Change Tactics or Lose the Game

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

Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner | Image Credit:

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 as a way to weaken the Confederate war effort. Freed slaves could also join the Federal ranks and overwhelm the already numerically inferior Confederate armies.

But Lincoln called emancipation “too big a lick” because most northerners opposed it, and as such it could negatively affect Republican chances in the upcoming midterm elections. Lincoln worried that freeing slaves by presidential decree had no basis in the Constitution, and if done, “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.

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 in a carriage with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln told them that he had resolved that slavery must be abolished. According to Welles:

“He dwelt earnestly on the gravity, importance, and delicacy of the movement, said he had given it much thought and had about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued, etc., etc…

“It was a new departure for the President, for until this time, in all our previous interviews, whenever the question of emancipation or the mitigation of slavery had been in any way alluded to, he had been prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the General Government with the subject. But the reverses before Richmond, and the formidable power and dimensions of the insurrection, which extended through all the Slave States, and had combined most of them in a confederacy to destroy the Union, impelled the Administration to adopt extraordinary measures to preserve the national existence.”

Using his political guile, Lincoln took this occasion to share his decision with two of his most conservative advisors to get their reaction first. Seward noted that “the subject involved consequences so vast and momentous, that he should wish to bestow on it mature reflection.” Lincoln replied that the slavery issue had “occupied his mind and thoughts day and night” for weeks, and after “he had given it much thought and had about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential to the salvation of the Union, that 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.”

Seward and Welles noted that 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 state conference, Lincoln predicted that those congressmen “would do nothing” about his offer for gradual, compensated emancipation. In fact, it was unfair to ask them to give up their slaves while the states in rebellion kept theirs. As such, “a change of policy in the conduct of the war was necessary… 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.”

According to Lincoln, “Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card and must change our tactics or lose the game.” Welles told the president that it may not be appropriate to discuss such an important issue at a funeral, but “during that ride, the subject was the absorbing theme.” When the carriage arrived at Stanton’s home in Georgetown, Lincoln dropped the matter, but he asked Seward and Welles “to give the question special and deliberate attention.”

From this point forward, Lincoln began siding more with the Radicals in the Republican Party than the conservatives on the slavery issue. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote, “The President himself has been… the bulwark of the institution he abhors, for a year. But he will not conserve slavery much longer. When next he speaks in relation to this defiant and ungrateful villainy it will be with no uncertain sound.”


  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
  • Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
  • Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.

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