclusion that Blacks were worthy to be equal with whites on all fronts, and not with regards to freedom from slavery.

Indeed, there is some notion that Lincoln may have used the colonization issue as a ruse -- that he was never truly convinced it was a feasible option. Some scholars claim that he presented the plan as just one way of making emancipation more palatable to the general public -- that this was all part of his plan to win 'public sentiment." If that was the case, it was clearly a misstep. Even his own cabinet members railed against the colonization plan.

But the most pointed criticism Lincoln would receive came from the radicals and abolitionists, specifically from newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who published an open letter to Lincoln in the New York Tribune on August 20, 1862, critical of Lincoln's apparent waffling on the slavery issue. Entitled "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," the crux of the complaint was that if Lincoln was to truly to win the war, he needed to eradicate slavery. Slavery was the source of the rebellion, and therefore, "all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile."

Lincoln saw this as a golden opportunity. He could publicly respond to Greeley's letter and educate the masses regarding the important link he saw between emancipation and military necessity. Lincoln argued, "My paramount objective 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 all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could slave it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also so that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear because I do not believe ti would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause."

Abolitionists were outraged at Lincoln's response. They viewed this as another compromise, another cop out. They were unaware that Lincoln had already committed himself to freeing the slaves, and as hoping his letter would prove to "soften the blow" of a controversial executive order. By saying he was willing to "do more," but perhaps not "free all," he had primed the public for what he truly wanted to do. Now, all he had to do was wait for that elusive military victory to release his plan to the public.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Emancipation Part 3: Lincoln Shows His Hand

From the start of the Civil War, Lincoln's views on slavery had been what I would consider a "compromise" view. He was not an abolitionist -- he did not wish to ban slavery altogether, because he felt the Constitution protected an individual state in its choice to adopt slavery. On the other hand, he personally viewed slavery as immoral and and wrong, and felt that the federal government could prohibit slavery in any territory under its own jurisidiction (including the territories of the west that had not yet attained statehood), and could insist that a new state could not be admitted to the union unless it banned slavery. Under this view, Lincoln and politicians like him believed that slavery could be contained in the states where it already existed, where it would eventually "die" of its own accord as the industrial development of the country made slavey obsolete.

The Civil War changed that view for Lincoln. He saw the concept of slavery as an invaluable aid to the rebellion, as slave labor was directly assisting the Confederate army, and indirectly helping the cause by tending to the farms and factories back home, well behind enemy lines. Lincoln felt he needed to make a bold move. Throughout the early months of 1862, he was evolving a plan.

On a gloomy Sunday morning in July, 1862, Lincoln was attending the funeral of the infant child of one of his cabinet members. As he rode in a carriage to the cemetery with a few of his cabinet members, Lincoln began thinking out loud. He announced he was thinking about "emancipating the slaves by proclamation in case the rebels did not cease to persist in their war." He revealed that he had been meditating on this concept for months, concluding it was now a military necessity "essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves, or be ourselves subdued." He now believed the Constitutional protection of slavery would be superseded by the constitutionally provided war powers of the executive branch.

The cabinet members present were surprised -- they noted this was a "new departure for the President," because in all their previous discussion, Lincoln had been "prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the general government" with the question of slavery.

It was another two weeks before Lincoln brought the matter up at an official cabinet meeting. In fact, it was a "special" meeting, summoning the cabinet as if there was an emergency.

Lincoln opened the meeting by presenting the general concept that something needed to be done to deal with the slave problem as a military problem. Slaves being used in support of the rebellion would not do. The President proceeded to propose several military orders he was thinking of enacting. One would allow the Union army to appropriate any property within Confederate territory needed to sustain itself in the field. A second order called for paying wages to any black man hired by the Union army as a laborer. Lincoln was looking to use these orders to instigate a "more vigorous prosecution of the war." But as the cabinet debated the second of these proposals, the question came up -- if the Union army was going to hire blacks, why not give them arms and send them into battle with the army? This debate split the cabinet, some arguing for the necessity of the concept, others feeling that society wasn't ready for former slaves carrying weapons. The debate raged for hours. Lincoln seemed inclined to not wish to decide the question, and adjourned the meeting to continue the next day.

