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Chapter 24.

  • Criticism of the President for his action on slavery
  • -- Lincoln's letters to Louisiana friends -- Greeley's open letter -- Mr. Lincoln's reply -- Chicago Clergymen urge emancipation -- Lincoln's answer- -- Lincoln issues preliminary proclamation -- President Proposes constitutional amendment -- cabinet Considers final proclamation -- cabinet discusses admission of West Virginia -- Lincoln signs Edict of freedom- -- Lincoln's letter to Hodges
    The secrets of the government were so well kept that no hint whatever came to the public that the President had submitted to the cabinet the draft of an emancipation proclamation. Between that date and the battle of the second Bull Run intervened the period of a full month, during which, in the absence of military movements or congressional proceedings to furnish exciting news, both private individuals and public journals turned a new and somewhat vindictive fire of criticism upon the administration. For this they seized upon the ever-ready text of the ubiquitous slavery question. Upon this issue the conservatives protested indignantly that the President had been too fast, while, contrarywise, the radicals clamored loudly that he had been altogether too slow. We have seen how his decision was unalterably taken and his course distinctly marked out, but that he was not yet ready publicly to announce it. Therefore, during this period [334] of waiting for victory, he underwent the difficult task of restraining the impatience of both sides, which he did in very positive language. Thus, under date of July 26, 1862, he wrote to a friend in Louisiana:

    Yours of the sixteenth, by the hand of Governor Shepley, is received. It seems the Union feeling in Louisiana is being crushed out by the course of General Phelps. Please pardon me for believing that is a false pretense. The people of Louisiana-all intelligent people everywhere-know full well that I never had a wish to touch the foundations of their society, or any right of theirs. With perfect knowledge of this, they forced a necessity upon me to send armies among them, and it is their own fault, not mine, that they are annoyed by the presence of General Phelps. They also know the remedy-know how to be cured of General Phelps. Remove the necessity of his presence .. I am a patient man-always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance, and also to give ample time for repentance. Still, I must save this government, if possible. What I cannot do, of course I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.

    Two days later he answered another Louisiana critic:

    Mr. Durant complains that, in various ways, the relation of master and slave is disturbed by the presence of our army, and he considers it particularly vexatious that this, in part, is done under cover of an act of Congress, while constitutional guarantees are suspended on the plea of military necessity. The truth is that what is done and omitted about slaves is done [335] and omitted on the same military necessity. It is a military necessity to have men and money; and we can get neither in sufficient numbers or amounts if we keep from or drive from our lines slaves coming to them, Mr. Durant cannot be ignorant of the pressure in this direction, nor of my efforts to hold it within bounds till he and such as he shall have time to help themselves. . . . What would you do in my position? Would you drop the war where it is? Or would you prosecute it in future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rose-water? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones? Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied? I am in no boastful mood. I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can, to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination. I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.

    The President could afford to overlook the misrepresentations and invective of the professedly opposition newspapers, but he had also to meet the over-zeal of influential Republican editors of strong antislavery bias. Horace Greeley printed, in the New York Tribune of August 20, a long “open letter” ostentatiously addressed to Mr. Lincoln, full of unjust censure, all based on the general accusation that the President, and many army officers as well, were neglecting their duty under pro-slavery influences and sentiments. The open letter which Mr. Lincoln wrote in reply is remarkable not alone for the skill with which it separated the true from the false issue of the moment, but also for the equipoise and dignity with which it maintained his authority as moral arbiter between the contending factions. [336]

    Executive Mansion, Washington, August 22, 1862.
    Hon. Horace Greeley.
    Dear Sir: I have just read yours of the nineteenth, addressed to myself through the New York Tribune. If there be in it any statements or assumptions of fact which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not, now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptible in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

    As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing,” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

    I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could, at the same time, destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall [337] believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

    I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.


    A. Lincoln.

    It can hardly be doubted that President Lincoln, when he wrote this letter, intended that it should have a twofold effect upon public opinion: first, that it should curb extreme antislavery sentiment to greater patience; secondly, that it should rouse dogged proslavery conservatism, and prepare it for the announcement which he had resolved to make at the first fitting opportunity. At tine date of the letter, he very well knew that a serious conflict of arms was soon likely to occur in Virginia; and he had strong reason to hope that the junction of the armies of McClellan and Pope which had been ordered, and was then in progress, could be successfully effected, and would result in a decisive Union victory. This hope, however, was sadly disappointed. The second battle of Bull Run, which occurred one week after the Greeley letter,, proved a serious defeat, and necessitated a further postponement of his contemplated action.

