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Chapter 18: Lincoln and Emancipation

Messrs. Nicolay and Hay, who were Mr. Lincoln's private secretaries during the time he was President, and afterwards the authors of his most elaborate biography, say: “The blessings of an enfranchised race must forever hail him as their liberator.”

Says Francis Curtis in his History of the Republican Party, in speaking of the President's Emancipation Proclamation: “On the 1st day of January, 1863, the final proclamation of freedom was issued, and every negro slave within the confines of the United States was at last made free.”

Other writers of what is claimed to be history, almost without number, speak of the President's pronouncement as if it caused the bulwarks of slavery to fall down very much as the walls of Jericho are said to have done, at one blast, overwhelming the whole institution and setting every bondman free. Indeed, there are multitudes of fairly intelligent people who believe that slaveholding in this country ceased the very day and hour the proclamation appeared. In a recent magazine article, so intelligent a man as Booker Washington speaks of a Kentucky slave family as being emancipated [137] by Mr. Lincoln's proclamation, when, in fact, the proclamation never applied to Kentucky at all.

The emancipationists of Missouri were working hard to free their State from slavery, and they would have been only too glad to have Mr. Lincoln do the work for them. They appealed to him to extend his edict to their State, but got no satisfaction. The emancipationists of Maryland had much the same experience. Both Missouri and Maryland were left out of the proclamation, as were Tennessee and Kentucky and Delaware, and parts of Virginia and Louisiana and the Carolinas. (See Appendix.) The explanation is that the proclamation was not intended to cover all slaveholding territory. All of it that belonged to States that had not been in rebellion, or had been subdued, was excluded. The President's idea was to reach only such sections as were then in revolt. If the proclamation had been immediately operative, and had liberated every bondman in the jurisdiction to which it applied, it would have left over a million slaves in actual thraldom. Indeed, Earl Russell, the British premier, was quite correct when, in speaking of the proclamation, he said: “It does not more than profess to emancipate slaves where the United States authorities cannot make emancipation a reality, and emancipates no one where the decree can be carried into effect.”

For the failure of the proclamation to cover all slaveholding territory there was a plausible reason. Freedom under it was not decreed as a boon, but as a penalty. It was not, in theory at least, intended to help the slave, but to chastise the master. It [138] was to be in punishment of treason, and, of course, could not consistently be made to apply to loyal communities, or to such as were under government control. The proclamation, it will be recollected, was issued in two parts separated by one hundred days. The first part gave the Rebels warning that the second would follow if, in the meanwhile, they did not give up their rebellion. All they had to do to save slavery was to cease from their treasonable practices. Had the Rebels been shrewd enough, within the hundred days, to take the President at his word, he would have stood pledged to maintain their institution, and his proclamation, instead of being a charter of freedom, would have been a license for slaveholding.

The proclamation did not, in fact, whatever it may have otherwise accomplished at the time it was issued, liberate a single slave. What is more, slavery as an institution was altogether too securely rooted in our system to be abolished by proclamation. The talk of such a thing greatly belittles the magnitude of the task that was performed. Its removal required a long preliminary work, involving, as is made to appear in previous chapters of this work, almost incalculable toil and sacrifice, to be followed by an enormous expenditure of blood and treasure. Its practical extinguishment was the work of the army, while its legal extirpation was accomplished by Congress and the Legislatures of the States in adopting the Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, which forbids all slaveholding. That amendment was a production of Congress and not of the Executive, whose official [139] approval was not even required to make it legally effective.

The story of the proclamation, with not a few variations, has often been told; but the writer fancies that the altogether correct account has not always been given. It may be presumptuous on his part, but he will submit his version.

To understand the motive underlying the proclamation we must take into account its author's feeling toward slavery. Notwithstanding various unfriendly references of an academic sort to that institution, he was not at the time the proclamation appeared, and never had been, an Abolitionist.

Not very long before the time referred to the writer heard Mr. Lincoln, in his debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton, Illinois, declare-laying unusual emphasis on his words: “I have on all occasions declared as strongly as Judge Douglas against the disposition to interfere with the existing institution of slavery.”

