Lincoln and Emancipation

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, he unwillingly personified the schism that existed in antebellum America. To the South, Lincoln represented tyranny and oppression, the man who could accomplish by executive orders what Nat Turner and John Brown had tried and failed to do by force. Unwilling to suffer under the leadership of such a man, South Carolina and six other southern states severed ties with the Union even before Lincoln was inaugurated.  This characterization was puzzling to Lincoln, who had “repeated that he was interested only in preventing the further spread of slavery into the federally administered territories of the West.”[1] For those in the North who agreed that slavery’s expansion needed to be halted, Lincoln was their best hope to achieve this goal. Most Northern abolitionists, however, mistrusted Lincoln and his motives, and they were disappointed by his failure to emancipate the slaves early in the Civil War.[2] Thus Abraham Lincoln was placed in a most unenviable position, loathed, misunderstood, and mistrusted by nearly everyone on both sides of the slavery debate.

As president, Lincoln moved very cautiously toward emancipation, “more slowly and apparently more reluctantly…than black leaders, abolitionists, radical Republicans, and the slaves themselves wanted him to move.”[3] He did not want to overreach or overstep his constitutional authority, so he sought a solution “that would have a chance of surviving both politically and legally.”[4] Lincoln hoped that by inducing border state legislatures into a scheme of gradual, compensated emancipation, he might avoid a constitutional showdown with Chief Justice Roger Taney and his majority proslavery Supreme Court. The border states did not buy into the scheme, however, and Lincoln decided “it was time to take a further dramatic step.”[5] He approached his cabinet in July 1862 with a rough draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, telling them “that he was not asking their approval on the policy,” but that “he was open to any suggestions they might have on the specific wording.”[6] The cabinet members were divided in their reactions to the proclamation, and despite Lincoln’s admonition that the matter was already settled, several members spoke up either in favor of or opposed to the issuance of such a proclamation.[7] Secretary of State William Seward, while he agreed with Lincoln’s policy on the matter, suggested that the president should wait until the Union army had scored a decisive victory before issuing the proclamation. Otherwise, Seward explained, “It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.”[8] Lincoln agreed, later explaining that “it would sound like ‘our last shriek, on the retreat.’”[9] He shelved the proclamation and awaited a Union victory on the battlefield. Although McClellan’s defeat of Lee at Antietem fell far short of decisive, it was good enough for Lincoln’s purposes, and a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862.[10]

The differing views of Lincoln’s cabinet toward his Emancipation Proclamation can be explained by the political coalition that the new president had attempted to forge through his selection of government officials. Lincoln had consciously chosen men with a relatively diverse array of political leanings, from moderate Republicans to former Whigs and even border state former Democrats, in an attempt to shore up support from a wider constituency and thereby strengthen his own administration and the young Republican Party.[11] It was no wonder, then, that there would be such a wide range of reactions to Lincoln’s plans for emancipation. It is certainly a testament to Lincoln’s extraordinary leadership that in this case, as in so many others, he was able to harness and corral the strengths of his diverse team toward the decisive achievement of his goals.

[1] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 14.

[2] Allen C. Guelzo, “Lincoln and the Abolitionists,” The Wilson Quarterly 24, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): 60-63,

[3] James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 200,

[4] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 137.

[5] Ibid., 137-8, quotation on 138.

[6] Ibid., 139.

[7] Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 134-6.

[8] Seward quoted in Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 139.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 160-1.

[11] Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 42-6,; William W. Freehling, Road to Disunion, Volume 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 520,

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