    As a secondary effect of the new disaster, there came upon him once more an increased pressure to make reprisal upon what was assumed to be the really vulnerable side of the rebellion. On September 13, he was visited by an influential deputation from the religious denominations of Chicago, urging him to issue at once [338] a proclamation of universal emancipation. His reply to them, made in the language of the most perfect courtesy, nevertheless has in it a tone of rebuke that indicates the state of irritation and high sensitiveness under which he was living from day to day. In the actual condition of things, he could neither safely satisfy them nor deny them. As any answer he could make would be liable to misconstruction, he devoted the larger part of it to pointing out the unreasonableness of their dogmatic insistence:

    I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps, in some respects, both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me. .. . What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope's bull against the comet. . . . Understand, I raise no objections against it on legal or constitutional grounds, for, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy; nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. I view this matter as a practical war measure, to be decided on according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion . . Do not misunderstand me because I have mentioned these objections. They indicate the difficulties that have thus far prevented my action in some such way [339] as you desire. I have not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves, but hold the matter under advisement. And I can assure you that the subject is on my mind, by day and night, more than any other. Whatever shall appear to be God's will, I will do.

    Four days after this interview the battle of Antietam was fought, and when, after a few days of uncertainty, it was ascertained that it could be reasonably claimed as a Union victory, the President resolved to carry out his long-matured purpose. The diary of Secretary Chase has recorded a very full report of the interesting transaction. On this ever memorable September 22, 1862, after some playful preliminary talk, Mr. Lincoln said to his cabinet:

    gentlemen: I have, as you are aware, thought a great deal about the relation of this war to slavery; and you all remember that, several weeks ago, I read to you an order I had prepared on this subject, which, on account of objections made by some of you, was not issued. Ever since then my mind has been much occupied with this subject, and I have thought, all along, that the time for acting on it might probably come. I think the time has come now. I wish it was a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked. But they have been driven out of Maryland, and Pennsylvania is no longer in danger of invasion. When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a proclamation of emancipation, such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to any one, but I made the promise to myself and [hesitating a little] to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfil that promise. I have got you together to hear what I have written down. I do not wish your advice about [340] the main matter, for that I have determined for myself. This I say without intending anything but respect for any one of you. But I already know the views of each on this question. They have been heretofore expressed, and I have considered them as thoroughly and carefully as I can. What I have written is that which my reflections have determined me to say. If there is anything in the expressions I use, or in any minor matter, which any one of you thinks had best be changed, I shall be glad to receive the suggestions. One other observation I will make. I know very well that many others might, in this matter as in others, do better than I can; and if I was satisfied that the public confidence was more fully possessed by any one of them than by me, and knew of any constitutional way in which he could be put in my place, he should have it. I would gladly yield it to him. But, though I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some time since, I do not know that, all things considered, any other person has more; and, however this may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here; I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.

    The members of the cabinet all approved the policy of the measure; Mr. Blair only objecting that he thought the time inopportune, while others suggested some slight amendments. In the new form in which it was printed on the following morning, the document announced a renewal of the plan of compensated abolishment, a continuance of the effort at voluntary colonization, a promise to recommend ultimate compensation to loyal owners, and-

    “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all [341] persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

    Pursuant to these announcements, the President's annual message of December I, 1862, recommended to Congress the passage of a joint resolution proposing to the legislatures of the several States a constitutional amendment consisting of three articles, namely: One providing compensation in bonds for every State which should abolish slavery before the year 1900; another securing freedom to all slaves who, during the rebellion, had enjoyed actual freedom by the chances of war --also providing compensation to legal owners; the third authorizing Congress to provide for colonization. The long and practical argument in which he renewed this plan, “not in exclusion of, but additional to, all others for restoring and preserving the national authority throughout the Union,” concluded with the following eloquent sentences:

