Forum Post: 150 years ago today Our greatest President took an early step towards Fairness & Freedom for all the 99%
Posted 5 years ago on Sept. 22, 2012, 9:29 a.m. EST by VQkag2
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Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862, and the course of U.S. history
Dr. Stanley Harrold
One hundred and fifty years ago, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. This proclamation warned the Confederate states that if they remained in rebellion against the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln (as commander in chief) would on that day declare all slaves to be free in areas under Confederate control. The preliminary proclamation thereby became an important part of a series of events that changed the nature of the Civil War, revised the meaning of the U.S. Constitution and altered the course of American and especially African-American history. It is a story that goes well beyond Lincoln.
As ratified in 1788, the U.S. Constitution supported the enslavement of African-Americans. The three-fifths clause gave masters enhanced representation in Congress and the Electoral College. The fugitive slave clause provided that slaves who escaped across state lines would not become free. Instead they would be returned to their masters.
But growing Northern opposition to slavery, and Northern resistance to the return of escaping slaves, undermined white Southern support of the Union. Starting with South Carolina in December 1860, 11 lower South and middle South states seceded. They did so because the great majority of their citizens believed the U.S. government under newly elected Republican President Lincoln would seek to end slavery throughout the country. In February 1861, the Confederate States of America came into being. Yet Lincoln and his party had not called for ending slavery in the Southern states. They only opposed the expansion of slavery. Lincoln and his party in 1860 and 1861 did not stand for emancipation, black citizenship or black rights. In fact from 1860 into 1862, Lincoln enforced the Fugitive Slave Law. He feared that if he did not, the border slave states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri would leave the Union and join the Confederacy.
Well into 1862, Lincoln insisted that the North fought the Civil War not to free the slaves but only to restore the Union to what it had been before December 1860. Lincoln believed he had to maintain this limited goal in order to keep the border slave states loyal, and to avoid angering Northern Democrats who supported the war to preserve the Union but not a war to end slavery.
It is true that Lincoln disliked slavery. In 1858 he recognized the right of free black people to earn a living and to acquire property on an equal basis with white people. By early 1862 he supported emancipating the 3,000 or so slaves in the District of Columbia. He signed a bill to end slavery in all U.S. territories. But in early 1862, Lincoln had a very conservative vision for emancipation in the South and for black rights. He suggested that loyal slave states of Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky adopt state-level plans that would very gradually free all slaves within their borders. He suggested that the plans could go into operation as late as 1900. He did not believe black citizenship would work as a general proposition. He wanted emancipated slaves to leave the United States for Africa, Haiti or Central America.
Yet long-term forces favored black freedom and citizenship. The European Enlightenment that peaked during the 18th century began the idea that (as they said at the time) all men have natural rights to life, liberty and property. Enlightenment ideas inspired Great Britain’s 1833 abolition of slavery in its empire; France followed in 1848. Much earlier a movement to end slavery emerged in the American Northeast. Its supporters included African-Americans, Quakers and some other white people affected by Enlightenment principles. By 1804 every Northeastern state had adopted an emancipation plan. But relatively few slaves lived in the Northeast. Anti-black racism continued to exist in the region, and outside New England few black men could vote.
Later the abolition movement grew stronger and aimed south. Abolitionists became more radical. Starting in the 1830s, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and others, they called for immediate emancipation. They advocated equal rights for African-Americans in the United States. Unlike Lincoln and most Republicans, abolitionists opposed sending former slaves out of the country. From the start of the Civil War, abolitionists lobbied Lincoln to have Union armies fight for emancipation as well as to preserve the Union. Radical Republicans in Congress came close to the abolitionists on emancipation and black rights.
Ordinary free black people and slaves pushed toward emancipation. Early in the war, black men attempted without success to enlist in Union armies. Their actions encouraged abolitionists to link black enlistment with calls to make emancipation a Union war goal. In effect abolitionists pointed the way to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, slaves escaping to Union lines pressed on Union army officers the issue of their status.
