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Political Brilliance on the Path to the Emancipation Proclamation

By Vernon Burton
Dr. Burton is a professor emeritus of history, sociology, and African American studies at U of I and is the author of Age of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln proclaimed early in 1865 that the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the 19th century.” Yet, today many criticize on race, arguing that it shows Lincoln did not really care about the fate of African Americans, only about preserving the Union.

On August 19, 1862, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and a founding member of the Republican Party, wrote a lengthy op-ed piece criticizing Lincoln’s policy regarding slavery. In the form of a letter to the President, titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Greeley declared that the majority of northerners favored immediate abolition and were “sorely disappointed and deeply pained” by Lincoln’s policy on slavery. But Lincoln knew otherwise; the people, and the fighting soldiers, favored saving the Union, not ending slavery. Thus, Lincoln responded, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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.” The irony, however, is that Lincoln, on July 22, 1862, had already secretly presented to his Cabinet his plans for emancipation. Lincoln’s response to Greeley is a brilliant political stance. Greeley’s disparagement actually offered Lincoln an opportunity to calm conservative fears while paving a way forward.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln told his Cabinet that he had decided to issue an emancipation proclamation. Grappling with the issue of the rule of law and his power under the Constitution, Lincoln felt he could issue the proclamation only as a war measure. His language is legalistic rather than poetical. Emancipation took effect on New Year’s Day, 1863. While the proclamation was not effective in Confederate states because the U.S. army was not in position to enforce it, and while it did not cover enslaved workers held by loyal slaveholders in the Union border states, the end of slavery was now United States policy. The proclamation also called for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union armed services at a time when manpower needs were critical. Fully 200,000 African American men mustered into Federal service over the next two years.

To southerners, the most threatening part of the proclamation was Union-sanctioned slave rebellion; governmental authority “will do no act or acts to repress such person, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” The document recommended that the people continue peacefully to work for wages and that they “abstain from all violence,” but—previously unheard of in race relations—that admonition against violence did not include “necessary self-defense.”

The measure clarified a moral issue: The war for the Union was now undeniably a war for freedom. Although it would take victory and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to make it official nationwide, the definition of America had been transformed.

Read the other monthly essays in this special commemorative series.

April 2009

Lincoln Bicentennial Events at U of I

October 13
Lincoln’s Rhetorical Worlds, Professor Michael Leff
November 11
Lincoln Lecture, Professor Robin Blackburn