    We can succeed only by concert. It is not, “Can any of us imagine better?” but, “Can we all do better?” Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, “Can we do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

    Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We, of [342] this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We-even we here-hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free-honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth. Other means may succeed, this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

    But Mr. Lincoln was not encouraged by any response to this earnest appeal, either from Congress or by manifestations of public opinion. Indeed, it may be fairly presumed that he expected none. Perhaps he considered it already a sufficient gain that it was silently accepted as another admonition of the consequences which not he nor his administration, but the Civil War, with its relentless agencies, was rapidly bringing about. He was becoming more and more conscious of the silent influence of his official utterances on public sentiment, if not to convert obstinate opposition, at least to reconcile it to patient submission.

    In that faith he steadfastly went on carrying out his well-matured plan, the next important step of which was the fulfilment of the announcements made in the preliminary emancipation proclamation of September 22. On December 30, he presented to each member of his cabinet a copy of the draft he had carefully made [343] of the new and final proclamation to be issued on New Year's day. It will be remembered that as early as July 22, he informed the cabinet that the main question involved he had decided for himself. Now, as twice before, it was only upon minor points that he asked their advice and suggestion, for which object he placed these drafts in their hands for verbal and collateral criticism.

    In addition to the central point of military emancipation in all the States yet in rebellion, the President's draft for the first time announced his intention to incorporate a portion of the newly liberated slaves into the armies of the Union. This policy had also been under discussion at the first consideration of the subject in July. Mr. Lincoln had then already seriously considered it, but thought it inexpedient and productive of more evil than good at that date. In his judgment, the time had now arrived for energetically adopting it.

    On the following day, December 31, the members brought back to the cabinet meeting their several criticisms and suggestions on the draft he had given them. Perhaps the most important one was that earnestly pressed by Secretary Chase, that the new proclamation should make no exceptions of fractional parts of States controlled by the Union armies, as in Louisiana and Virginia, save the forty-eight counties of the latter designated as West Virginia, then in process of formation and admission as a new State; the constitutionality of which, on this same December 31, was elaborately discussed in writing by the members of the cabinet, and affirmatively decided by the President.

    On the afternoon of December 31, the cabinet meeting being over, Mr. Lincoln once more carefully rewrote the proclamation, embodying in it the suggestions which had been made as to mere verbal [344] improvements; but he rigidly adhered to his own draft in retaining the exceptions as to fractional parts of States and the forty-eight counties of West Virginia; and also his announcement of intention to enlist the freedmen in military service. Secretary Chase had submitted the form of a closing paragraph. This the President also adopted, but added to it, after the words “warranted by the Constitution,” his own important qualifying correction, “upon military necessity.”

    The full text of the weighty document will be found in a foot-note.1 It recited the announcement of the [345] September proclamation; defined its character and authority as a military decree; designated the States and parts of States that day in rebellion against the government; ordered and declared that all persons held as slaves therein “are and henceforward shall be free” ; and that such persons of suitable condition would be received into the military service. “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

    The conclusion of the momentous transaction was [346] as deliberate and simple as had been its various stages of preparation. The morning and midday of January I, 1863, were occupied by the half-social, half-official ceremonial of the usual New Year's day reception at the Executive Mansion, established by long custom. At about three o'clock in the afternoon, after full three hours of greetings and handshakings, Mr. Lincoln and perhaps a dozen persons assembled in the executive office, and, without any prearranged ceremony, the President affixed his signature to the great Edict of Freedom. No better commentary will ever be written upon this far-reaching act than that which he himself embodied in a letter written to a friend a little more than a year later:

    I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government, that nation, of which that [347] Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law, life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures otherwise unconstitutional might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution if, to save slavery or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together. When, early in the war, General Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When, a little later, General Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, General Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When in March and May and July, 1862, I made earnest and successive appeals to the border States to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation and arming the blacks would come unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition, and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter.


    By the President of the United States of America: a proclamation.

    Whereas on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

    That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

    That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof respectively shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be in good faith represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State and the people thereof are not then in rebellion against the United States.

    Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States, in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof, respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

    Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terre Bonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

    And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

    And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

    And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

    And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

    In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

    L. S. Done at the city of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

    Abraham Lincoln. By the President: William H. Seward, Secretary of State.

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