Lincoln had apparently used the first "special" meeting to "prime the pump," so to speak. For at the next day's meeting, he took charge. The purpose of that meeting was for Lincoln to share a first draft of an emancipation proclamation. Before reading it, he noted that his cabinet was divided on the details of how to deal with slavery. But he was adamant. They would hear what he had to say, and he was open to suggestions for revisions to his draft, but he made it clear -- he had made up his mind, and he had not called them together to debate the issue of whether the proclamation was issued or not. He then proceeded to read aloud what one scholar declared to be "a legal brief for emancipation based on the chief executive's powers as commander in chief."

The draft proclaimed that on January 1 of the following year, all slaves in states in rebellion would "thenceforward and forever" be free. While hundreds of thousands of slaves in the border states remained in bondage, this was a bold move. With a stoke of his pen, Lincoln would supersede the regulations of slaves as property in all the Confederate States. 3.5 million black persons were promised freedom. While enforcement of this sweeping measure was notably absent, it was simple and direct.

There was discussion, but little debate. There were concerns about reception in the border states. There were concerns about white society in the north being unaccepting of the concept of allowing freed slaves into American society. Some members felt the proclamation went too far, that the military orders were sufficient. One argument in favor was that the European powers that might intervene on the Confederacy's behalf had already outlawed slavery -- if the North made the war a war to fight slavery, the foreigners couldn't support the South. On the flip side, it was recognized that racist whites would object to fighting and dying to free blacks.

But in the end, not one of Lincoln's cabinet members vigorously opposed the measure. But Secretary of State William Seward made one suggestion. Because the war was going so badly, releasing the news of the Proclamation then would appear an act of desperation, making overall support for the measure in the North fleeting. Lincoln agreed with this wisdom.

So, the Emancipation Proclamation was put on the "back burner," waiting for a decisive military victory that would allow Lincoln to publicize it without seeming desperate to his own constituents, or vindictive to the Confederates.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Emancipation Part 2: The Evolution of Emancipation

At the outset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln appeared to be a "conservative" on the subject of slavery. Unlike the radical elements of his Republican party, Lincoln was not an abolitionist. During the Lincoln/Douglas debates of the 1850s, and during the Presidential campaign of 1860, his stance was "status quo." He opposed slavery as a concept -- condemning it as a social evil, yet he was willing to allow it to continue to exist in the states where it was legal because it was so deeply ingrained in Southern society as well as sustained by the Constitution. The one thing he was not willing to compromise on was slavery must not expand into any new territory the United States had acquired, or into any new States that might be admitted to the Union.

Besides the Constitutional argument, Lincoln was walking a tight rope as he took office in 1860. Several of the slave states had chosen not to join the Confederacy -- the "border states" -- and Lincoln needed to do what he could to keep them in the fold. His first inaugural address dealt with the concept of compromise -- a willingness to keep any seceding State in the Union, even to protect such a State's slave holders with added legal measures, if that would preserve the Union. After the war started, when Union generals and even a member of his own cabinet issued bold, anti-slavery statements, Lincoln censured them, declaring that only he had the power to change the administration's stance on slavery.

But as the War ground on into its second year, in the summer of 1862, the subject of slavery became more and more a part of the debate on why the war was being waged. Even the neo-Confederates of today will argue the war wasn't fought over slavery, but for "state's rights." Many of the "conservative" elements of the 1862 political scene tried to frame the issues in a similar way. But even when Congress was debating some other measure -- a banking bill, or war finances, or tariffs -- the argument would invariably stray back into how the nation would deal with the question of slavery.

And the attitudes in the North were changing. Slavery had almost been a taboo subject before the war, for fear of offending powerful southern politicians. But now, seeing that slavery was the genesis of the destruction of the Union, much of the opinion in the North turned against the slaveholders, holding them responsible for the war. And President Lincoln's own personal views seemed to be evolving as well.

Lincoln's "official" stance on the slavery question remained "status quo," that is, without a Constitutional Amendment, it would still be legal in the southern states where it was practiced, but he adamantly opposed allowing it to expand elsewhere. But in some of his speeches, and in his private correspondence, he began formulating a concept for emancipation.

Then, in the spring of 1862, Lincoln proposed a joint administrative/congressional resolution providing federal aid to any state willing to commit to the concept of gradual emancipation. This "concept" could take on a variety of forms -- the resolution suggested slaves being set free upon reaching a certain age, or the state setting a date certain when slavery would be abolished. The federal dollars would be used to recompense the slave owners for the value of their "property." Privately, Lincoln shared that if the border states were to commit to end slavery, there would be no chance they would join the Confederacy in the future, and he hoped this would help the Confederate cause to "lose heart."