Judge Douglas was what was then called a “dough-face” by the Abolitionists-being a Northern man with Southern principles, or “proclivities,” as he called them.

Only a little earlier, and several years after Mr. Lincoln had claimed to be a Republican, and a leader of the Republicans, he had, in a speech at Bloomington, Illinois, asserted that, “the conclusion of it all is that we must restore the Missouri Compromise.”

Now the adoption of the Missouri Compromise was the hardest blow ever inflicted on the cause of free soil in America. It did more to encourage the [140] supporters of slavery and to discourage its opponents than anything else that ever happened. Its restoration would undoubtedly have produced a similar effect. Although he is not to be credited with any philanthropic motive, Stephen A. Douglas did an effective work for freedom when he helped to overthrow that measure. Leading Abolitionists have accorded him that meed of praise.

But there was that proposition which Mr. Lincoln was so fond of repeating, that the nation could not remain half free and half slave-“a divided house” --but the remedy he had to propose was not manumission at any proximate or certain time, but the adoption of a policy that, to use his own words, would cause “the public mind to rest in the belief that it [slavery] was in the course of ultimate extinction.” Practically that meant very little or nothing. What the public mind then needed was not “rest,” but properly directed activity.

But the declarations above quoted were all before Mr. Lincoln had become President or had probably thought of such a thing. Did the change of position lead to a change of opinion on his part? We are not left in uncertainty on this point. His official views were declared in what might be called a State paper. Soon after his inauguration, his Secretary of State sent Minister Dayton, at Paris, a dispatch that he might use with foreign officials, in which, in speaking of the Rebellion, he said: “The condition of slavery in the several States will remain just the same whether it succeeds or fails. . . It is hardly necessary to add to this incontrovertible statement the further fact that the new President [141] has always repudiated all designs, whenever and wherever imputed to him, of disturbing the system of slavery as it has existed under the Constitution and laws.”

About the same time Mr. Lincoln stated to a party of Southern Congressmen, who called upon him, that he “recognized the rights of property that had grown out of it [slavery] and would respect those rights as fully as he would similar rights in any other property.”

No steps were taken by Mr. Lincoln to recall or repudiate the foregoing announcements. On the contrary, he confirmed them in his official action. He annulled the freedom proclamations of Fremont and Hunter. He did not interfere when some of his military officers were so busy returning fugitive slaves that they had no time to fight the masters. He approved Hallock's order Number Three excluding fugitives from the lines. He even permitted the poor old Hutchinsons to be sent away from the army very much as if they had been colored people, when trying to rouse “the boys” with their freedom songs. In many ways Mr. Lincoln showed that in the beginning and throughout the earlier part of his Administration he hoped to re-establish the Union without disturbing slavery. In effect he so declared in his introduction to his freedom proclamation. He gave the rebel slaveholders one hundred days in which to abandon their rebellion and save their institution. In view of such things it is no wonder that Henry Wilson, so long a leading Republican Senator from Massachusetts, in his Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, in speaking of emancipation, [142] said “it was a policy, indeed, which he [the President] did not personally favor except in connection with his favorite idea of colonization.”

It is needless to say that the President's attitude was a great surprise and a sore disappointment to the more radical Anti-Slavery people of the country, who had supported him with much enthusiasm and high hopes. They felt that they had been deceived. They said so very plainly, for the Abolitionists were not the sort of people to keep quiet under provocation. Horace Greeley published his signed attack (see Appendix) entitled, The Prayer of Twenty Millions, which is, without doubt, the most scathing denunciation in the English language. Henry Ward Beecher “pounded” Mr. Lincoln, as he expressed it. Wendell Phillips fairly thundered his denunciations. There was a general under-swell of indignation.

