The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln met with his cabinet at noon on Monday, September 22. He began by reading a passage called “High-Handed Outrage at Utica” from a new book sent to him by popular humorist Artemus Ward. All cabinet members seemed amused except for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Lincoln then brought up the draft of an emancipation decree that he had shared with them in July. He had waited since then for military success, and although the Federal victory at Antietam had not been as decisive as hoped, Lincoln told them:

“When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a proclamation of emancipation, such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone, but I made the promise to myself and to my Maker. I think the time has come now. I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked. But the rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.”

The president said, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied it was right,” and “was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results.” Nobody in the cabinet was surprised by Lincoln’s announcement, but they were taken aback by him invoking God as the final decision-maker on emancipation. Lincoln went on:

“If I was satisfied that the public confidence was more fully possessed by anyone else than by me, and knew of any constitutional way in which he might be put in my place, he should have it. I would gladly yield it to him. But though I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some time since, I do not know that all things considered, any other person has more; and however, that may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here. I must do the best I can and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.”

Lincoln said he would not seek his cabinet’s advice on the matter, but he would accept suggestions to correct the document’s language or “any other minor matter.” The members unanimously agreed with emancipation. But Postmaster General Montgomery Blair feared that it could cause rebellion in the loyal slave states, demoralize the army, and give the Democrats “a club… to beat the Administration” in the upcoming midterm elections.

Lincoln said that he had exhausted every effort to get the loyal slave states to begin their own voluntary emancipation programs. Since they refused, “we must make the forward movement” without them. Lincoln believed, “They (will) acquiesce, if not immediately, soon.” And the prospect of losing the midterm elections “had not much weight with him” because the Democrats’ “clubs would be used against us take what course we might.”

Secretary of State William H. Seward said that since the president had obviously made up his mind, “nothing can be said further about that.” However, he noted that the original draft ordered the military to adhere to laws passed in March and July to “recognize the freedom” of slaves escaping into Federal lines. He suggested that Lincoln change his pledge to “recognize and maintain the freedom.” There were no objections or even debate on this momentous change, which would guarantee that the slaves would not only be freed, but the power of the Federal government would be used to forever ensure that they remained freed.

This would be a preliminary emancipation order, in that it would not take effect until 100 days from its release, on January 1. If the rebelling states returned to the Union before the deadline, they would be exempt from having their slaves freed. The proclamation also exempted the loyal slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, as well as southern regions under Federal occupation, mostly in Louisiana.

Lincoln cited “military necessity” under his power as “President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy thereof” to issue such a proclamation. He also cited provisions of the two Confiscation Acts, even though this decree actually avoided enforcement of the Second Confiscation Act, which called for the immediate emancipation of all slaves within a conquered region (this order allowed slavery to continue in the conquered regions).

The proclamation made no mention of a moral or ethical obligation to free humans in bondage. It served solely as a weapon to cripple the Confederacy’s ability to fight the war. The decree’s first two paragraphs explained that Lincoln’s main goal remained reunion, not abolition, and he repeated his frequent calls to compensate loyal slaveholders who voluntarily freed their slaves and to encourage the voluntary deportation of blacks from America, “upon this continent or elsewhere.”

Lincoln gave Seward a copy to be published through the State Department, and secretary John Nicolay was directed to submit one copy each to the Senate and House of Representatives. White House secretary William Stoddard was tasked with making the copies. Stoddard had long hoped that Lincoln would issue this decree, and his hand shook so much with excitement that he had to go through several drafts before finally completing an acceptable copy. News of the Emancipation Proclamation would soon be released to the world.


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