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.
In fact, however, the Proclamation was as much a political as a military document. Lincoln's decision to exempt parts of the Confederacy reflected not only the actual military situation but also his judgment about the prospects for winning over white support. Even the Unionists who pleaded with Lincoln to exempt all of Tennessee acknowledged that large portions of the state remained "in possession of the rebel army." But in order to bolster Andrew Johnson's regime in the state and attract cooperation from slaveholders, Lincoln acceded to their wish. In the process, he sacrificed, for the time being, the interests of Tennessee's slaves.
Critics at home and abroad charged that the Proclamation actually freed no slaves at all, since it applied only to areas under Confederate control. In fact, Lincoln did not exempt occupied areas where the number of white Unionists was small or nonexistent and political reconstruction had made little or no progress -– parts of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Here, emancipation was immediate. Overall, tens of thousands of slaves -- 50,000, according to one estimate -- did gain their freedom with the stroke of Lincoln's pen. To be sure, on the day it was issued, there was no way to enforce the Proclamation in most of the South; its implementation would await Union victories.
The Emancipation Proclamation differed dramatically from Lincoln's previous policies regarding slavery and emancipation, some of which dated back to his days in the Illinois legislature and Congress. It abandoned the idea of seeking the cooperation of slaveholders in emancipation, and of distinguishing between loyal and disloyal owners. It was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of monetary compensation for slave owners, did not depend on action by the states, and made no reference to colonization of the freed people outside the country (in part, perhaps, because gradualism, compensation and colonization had no bearing on the "military necessity" that justified the document). The Proclamation addressed slaves directly, not as the property of the country's enemies but as persons with wills of their own whose actions might help win the Civil War. Lincoln made no effort to define the future status of the emancipated slaves, but the Proclamation unavoidably placed that question on the national agenda.
Even apart from the 800,000 persons to whom it did not apply, the Emancipation Proclamation by itself hardly guaranteed the irrevocable end of slavery; for that, Union military victory would have to follow. Slavery is a remarkably resilient institution. It had survived the dislocations of the War of Independence (including the flight of tens of thousands of slaves to British lines), only to enter on a period of unprecedented growth. Were the Confederacy to gain its independence, slavery would undoubtedly continue to exist.
The Emancipation Proclamation altered the nature of the Civil War, the relationship of the federal government to slavery and the course of American history. It liquidated without compensation the largest concentration of property in the United States. It made a negotiated settlement impossible unless the Union were willing to retract the promise of freedom. It crystallized a new identification between the ideal of liberty and a nation-state whose powers increased enormously as the war progressed. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed, "the cause of the slaves and the cause of the country” had become one. Whatever the Proclamation's limitations, by making the army an agent of emancipation and wedding the goals of Union and abolition, it ensured that Northern victory would produce a social transformation in the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life. In his message to Congress of December 1861, Lincoln had said that he did not wish to conduct the war as a "violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle." The Proclamation announced that this was precisely what it must become.
Reprinted from Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. Copyright © 2010 by Eric Foner. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.