The joint resolution met received little support. Many argued that it would be unfair to "punish" the slaveholders in the loyal states by forcing them to radically alter their society, while the rebel states retained their slaves. There was also a sense that the Federal treasury couldn't handle the cost.

At the same time, however, Congress took it upon itself to pass a bill calling for a similar plan for compensated emancipation for the District of Columbia. Lincoln did not hesitate to sign the bill, declaring that he always believed that congress could abolish slavery in the territory under its own jurisdiction.

Then, Congressional "radicals" began to attempt to reach into the Confederacy to fight slavery. Earlier, Congress had passed a "confiscation" act, aimed at seizing the property of those openly rebelling against the United States in military conflict. This first bill had only called for the capture of slaves who were being used to participate in military activities (digging earthworks at the front, acting as support for the troops, etc.), while leaving the slaves tending farms alone. The new bill went a lot further, calling for the confiscation of all property of any person supporting the rebellion, even if not involved in military action. Presumably, this meant the slaves of Confederate officers who staid home to tend the plantation in thier master's absence.

This new bill, known as the "Second Confiscation Act," was highly controversial, as it moved into the realm of a matter presumably guaranteed by the Constitution. The editors of the nation's newspapers were surprised when Lincoln signed the bill into law.

The debates over slavery continued to mount, becoming more and more bitter. Every debate on the House or Senate floor became an argument over the viability of slavery. Even in Lincoln's cabinet, the secretaries of the various departments chose sides, and their meetings were filled with side bars about how far to go to allow for or ban slavery, to the point where official business was often shelved. Lincoln appeared to generally not take part in these debates -- he listened, taking it all in. When he did comment, Lincoln insisted that as President, he couldn't take sides. He agreed with the abolitionists that slavery was a "moral, a social, and a political wrong," but felt compelled by the Constitution to allow for it in the states where it already existed.

But depressing turns the war was taking gave Lincoln pause. The Union Army had suffered defeat after crushing defeat, particularly in the fields of Northern Virginia, just a few miles from Washington, D.C. Lincoln began to look for more creative, even more drastic measures to save the Union and turn the tide of the war. He began to consider attacking slavery as the means to reach his goal.

It was clear that at least on the battlefield, the slave owning Confederates had an unfair advantage. Slaves were used to support the army. They dug trenches, built fortifications, served as cooks, stable hands, laborers, and hospital workers. Even more galling, most of the slaves staid home to tend the fields while their masters went to war -- the average southern gentleman could rest assured his family back home was being provided for, while the northern soldier had to leave his family to fend for themselves.

But even more important, if the south was deprived of its slave labor, and that labor force was transformed into recruits to join the Union army, the North would have a new advantage. Lincoln began to realize he had a new angle -- not only was eliminating slavery something that was part of a concept of higher morality, it had become a military necessity. As President, he could use his executive power as commander in chief to further the causes of the war. He began to see this as as emergency matter, that would trump the vague constitutional guarantee of a right to own slaves. The concept of compensated emancipation had been rejected in the border states in part because they argued that the government should be dealing with slavery where the rebellion was happening. Lincoln's views were evolving, and he began to consider that very move.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Emancipation Part 1: Prologue

I read constantly -- its part of what I do for a living, as a transactional attorney. I also do a fair amount of study outside of the office, of the Bible, and of current events. But every now and then, in the evening, I need to unwind my mind, so I often have at least one book going that has nothing to do with all of the other research i am doing -- I call it my "fun" reading, or my "escapist" reading. Something i read for pure enjoyment. Invariably its nonfiction, and its usually about history of some sort.

In the aftermath of the November elections, I was a little depressed, so I sought out some reading about politics that I thought would be uplifting. So I cracked open Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals," an incredibly well written account of the life of Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the men in presidential cabinet. I recommend it highly.

But something struck me about Lincoln and his approach to the issue that split the country apart in his day -- slavery. The seeds sown in our nation's early days still haunt us today, and in light of the ground breaking event that the election of Barak Obama as the first African American President, Lincoln's apporach to the issue of the eradication of slavery and the concept that folks of all races should be accepted in society as equals is compelling.