Now, Mr. Lincoln was not a man who was incapable of reading the signs of the times. He saw that he was drifting towards an irreparable breach with an element that had previously furnished his staunchest supporters. As a politician of great native shrewdness, as well as the head of the Government, he could not afford to let the quarrel go on and widen. There was need of conciliation. Something had to be done. We know what he did. He issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

As far as freeing any slaves was concerned, he knew it amounted to very little, if anything. He said so. Less than two weeks before the preliminary section of the proclamation appeared, Mr. Lincoln was waited on by a delegation of over one hundred [143] Chicago clergymen, who urged him to issue a proclamation of freedom for the slaves. “What good would a proclamation from me do, especially as we are now situated?” asked Mr. Lincoln by way of reply. “I do not want to issue a document that the whole world would see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope's bull against the comet. Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel States?”

In contemplating a proclamation applicable to the rebel States, it is hardly to be supposed that Mr. Lincoln did not understand the situation two weeks earlier quite as well as when the document appeared.

If Mr. Lincoln had been told, when he entered on the Presidency, that before his term of office would expire he would be hailed as “The great Emancipator,” he would have treated the statement as equal to one of his own best jokes. Slavery was a thing he did not then want to have disturbed. He discountenanced all radical agitators of the subject, and especially in the border slave States, where he was able to hold them pretty well in check, except in Missouri. There they stood up and fought him, and in the end beat him. One of the rather curious results of this condition of things was that, when the States came to action on the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment, the one absolutely abolishing slavery, the three border slave States of Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, over which the President's influence was practically supreme, gave an adverse vote of four to one, while Missouri, with whose radical emancipationists he had continuously been at loggerheads, ratified the amendment by a [144] legislative vote of one hundred and eleven ayes to forty nays.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the President, at the beginning of his official term, opposed Anti-Slavery agitation and Anti-Slavery action with all his might, he promptly faced about as soon as he discovered that the subject was one that would not “down.” No one ever worked harder to find a solution of a difficult problem than he did of the slavery question. He began to formulate plans to that end, the most distinguishing feature, however, being the spirit of compromise by which they were pervaded. All of them stopped before an ultimatum was reached. Besides his proclamation, which, as we have seen, applied to only a part of the slaves, he devised a measure that would have been applicable to all of them. In his special message of December, 1863, he proposed to Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment that would work universal liberation. There were conditions, however. One was that the slaves should be paid for by the Government; another that the masters might retain their uncompensated services until January i, 90000; that is, for a period of thirty-seven years, unless they were sooner emancipated by the grave, as the most of them would be. (See Appendix.)

The President's somewhat fantastic proposition was not claimed by him to be for the bondman's benefit. He urged it as a measure of public economy, holding that, as slavery was the admitted cause of the Rebellion, the quickest and surest way to remove that cause would be by purchase of all [145] the slaves, which, he insisted, “would shorten the war, and thus lessen the expenditure of money and blood.”

The public did not take to the President's plan at all, especially the Abolitionists did not. They no more favored the buying of men by the Government than by anybody else. They held that if the master had no right to the person of his bondman, he had no right to payment for him. And as for an arrangement that might prolong slaveholding for thirty-seven years, they saw in it not only a measure of injustice to the men, women, and children then in servitude, the most of whom would be doomed to bondage for the rest of their natural lives, but a possible plan for side-tracking a genuine freedom movement.

In the proposition just considered we have not only the core of the President's policy during much of his official tenure, but an explanation of his mental operations. He was sentimentally opposed to slavery, bat he was afraid of freedom. He dreaded its effect on both races. He was opposed to slavery more because it was a public nuisance than because of its injustice to the oppressed black man, whose condition, he did not believe, would be greatly, if at all, benefited by freedom. Hence he wanted manumission put off as long as possible. It was “ultimate extinction” he wanted, to be attended with payment to the master for his lost property. Another thing he favored-and which he seems to have thought entirely practicable — as a condition to liberation, was the black man's removal to a place or places out of contact with our white population. [146]

