Victor Nuovo: The politics of emancipation
Editor’s note: This is the 47th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
If it had been up to him, Abraham Lincoln would not have chosen the title of “The Great Emancipator” for himself. He would have preferred “Preserver of the Union.” In 1862, in a letter to Horace Greeley, he made clear that his chief purpose in the war was to “save the Union in the shortest way under the Constitution.” “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” Having said this, he adds this qualification. “I have here stated you my purpose according to my view of official duty; I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”
Readers of the previous essay in this series may notice that what Lincoln wrote in this letter put him in contradiction with what he said four years before in his House Divided Speech. Then, in 1858, he warned that the nation, in order to survive, must become either all slave or all free. Now, in 1862, he seems to be saying it could be something of both. The issue of slavery seems to have receded in his consciousness.
What caused the change? In 1858 he was an aspiring politician little known outside his home state of Illinois, addressing an audience a majority of whom were abolitionists, members of a newly formed freedom party. In 1862 he was President of the United States, commander-in-chief of the army and navy, looking for “the shortest way under the Constitution” to overcome an insurrection. In this light the Emancipation Proclamation appears not as a great humanitarian document, but as a weapon of war meant to do economic and material damage to the South. As the historian James Oakes has observed, emancipating the slaves of one’s enemy was “an ancient practice” of waging war. The British employed it during the Revolutionary War against rebel slaveholders in Virginia.
This strategic purpose should be clear to anyone who reads the Emancipation Proclamation. It directs that on Jan. 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State … the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” and it directs naval and military forces to “recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons,” and do nothing to prevent them “in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Then, addressing those persons emancipated by this decree, he counsels them “to abstain from violence, unless in necessary self-defense” and that “they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.” He also allows that these emancipated slaves, if they be “of suitable condition” may enlist in the armed forces of the United States, thereby not only freeing slaves of secessionist owners, but arming them if they would only volunteer to fight for the Union.
Given the dependence of the Southern economy on slave labor, the effect of this action was to deplete the labor force of the Confederacy. Fugitive slaves who managed to cross into Union territory entered it as “freedmen”; the temptation to do so was great, and many did so.
Note that all this applied only to slaves in states that had seceded from the Union. It did not apply to slaves in states that resided in the Union, in the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. Their owners were not deprived of their human property.
The Emancipation Proclamation was not Lincoln’s final action in this matter. He promoted passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, “except as a punishment for a crime.” This was his final act, and he used all the power of the presidency to secure its passage through the Congress, although he would not live to celebrate its ratification. Here we catch a glimpse of Lincoln motivated by principle rather than military necessity, by his “oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”
Yet one must not allow sentiment to mislead judgment even here. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. It did not grant citizenship and the right to vote to former slaves. This was accomplished by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which were introduced after Lincoln’s death, and it must remain uncertain whether Lincoln, had he lived, would have given the same vigorous support to their passage.
Sadly, Lincoln was of the opinion that White and Black are better off living separate and apart. For him, the proper sequel to emancipation was colonization of free Blacks to another place, if not Africa, then Central or South America.
On Aug. 14, 1864, Lincoln invited a “Committee of Colored Men” to meet with him at the White House; they were all freemen, leaders of their communities, and although almost all dwelt in Northern states, they did not have the right to vote. His purpose was to recommend that they consider emigration to another place; he suggested Africa, perhaps Liberia, or, if not there, then closer to the land of their birth and life experience, to Central America, in particular, the isthmus of Panama where there were abundant resources for industry and commerce: There was abundant coal on which to build an economy and access to the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans for trade. There they would be welcome and enjoy true equality, which he doubted could ever be realized in the United States.
“You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side.”
Lincoln supposed that social incompatibility between Blacks and Whites was rooted in nature, that it was an incorrigible condition, which he could not change even if he had a will to do so, which he did not.
He assured the committee that this was merely a proposal, but he hoped they would consider it, which they, with all due respect, agreed to do.
All of this causes me to wonder just what did Lincoln mean when, in the Gettysburg Address, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that All Men are Created Equal”?
To be continued.
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