Black and abolitionist pressure for emancipation coexisted with a war that encouraged that pressure. As slavery caused the Civil War, the war in turn created circumstances favorable to action for emancipation. Union battlefield failures through 1862 enhanced these circumstances. In response to repeated defeats, Douglass, other abolitionists and Radical Republicans insisted that to defeat the Confederacy, the Union had to make emancipation a war aim backed by black soldiers. The Union, in Douglass’ words, had to “unchain against her foes her powerful black hand.” Union generals, especially David Hunter in South Carolina in May 1862, pressed the issue of enlisting former slaves into Union armies. Lincoln ordered Hunter to back off. But Lincoln came to realize that he might need black men to fight for the Union, and that meant fighting the war for emancipation.
Other events pushed toward the Preliminary Proclamation. In July 1862 Congress amended the Militia Act of 1793 and passed the Second Confiscation Act. These actions anticipated the Preliminary Proclamation and encouraged it. The Militia Act amendment authorized the enlistment of black men into Union armies and provided for freedom to those enlisted. The Second Confiscation Act declared “forever free” slaves of masters in rebellion against the U.S. It specifically empowered Lincoln to enlist back soldiers.
Yet Lincoln still preferred state-level gradual emancipation over immediate military emancipation. If any of the border slave states had accepted his suggestion that they undertake gradual emancipation, he may never have moved toward general emancipation in the Confederacy. Therefore the Border States’ rejection, during the summer of 1862, of state-level gradual abolition constituted another turning point toward the Preliminary Proclamation. When these states refused to do as Lincoln wanted, he began to consider immediate emancipation by federal action in the Confederacy.
Paradoxically the same Union battlefield failures that made an emancipation decree attractive led Lincoln to postpone issuing the Preliminary Proclamation. On July 22, Lincoln proposed to his cabinet to announce that he would on January 1, 1863 declare free all slaves within Confederate controlled areas, unless those areas returned to the Union before that date. In response, Secretary of State William Seward warned Lincoln that such a declaration, following a series of Union battle-field defeats, would suggest weakness rather than principle. As a result, Lincoln decided to await a Union battlefield victory before issuing the Preliminary Proclamation.
That victory came at the Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1863. Antietam was not so decisive a victory as Lincoln wanted. But he considered it enough of a victory to allow him to issue the Preliminary Proclamation. As previously mentioned, that proclamation on September 22 gave each Confederate state a choice: return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, or face emancipation of its slaves. The Preliminary Proclamation also stated that black men would on Jan. 1 become eligible to be combat soldiers in Union armies.
Lincoln, and nearly everyone else, knew on Sept. 22, 1862, that the Confederates would not, as a result of these threats, give up fighting a war they intended to win. Therefore Sept. 22 may have been the date when a war for emancipation and the large-scale employment of black troops became inevitable. In this sense, the Final Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln signed on Jan. 1, 1863, was anticlimactic. It included a long quotation from the Preliminary Proclamation. It declared that about 3 million enslaved African-Americans “are and henceforth shall be free.” It ordered the U.S. armed forces to protect that freedom. It authorized the enlistment of black men into Union armies.
Critics at the time and since have pointed out that the Final Proclamation did not affect slavery in the border slave states, or in portions of the Confederacy occupied by Union troops. Yet, with the Final Proclamation, slavery could not survive in the Border South. More important, from Jan. 1, 1863, onward, Northern troops fought for black freedom as well as preservation of the Union. Slaves became free immediately as Union armies advanced into Confederate territory. The war to restore the Union as it had been before December 1860 ended on Jan. 1, 1863. An old U.S. Constitution that recognized slavery died; a new Constitution that recognized black freedom stirred to life. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments formalized this change. Black freedom suffered a terrible setback as Reconstruction ended in failure. It took the mid-20th-century’s civil rights movement to revive that freedom and extend it.