Much of this focuses around Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. I believe that this event marked the major turning point in the way our country dealt with issues of race. It would take over a hundred years to set in, but Lincoln's wisdom led the way.

I want to talk about this in some detail. It will take several installments of my version of a "blog" to accomplish, but I think it merits a look back.

This look back is partially inspired by modern scholarship that tries to claim that Lincoln really didn't care to eliminate slavery at all, and was actually a virulent racist. All he cared to do was to fight to preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was, in the eyes of these scholars, an elaborate ruse to try to inspire a slave rebellion in the South during the Civil War.

There is some merit to the kinds of things modern day critics of Lincoln bring up about his views about race. Many point to Lincoln's personal views about blacks. Even when arguing against slavery in the famous debates he had with Stephen Douglas, when Douglas accused Lincoln of leaning towards racial equality, Lincoln back pedaled and said that he had "no purpose to introduce political and social equality" between blacks and whites, and that "physical differences" between the races would "probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality."

A racist viewpoint? Yes, especially when considered in the light of today's society. But unlike most of his contemporaries, who viewed blacks as inferior in every respect, Lincoln disagreed. In the very next sentence after the last section of the debate quoted above, Lincoln went on to say "Notwithstanding all this . . . there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence . . . I agree that [Stephen] Douglas, he is not my equal in many respects -- certainly not in color, perhaps in moral and intellectual endowment. but in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal . . . of every living man."

While even this advocacy reeks of condescension when considered in the light of modern sensibilities, most historians note that Lincoln's view that African Americans were "equal" at all was a very radical position for that time. Note the only unequivocal statement in the previous quote regarding differences between the races is "color."

I would argue that Lincoln's prejudices were a product of his time. But what is also important to note is that Lincoln was a man who admitted when he was wrong, and learned from his mistakes. I intend to show that as Lincoln developed his ideas that eventually coalesced in the Emancipation Proclamation, he changed his mind about the African race, and came to view them not just as eligible for freedom, but complete equality.

Another stumbling block for modern historians is Lincoln's vow to preserve the Union, even if it meant keeping slavery legal in the rebel states.

This was a cornerstone of his platform for the Presidency. But it also reflects a Lincoln's understanding of Constitutional principle.

The Constitution as originally ratified impliedly recognized that slavery was legal. In Lincoln's mind, this meant that there was only two ways to eradicate slavery -- the individual state government could declare it illegal, as the northern states had done, or the Constitution needed an amendment banning slavery.

Modern scholars point to this interpretation as showing weakness on Lincoln's part. This was not new. The radical abolitionists of Lincoln's day wanted an immediate end to slavery, and they were impatient with the Lincoln Administration's willingness to compromise to avoid civil war.

But if you really look at Lincoln's concept of what slavery meant to the nation at that time, you see that his views are well founded in history and a compassionate view towards eliminating slavery. For example, in a speech given in 1954 to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed slavery to spread to the new territories west of the Mississippi, Lincoln looked back to the ratification of the Constitution, and pointed out "the plain unmistakable spirit of that age towards slavery was hostility to the principle, and toleration only by necessity" because slavery was already an integral part of much of American society. Lincoln noted that the word "slave" or "slavery" never appeared in the Constitution, opining that the Framers were indirect about it, in the same way that a man who is ill might try and hide his affliction. While others argued for "popular sovereignty," (the ability of a state or territory to vote in favor of slavery), Lincoln looked back to words of the Declaration of Independence. "No m an is good enough to govern another man without his consent." Lincoln took this argument to its logical conclusion. Negroes were men, and should not be governed by another without his consent. Slavery was therefore wrong in principle, and the law needed to be changed. But Lincoln was willing to allow for the law to change of its own accord where slavery already existed and was Constitutionally protected

This sounds to many today like a cop-out, but Lincoln was a master politician, and knew that a compromise viewpoint might prevent the war, preserve the union, and eventually allow for the legal change that would have ended slavery. Eventually, the 13th Amendment needed to be ratified to officially end slavery in the country, even after the Civil War was over. But it becomes clear that Lincoln was trying to be expedient and pragmatic, rather than having any sympathy with the concept of slavery.

And as I hope to show in the next few "episodes" of this look at the Emancipation Proclamation, he also came to change his mind about the legality of slavery.