Moving Toward Emancipation

July 22, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln surprised his cabinet by reading a draft of an executive order freeing all slaves in Confederate states.

Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner | Image Credit:

Northern abolitionists and the Radical Republicans in Congress continued pressuring Lincoln to do something about slavery. On Independence Day, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a prominent Radical abolitionist, visited the White House twice “to urge the reconsecration of the day by a decree of emancipation.”

Sumner hoped that such a proclamation would encourage slaves to rise up against their masters, thus helping the Federals destroy the Confederacy from within. Others, including influential New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, also voiced support for slave emancipation to weaken the Confederate war effort. Freed slaves could also join the Federal armies and overwhelm the Confederates with superior numbers.

But Lincoln called it “too big a lick” because it could negatively affect Republican chances in the upcoming midterm elections. He worried that if he freed the slaves, which had no basis in the Constitution, “half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states (Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) would rise (i.e., secede).” Sumner left the White House confident that Lincoln was “not disinclined” to free slaves in eastern Virginia, but Lincoln later rejected that limited move as well.

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

The day after his conference with the congressmen from the loyal slaveholding states, Lincoln attended the funeral of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s newborn child with other members of the cabinet. Riding with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Lincoln said he had resolved that slavery must be abolished.

Using his political guile, Lincoln shared this decision with two of his most conservative advisors to get their reaction first. According to Welles, Lincoln said the slavery issue had “occupied his mind and thoughts day and night” for weeks. Lincoln concluded that emancipation was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.”

Both men expressed surprise because Lincoln had consistently maintained that he had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery where it already existed. But Lincoln no longer felt restrained by constitutional arguments, arguing that in wartime, the commander-in-chief could seize enemy slaves as a military necessity. He said, “The rebels… could not at the same time throw off the Constitution and invoke its aid. Having made war on the Government, they were subject to the incidents and calamities of war.”

Regarding the border states, Lincoln predicted they “would do nothing” about the matter. In fact, it would be unfair to ask them to give up their slaves while the states in rebellion kept theirs. As such, the “the blow must fall first and foremost on (the rebels)… Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted… We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example, and strike at the heart of the rebellion.”

The secretaries requested time to consider the matter. Lincoln asked them to give it serious thought because, according to Welles, Lincoln was “earnest in the conviction that something must be done” about slavery to bring about a “new departure” in the war. From this point forward, Lincoln began siding more with the Radicals in the Republican Party than the conservatives on the slavery issue.

Lincoln held a cabinet meeting at 10 a.m. on Monday the 21st to discuss several orders and ideas, including those involving slavery. The cabinet unanimously approved Lincoln’s proposals to allow army commanders to feed their troops with confiscated southern crops and to use freed slaves as army laborers. Lincoln’s proposal to account for confiscated property and slaves so owners could be compensated was accepted by everyone except Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, whose department would be responsible for the accounting.

Stanton brought up a request from Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, to recruit anyone willing to join his army, regardless of race. Hunter argued that he operated in hostile territory (mainly South Carolina), he needed more men after sending reinforcements to Virginia, and local slaves were willing to join his ranks. Stanton, Seward, and Chase supported the idea, while the other members leaned toward neutrality.

The meeting ended before Lincoln could bring up his idea of emancipation, so the participants agreed to meet again the next day. When the discussions resumed, the attendees tabled proposals related to slave colonization because they could not come to a consensus. Stanton raised the question of whether to arm slaves, but Lincoln continued resisting the notion.

Lincoln then announced that he had drafted a proclamation to free all slaves in the Confederate states not currently under Federal occupation. Lincoln said, “I have got you together to hear what I have written down. I do not wish your advice about the main matter, for that I have determined for myself… I must do the best I can and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.”

The decree contained two paragraphs. The first warned Confederates that if they did not return to the U.S. immediately, they would face a stricter Confiscation Act and no possibility of being compensated for losing their slaves. The second read:

“And, as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of Our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.”

This proclamation would only apply to the three and a half million slaves in the Confederate states. Any of those slaves in an area occupied by Federal troops and owned by men who defied the Federal government would be permanently freed. The 425,000 slaves in the loyal slaveholding states would continue to be enslaved, as Lincoln’s wartime powers did not extend to states not rebelling against the U.S. Even so, this was a shocking presidential order that overturned all American legislation on slavery and property rights since the nation’s founding.

Stanton and Attorney General Edward Bates urged “immediate promulgation,” but Chase resisted the idea because “it goes beyond anything that I have recommended,” and it could hurt the North financially. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair opposed it “on the ground that it would cost the Administration the fall elections.” Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith was strongly opposed.

Seward warned that “foreign nations will intervene to prevent the abolition of slavery for sake of cotton.” The proclamation could “break up our relations with foreign nations and the production of cotton for 60 years.” Seward then questioned the proclamation’s timing:

“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.”

Fearing that it would seem “our last shriek, on the retreat,” Seward suggested that Lincoln “postpone its issue, until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war (i.e., the failed Peninsula campaign).”

Lincoln agreed. He would not issue the emancipation proclamation until the Federal armies gained a victory. He would have to wait much longer than hoped.



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