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 He now believed the Constitutional protection of slavery would be superseded by the constitutionally provided war powers of the executive branch.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.

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