The Emancipation Proclamation
America celebrated the 150th year of the Emancipation Proclamation with wide-spread debate on the historical foundation and sig-nificance of the Declaration. The debate is important. At its root lies understanding the role of Lincoln who, proscribed by his oath of office, remained the moral spokesperson of the nation. The role of the radical and conservative Abolitionists, the Army, the border slave states, the political consciousness of the citizens of the Union and, most important, the slaves and Freedmen — all played a role in the timing and significance of the Proclamation.
Most of the discussions of the Proclamation and necessarily of Lincoln have been quite subjective and disregard the fundamentals of serious evaluation. Those fundamentals include an assessment of the general situation — the major forces at play, the choices that were available, and an estimate of the consequences of those choices.
The overwhelming and often disregarded reality of the fight for emancipation was, the slaves could not be freed without the defeat of the Confederacy. Bringing about that defeat was a delicate and complex process. First, the border states had to be kept within the Union. Maryland and Delaware could be contained, but if Missouri and especially Kentucky were to join the Confederacy there was no way for the Union to defeat them. In a September 1861 letter to Orville Browning, Lincoln wrote, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. … We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of the capital.”
Kentucky was officially neutral at the beginning of the war, but after a failed invasion by the Confederates the state legislature petitioned the Union for assistance, and thereafter came under Union control. Maintaining that control required adherence to the law protecting slavery, including the despised Fugitive Slave Law in the slave holding, but Union states. Lincoln as President was sworn to uphold the law, and any deviation would bring impeachment, Kentucky joining the Confederacy, defeat of the Union and the end to any hope of emancipation.
Secondly, the Union had to raise an army loyal to the government. West Point was a Southern institution and many of the senior and seasoned officers were loyal to the Confederacy. The Commanding General of the Union Army, George McClellan, and many of his officers were pro-Union, pro-slavery and did not want to damage the South. Union General Jeff Davis of Indiana, nephew of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was an example of these officers. He believed in slavery and passionately hated the slave. He was responsible for the re-enslavement or death of over a thousand refugee slaves. Yet, he fought well under General U.S. Grant in the West and under General William T. Sherman in the “March to the Sea,” as well as in the campaign in South Carolina.
The vast majority of the volunteers and later those drafted into the Union army were deeply infected with the racism taught in church and schools that the Africans were an inferior race and condemned by God to serve the white. If there were any official pronouncement that the war was to destroy slavery, it was clear that the majority would throw down their arms and go home.
The war had to be fought with the Army at hand. Any political changes in the aims of the war had to rest firmly on changes in the military and legal situation. Lincoln was pushed to the left by a growing number of officers, soldiers and abolitionists demanding emancipation. He was attacked from the right by the growing consolidation of peace Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress, the Copperheads and pro-Southern senior officers led by General McClellan. The border states demanded he stand still. The status of runaway slaves was even more confused. Democratic generals returned them to their masters. Abolitionist generals tried to set them free.
The break came when Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861. This Act allowed for the confiscation of any property, including slaves being used to support the rebellion. The Act was bitterly opposed but passed in the House 60-48 and in the Senate 24-11. Oddly, the Act did not set the slaves free. They became the property of the government. Many border state commanders and Democrats continued to return escaped slaves to their masters. After another bitter fight, on March 13th, 1862, Congress passed an act prohibiting the military from sending escaped slaves back to their masters. Another incremental step along the path to emancipation was taken. The cautious step by step march to Emancipation finally pulled in the border states and the army, isolated the Copperheads from the War Democrats, polarized a public still opposed to emancipation and laid the foundation for the next historic step.
Lincoln had written the Emancipation Proclamation and showed it to his cabinet in July of 1862. He hesitated to present the Proclamation because the war was not going well for the Union. If the Proclamation were seen as an act of desperation it would embolden his opposition. If seen as an expression of strength and confidence it would strengthen his hand. The bloody battle of Antietam gave him the opportunity. The Confederates committed their maximum strength to that fight and were defeated. The Union still had vast reserves of manpower and finances. Both Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis understood the turning point had been reached. Karl Marx summed up the situation,
“Antietam has decided the fate of the War.”
Five days after Antietam, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Proclamation giving the Confederates an opportunity to return to the Union with slavery. He has been attacked for this, but it was a masterful political checkmate. Lincoln was well aware that Davis and the Confederacy planned, with the help of France and England, to set up a slave empire from Panama to the Ohio River. Their refusal to return to the Union on the basis of pre-war conditions made it clear that their intent was to destroy this “last best hope of mankind.” This put an end to any talk about “a war between the States.”
It was now clear to the world that this was a war between Freedom and Slavery. The European interventionists were disarmed. The final Proclamation was issued. If Antietam was a military turning point, the Proclamation was its political reflection. The destruction of slavery became a war aim. The War of the Rebellion became a vast social revolution ending with the greatest expropriation of private property in history as $4,000,000,000 in slave property was transferred to the exslaves themselves.
What was the immediate effect of the Proclamation? On the positive side, about 20,000 slaves were immediately freed. Nearly 200,000 mostly ex-slaves joined the Union Army, tilting the war in the favor of the Union. The Army became an instrument of liberation and freed slaves as they advanced into Confederate territory. The number of escaping slaves became a torrent. A Confederate general in North Carolina complained they were losing a million dollars a month in fugitives. Most importantly, the Proclamation opened the door for the outlawing of slavery throughout the country.
On the negative side, some army units rebelled at the Proclamation. Northern Democrats were infuriated and the ranks of the Copperheads grew rapidly. Pro-slavery, white supremacy forces consolidated in the North, but it was clear that a majority had been won over to the motto of “For Union and Liberty.”
There was a real possibility that should Lincoln lose the coming election the Peace Democrats would reverse all the steps of emancipation. Lincoln based his election campaign on passing a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery everywhere in the country. He lost the vital state of New York and New York City, among others, although he won the election of 1864. Relying on his majority in the sitting congress, Lincoln pressed for passage of the amendment and Congress sent it to the state legislatures. Enough states ratified it by December 6, 1865 and it became the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, freeing the remaining 40,000 slaves in Kentucky and 1,000 in Delaware.
The on-going debate about Lincoln, the Proclamation and the cause and conduct of the Civil war is more than a debate about history. It is an important part of the “Culture War” that marks the rise of fascism. An example is Hank Williams Jr’s openly racist, proslavery recently re-released “country music ‘hit’” that begins with “If the South would’ve won we’d a’ had it made.” The falsification of history, the glorification of the Confederate Army and its culture, the belittling of the democratic current in our history are things serious revolutionaries must pay attention to. The role of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation is at the heart of this debate.
March/April 2013. Vol23.Ed2
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