Did Lincoln Really Free the Slaves?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Several versions of the bill that abolished slavery were written before he signed the 13th Amendment as we know it today.

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Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 65: Did Lincoln really free the slaves?

‘The Consummation of the Great Game’

Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, right? Well, the truth is a bit more complicated than that; actually, the truth is very complicated, leading even usually sober commentators such as the venerable historian Lerone Bennett Jr. to cry “foul,” and to do so quite bitterly, suggesting that black people have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to “The Great Emancipator.” This week’s column, honoring another important anniversary of the Civil War, attempts to answer that question, a question as complex as Lincoln’s attitudes toward the black people he was seeking to liberate, attitudes that led Frederick Douglass himself to call Lincoln, a decade following his assassination, “the white man’s president.”

The simple answer is yes, and no. As we saw in my column last month (“Who Legalized Arming Black Men to Kill Confederates?”), the Emancipation Proclamation, despite its enormous symbolic significance, did not abolish the institution of slavery in the United States. Rather, it “freed” any slave in the Confederate states (that’s right—it did not apply to states in the Union in which slavery remained legal) who could manage to flee her or his plantation and make their way behind liberating Union lines. Historians estimate that as many as 500,000 black people managed to do this. So we might say that these black people freed themselves. To put this number into a bit of perspective, in 1860 there were about 3.9 million enslaved African Americans, which means that by the end of the Civil War, some 3.4 million black people remained in bondage, in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation. So why are African Americans free today? Because of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which Lincoln, especially, knew was essential for the permanent abolition of slavery.

Friday, Jan. 31, marks the 149th anniversary of the 13th Amendment’s triumphant passage through the House of Representatives en route to Abraham Lincoln’s desk and then eventual ratification by the states. Not only was the amendment’s command abolishing slavery the climax of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, it was the high point of the American Civil War, fulfilling in the timeless book of law what President Abraham Lincoln had initiated only as a wartime measure in the Emancipation Proclamation two years before. As Lincoln himself would explain in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the 13th Amendment (he didn’t refer to it by name) offered redemption for what many believed was the original sin of slavery—a sin North and South had shouldered since the nation’s founding.

Reaching for a deeper understanding of the Almighty’s mysterious ways—His felt but unseen presence hovering over the war—Lincoln orated:

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’ ”

The 13th Amendment, embodying that repayment—at least in part—is the only amendment in American history to be ratified with a president’s signature on it, a testament to Lincoln’s close, personal identification with its mandate. (That’s because it isn’t necessary for the president to sign; to reach ratification, as Article V of the Constitution outlines, an amendment needs only the support of 1. two-thirds of both the U.S. House and Senate, and 2. three-quarters of the states.)

As Lincoln commented when the band came playing at the White House on the day he signed it on Feb. 1, 1865, the 13th Amendment went well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Not only did it erase any lingering doubt that abolition would pass constitutional muster (at the time, there was still a worry that the Supreme Court could strike down the Emancipation Proclamation as an abuse of executive power). The amendment was to reach all of the United States—not just the Confederacy—across generations, whereas the more modest Emancipation Proclamation, in Lincoln’s telling, had been limited by perceptions “that it only aided those [slaves] who came into [Union] lines and that it was inoperative as to those who did not give themselves up, or that it would have no effect upon the children of the slaves born hereafter.” In other words, contrary to what we were taught in school, it was the 13th Amendment that finally put an end to the institution of slavery in the United States and not the Emancipation Proclamation.

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