But in entire fairness to Mr. Lincoln, it should be said that, although his proclamation was inoperative for the immediate release of any slaves, it was by no means wholly ineffectual. Its moral influence was considerable. It helped to hasten a movement that had, however, by that time become practically irresistible. Its political results were far more marked and important. If it did not fully restore cordiality between the President and the Abolition leaders, it prevented an open rupture. It served as a bridge between them. Although they never took Mr. Lincoln fully into their confidence again, the Abolitionists interpreted his proclamation as a concession and an abandonment of his previous policy, which it was much more in appearance than actually. At all events, it was splendid politics. The somewhat theatrical manner in which it was worked up and promulgated in installments, thus arousing in advance a widespread interest and curiosity, showed no little strategic ability. No more skillful move is recorded in the history of our parties and partisans than this act of Mr. Lincoln, by which he disarmed his Anti-Slavery critics without giving them any material advantage or changing the actual situation. I am not now speaking of the motive underlying the proclamation of the President, but of its effect. Without it he could not have been renominated and re-elected.

Another observation, in order to be entirely just to Mr. Lincoln, after what has been stated, would at this point seem to be called for. There is no doubt that from the first he was at heart an Anti-Slavery man, which is saying a good deal for one [147] born in Kentucky, raised in southern Indiana and southern Illinois, and who was naturally of a conservative turn of mind. Nevertheless, he was never an Abolitionist. He was opposed to immediate-what he called “sudden” --emancipation. He recognized the “right” --his own word — of the slave-owner to his pound of flesh, either in the person of his bondman or a cash equivalent. He was strongly prejudiced against the negro. Of that fact we have the evidence in his colonization ideas. He favored the banishment of our American-born black people from their native land. It was a cruel proposition. True, the President did move from his first position, which, as we have seen, was far from that occupied by the Abolitionists, but from first to last he was more of a follower than leader in the procession.

And here the author wishes to add, in justice to himself, that if, by reason of anything he has said in this chapter, or elsewhere in this work, in criticism of Mr. Lincoln's dealings with the slavery issue, he should be accused of unfriendliness toward the great martyr President, he enters a full and strong denial. He holds that, in view of all the difficulties besetting him, Mr. Lincoln did well, although he might have done better. Much allowance, must be made to one situated as he was. He undoubtedly deserves the most of the encomiums that have been lavished upon him. At the same time, the conclusion is inevitable that his fame as a statesman will ultimately depend less upon his treatment of the slavery issue than upon any other part of his public administration. The fact will [148] always appear that it was the policy of Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and other advocates of the radical cure, with whom the President was in constant opposition, that prevailed in the end, and with a decisiveness that proves it to have been feasible and sound from the beginning. Mr. Lincoln's most ultra prescription-his Emancipation Proclamation — was ineffective. If it was intended to eradicate slavery altogether, it was too narrow; if to free the slaves of Rebels only, it was too broad. So with his other propositions. His thirtyseven-year-liberation scheme, his “tinkering off” policy (as he called it) for Missouri, his reconstruction proposals, and his colonization projects, all failed. Indeed, if we take his official action from first to last, it is a question whether the President, owing to his extreme conservatism, was not more of an obstructionist than a promoter of the Anti-Slavery cause.

Not that any change of opinion on the point just stated will materially affect the general estimate in which Mr. Lincoln is held. Although his popularity, due, in part at least, to the extravagance of over-zealous admirers, has without much doubt already passed its perihelion, it can never disappear or greatly diminish. His untiring and exhaustive labors for the Union, the many lovable traits of his unique personality, his unquestionable honesty, his courage, his patriotism, and, above all, his tragic taking off, have unalterably determined his place in the regard of his countrymen. Indeed, so strong is the admiration in which he is held, that it would be vain to attempt to disabuse many, by any amount [149] of proof and argument, of the opinion that African slavery in this country was actually and exclusively killed by a presidential edict. So firmly fixed in the popular belief is that historical myth that it will undoubtedly live for many years, if not generations, although history in the end will right it like all other misunderstandings.

Mr. Lincoln had his weaknesses and limitations, like other men. All must admit that his treatment of the slavery question was not without its mistakes. It has always seemed to the writer that his most ardent admirers seriously blunder in claiming superlativeness for him in that regard, and more especially in giving him credit for results that were due to the efforts of other men. His fame is secure without such misappropriation. He would not ask it if living, and it will in due time be condemned by history.

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