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.

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