Moving Toward Emancipation

President Abraham Lincoln held a special cabinet meeting at 10 a.m. on Monday, July 21. According to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, “the President had been profoundly concerned at the present aspect of affairs, and had determined to take some definitive steps in respect to military action and slavery.” But first, Lincoln presented some new military directives for discussion.

The cabinet unanimously approved Lincoln’s proposals to allow army commanders to “subsist their troops in the hostile territory” with confiscated southern crops and to use freed slaves as laborers for both the army and navy. His suggestion to account for confiscated property and slaves so owners could be compensated was accepted by everyone except Chase, who “doubted the expediency of attempting to keep accounts for the benefit of the inhabitants of the rebel states.” Lincoln’s proposal to colonize the slaves who served “in some tropical country” was not given serious consideration.

Secretary of War Edwin M. 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 because 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, Chase, and Secretary of State William H. Seward supported the idea, while the other members leaned toward neutrality.

The meeting ended before Lincoln could bring up his idea of emancipation. Even so, rumors swirled throughout Washington that the president intended to make some kind of announcement on the issue. Orville Browning and Isaac Arnold, two of Lincoln’s political allies from Illinois, discussed the matter on the 21st. Arnold was anxious for Lincoln to issue an emancipation order, but Browning was not: “I have always been in favor of seizing and appropriating all the slaves of rebels that we could lay our hands on, and make any valuable use of, but I have no faith in proclamations or laws unless we follow them by force and actually do the thing–and when done we don’t need either the proclamation or law.”

The next day, the regularly scheduled cabinet meeting took place, but this time, instead of holding it in his office as usual, Lincoln convened the meeting in the library. Discussion resumed on Lincoln’s proposal to colonize slaves until, as Chase wrote, “It was unanimously agreed that the Order in respect to Colonization should be dropped.” The remaining directives that Lincoln had proposed the previous day were approved and drawn up as General Orders Number 54. Chase suggested that the second order be modified to allow slaves in the military to be combatants, but Lincoln “expressed himself averse to arming negroes.”

The president 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 Emancipation Proclamation | Image Credit: Bing public domain

The first paragraph contained the announcement that Congress had required him to make under the terms of the Second Confiscation Act; this warned Confederates that if they did not return their allegiance to the U.S. immediately, they would face harsher military confiscation without the possibility of being compensated for losing their property, including slaves. The second paragraph repeated Lincoln’s pleas for states to adopt policies of gradual, compensated emancipation on their own. The third paragraph 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 national and state legislation on slavery and property rights that had been enforced since the nation’s founding.

Stanton urged “immediate promulgation,” while Attorney General Edward Bates agreed but only if emancipation came with immediate deportation. 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.

Chase, one of the members most opposed to slavery, surprisingly objected to Lincoln’s proclamation. He argued that “it goes beyond anything that I have recommended,” and it could “hurt the North financially.” Chase recommended that generals in the field be instead allowed to free slaves because these would be smaller, controlled pockets of freedom that would not spark the “depredation and massacre” that universal emancipation could.

But, as Lincoln had stated, his mind was made up and he would not entertain any further objections. He instructed Stanton to work with the northern governors to raise another 300,000 military volunteers, and then announced that “it was his intention on the following day to issue his Proclamation.”

That night, Seward and influential New York political boss Thurlow Weed visited the president at the White House. The men warned that if Lincoln issued his decree, “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 argued that the order “could not be enforced in the Rebel States–that it would add to the intensity of their hatred, and might occasion serious disaffection to the Union cause in the border States; that it would work no good and probably do much harm, and that it was more prudent to wait on events.” 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 and Weed 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).”

The next morning, Lincoln received a letter from Blair reiterating his opposition to an emancipation proclamation because it could politically ruin the Republican party. The president decided not to issue the order and instead wait until the Federal armies gained a victory. He would have to wait much longer than hoped.


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