Timing of the Emancipation Proclamation

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Chip Horr


Contributing Columnist


Near midnight Nov. 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln began to hear the church bells ring in Springfield, Ill. He had just been elected President of the United States. The celebration had barely ended when South Carolina voted to succeed from the Union, just five weeks after his victory. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1861 and by that time, six more states had succeeded. On April 12, Confederate forces of the newly formed Confederate States of America bombarded a United States fort on Sullivan’s Island, Fort Sumter.


In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” she detailed how his eight years in the Illinois House of Representatives and the aids who surrounded him during his campaign for the nomination for the Presidency had taught him the essence of timing in politics. Lincoln learned it well. He did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation in a vacuum. He didn’t wake up one morning and decide to free the slaves. His pronouncement took over a year to develop.


The President knew he could not free the slaves during the early years of the war because he was afraid the border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri might leave the Union. He also felt that Northerners (who voted for him) would not support him because they would then be fighting a war to only free the slaves. Neither was acceptable to Lincoln. Virginia had already seceded, but Lincoln could not afford to lose the next slave state to the north, Maryland. If Maryland seceded, then Washington City (now Washington D.C.) would become a capital city trapped inside an enemy country. The federal government would almost certainly fall if others joined the bandwagon. He needed the public sentiment to be with him.


If he moved too soon, Northern voters might turn against his party in the Congressional election of 1862 and force on him a hostile Congress, unwilling to continue prosecuting the war. He shrewdly was preparing Northerners to think of the document as a measure necessary to win the war and preserve the nation, not to achieve humanitarian goal or change the social order. Only then, he felt, would Northern whites accept it.


On July 22, 1862 he called his cabinet together and revealed that he had reached his momentous decision. Just as all great leaders, Lincoln usually polled the members of his Cabinet to get each person’s opinion and would then make an informed decision. But he bluntly told them that he would entertain no opposition or debate. He did however, after his announcement, take the advice of his most trusted ally, Secretary of State William Seward, by postponing the Proclamation until the Union could win a victory on the battlefield - therefore issuing his proclamation not from weakness, but from strength. Over the next two months, as the Union war effort stalled, the inevitability of emancipation remained the best-kept secret in America.


Finally, on Sept 17, 1862, Union troops gave Lincoln the long-awaited victory when Union General George McClellan’s army repelled an invading Confederate force at Antietam, Md. It was by no means a decisive or overwhelming triumph since Lee’s troops were allowed to escape. Lincoln then summoned his cabinet and read a revised proclamation he had been re-crafting.


“I do not wish your advice. I made the promise to myself, and to my Maker, that if Lee was driven back, I would crown the result with a declaration of freedom for the slaves,” he said.


Five days later, on Sept 22, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation. It gave the Confederacy until Jan 1, 1863 to return to the Union or forfeit slaves who would otherwise be “thence forward, and forever free”, their liberty recognized and maintained by “the executive government of the US, including the military and naval authority thereof…” When he signed the Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he declared that “the South had fair warning that if they did not return… I would strike at this pillar of their strength. This promise must now be kept.”


Freed black slaves could now join Union military forces to battle for the freedom as U.S. Colored Troops. Lincoln, and surely African-Americans as well, knew that for all is good intentions, the Proclamation would free slaves only if Union armies won victories in Rebel states. Such was the case for America’s first freedom document, the Declaration of Independence. Its promise was not fulfilled by magic on July 4, 1776, but through hard fighting by the Continental army in the months and years that followed. Lincoln launched what Pulitzer Price winning historian James McPherson has aptly called a second American Revolution. He not only ended the shame of human bondage in America, but helped guarantee the survival of America itself.

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