News of the Emancipation Proclamation spread through the country on September 23, where it was met with mixed reactions. Abolitionists, especially in New England, celebrated its release. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired.” Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts declared that “the skies are brighter and the air is purer, now that slavery has been handed over to judgment.” Some Radical Republicans, such as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, hoped this would inspire the slaves to be “incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real civil war.”
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, a New Englander, congratulated President Abraham Lincoln “for your Emancipation proclamation. It will stand as the great act of the age.” New York Senator Ira Harris wrote that “those who have been clamoring for a policy have got it–It is one upon which we can all stand and fight and win and save the Country.” Lincoln’s secretary John Hay stated that the White House staff “all seemed to feel a sort of new and exhilarated life… They gleefully and merrily called each other and themselves abolitionists, and seemed to enjoy the novel sensation of appropriating that horrible name.”
But for some abolitionists, the proclamation did not go far enough. Horace Greeley, who had long urged Lincoln to free the slaves, opined in his New York Tribune that Federal defeats over the past few months would discourage freed slaves from joining the military: “There was a time when even this bit of paper could have brought the negro to our side; but now slavery, the real rebel capital, has been surrounded by a Chickahominy swamp of blunders and outrages against that race which no paper spade can dig through.”
Other northerners expressed deep resentment and joined in angry protest. The Washington Daily National Intelligencer stated, “Where we expect no good we shall be only too happy to find that no harm has been done by the present declaration of the Executive.” The Washington Evening Star called Lincoln’s edict “void of practical effect.” Many newspapers in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois echoed the Macomb Eagle, which predicted that Lincoln and the Radical Republicans “will go ‘flaming’ with the grand object of hugging niggers to their bosoms.”
Some northerners feared that freed slaves would migrate to the northern states and compete with them for jobs. This fear seemed confirmed when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered “contraband” slaves in Illinois to replace farm laborers who had joined the army. Even some Republicans began breaking from their party, reminding Lincoln that their goal had been to stop the expansion of slavery, not stop slavery altogether. Northern Democrats predicted the decree would “render eternal hatred between the two sections” and embolden the Confederates to put up even stronger resistance.
Outraged southerners viewed this as an unconstitutional attempt to overturn established law, a power belonging only to Congress. They also noted that Lincoln issued the proclamation out of “military necessity,” even though the Federal war capabilities far exceeded the Confederacy’s, with plenty of resources to continue turning out war materiel while using the world’s third most powerful navy to block those same resources from reaching the South. And it confirmed initial southern fears that the Republicans’ main goal was not to preserve the Union, but to destroy the southern way of life.
Many southerners believed this aimed to encourage slaves to rebel against their masters, which they considered particularly despicable since most masters had gone to war, leaving women and children to fend for themselves against potentially hostile slaves. Even some northerners expressed concern about Radicals cheering for “the prospect that it will inaugurate a negro insurrection in the South.” The London Times asserted that the unconstitutional edict would spark “arson, the slaughter of innocents, and a host of unmentionable horrors.” However, no mass slave uprisings occurred after the publication of this decree.
According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, at 9 p.m. on the 24th, the Marine Corps Band “strikes up on the opposite side of the square, a complimentary serenade to the President for the Emancipation Proclamation. The document has been in the main well received, but there is some violent opposition, and the friends of the measure have made this demonstration to show their approval.”
There were “loud and enthusiastic cheers,” along with demands for Lincoln to speak. The president responded by appearing in an upstairs window and telling the crowd, “What I did, I did after a very full deliberation, and under a very heavy and solemn sense of responsibility. I can only trust in God I have made no mistake. I shall make no attempt on this occasion to sustain what I have done or said by any comment. It is now for the country and the world to pass judgment and, maybe, take action upon it.”
Lincoln then lauded the troops, saying this was “scarcely so great as the difficulties of those who, upon the battle field, are endeavoring to purchase with their blood and their lives the future happiness and prosperity of this country. Let us never forget them.” He then concluded, “In my position I am environed with difficulties.”
Two days later, Lincoln held a cabinet meeting in which he reiterated his support for deporting freed slaves. He had endorsed a contract with the Chiriqui Improvement Company, which would send freedmen to mine coal in the Chiriqui Lagoon area of Panama. But the investors had been scammers and the deal fell through. Now Lincoln brought up the possibility of entering into a treaty with a foreign nation such as Costa Rica to allow the former slaves to settle there.
As Welles recalled, the president “thought it essential to provide an asylum for a race which we had emancipated, but which could never be recognized or admitted to be our equals.” When Attorney General Edward Bates suggested that deportation should be mandatory, Lincoln “objected unequivocally… Their emigration must be voluntary and without expense to themselves.” Welles did not think a treaty was necessary, as anyone could voluntarily leave the country. Interior Secretary Caleb Smith argued that the Senate would “never ratify a treaty conferring any power, and advised that (Secretary of State William) Seward should make a contract.” Discussions on this matter would continue.
As September neared its end, Lincoln began to wonder whether the Emancipation Proclamation would have the desired effect on the war. On the 28th, he responded to Vice President Hamlin’s congratulations by writing, “It is six days old, and while commendation in newspapers and by distinguished individuals is all that a vain man could wish, the stocks have declined, and troops come forward more slowly than ever. This, looked soberly in the face, is not very satisfactory.” But more time would be needed to assess its impact on both the war and America’s future.
Knowing that the proclamation would be overturned in Federal courts and could not be enforced without military success, Lincoln hoped to serve two purposes. First, he sought to turn European opinion against the South by making the war a moral struggle between a slaveholding nation and a nation taking the first steps to end slavery. Second, Lincoln hoped to motivate slaves to escape their masters and support the Federal cause.
The second purpose received help from civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass, who encouraged blacks to enlist in the Federal military; two of Douglass’s sons joined the war effort. By month’s end, the 1st Regiment Louisiana Native Guards, calling themselves the “Chasseurs d’Afrique,” became the first formally recognized black regiment. Soon black volunteers from other southern states began moving north to join the army and navy.
The Emancipation Proclamation drastically changed the scope of the war and subsequent American history. Prior to this, many believed that North and South would eventually stop fighting and come up with a compromise based on preserving slavery. That was now impossible. There would be no compromise to end the war, and the first step had been taken toward permanently abolishing slavery in America.
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