Book Excerpt: Lincoln's Careful Approach to the Emancipation Proclamation
In his latest book, renowned historian Eric Foner explains how the Great Emancipator decided to avoid a legal challenge by making his bold act a military order. But that also left 800,000 blacks in chattel slavery.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln presided at the annual White House New Year's reception. Later that afternoon, he retired to his study to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The first time he attempted to affix his signature, he stopped and laid down his pen. His hand was shaking, not from nervousness, but because of exhaustion. "I do not want it to appear as if I hesitated," he said. After a moment of repose, he signed the Proclamation. Ever concerned with his place in history, Lincoln knew he would be remembered for this act. In 1863 and 1864, he would make himself available to artists, photographers and sculptors who portrayed him as the Emancipator. He allowed the artist Francis B. Carpenter to live in the White House for four months while painting The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Proclamation declared that all the slaves in the areas to which it applied -- over 3 million men, women and children -- "are and henceforth shall be free." It ordered the army and navy to "recognize and maintain" that freedom. It enjoined emancipated slaves to refrain from violence, except in "necessary self-defence," and urged them to "labor faithfully for reasonable wages." For the first time, it authorized the enrollment of black soldiers into the "armed service" of the United States.
So many layers of myth have enveloped the Emancipation Proclamation that its actual content is often misunderstood. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, it contains no preamble enunciating the rights of man. Only at the suggestion of Secretary of the Treasury Chase did Lincoln at the last minute add a conclusion invoking the "considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God" on this "act of justice."
Lincoln did not, as is sometimes thought, free all the slaves with a stroke of his pen. The Proclamation had no bearing on the nearly half million slaves in the four border states and West Virginia. It applied only to the Confederacy and almost exclusively to areas outside Union control. Despite objections from a majority of the Cabinet, it exempted a number of areas occupied by the Union army: seven counties in Tidewater, Va. (where Benjamin Butler had inaugurated the contraband policy, and with it wartime emancipation), 13 parishes in southern Louisiana, and the entire state of Tennessee. These places contained another 300,000 slaves, bringing to nearly 800,000 the number to whom the Proclamation did not apply, of a total of 3.9 million.
The Proclamation rested not on the rights of mankind but "upon military necessity." Lincoln claimed full authority as commander in chief to decree emancipation, and accepted full responsibility. Lincoln was convinced, as one Washington reporter wrote the day before the document was issued, that the Proclamation could only survive judicial scrutiny "as a war measure," not "one issuing from the bosom of philanthropy." To ground emancipation, he later remarked to Chase, on anything other than military necessity, including the notion that it was "politically expedient and morally right," would "give up all footing upon constitution or law."