Monday, April 17, 2017
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by Alen C. Guelzo
I received the book Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by Allen C. Guelzo at a Hillsdale function for educators. The purpose was to teach how to teach the Civil War. The book has sat on my shelf for about a year while I worked through other books. It's too bad it took me so long. It is a wonderful and engrossing read. It's a history book the way history books should be. It carries you along in a narrative that feels like it's unfolding in real time. You feel the tension and the backdrop under which Lincoln struggled to free the slaves.
Of his research, Guelzo states, "The most salient feature to emerge from the sixteen months between [Lincoln's] inauguration and the first presentation of the Proclamation to his cabinet on July 22, 1862, is the consistency with which Lincoln's face was set toward the goal of emancipation from the day he first took the presidential oath." (p. 4) He further states, "I believe that Abraham Lincoln understood from the first that his administration was the beginning of the end of slavery and that he would not leave office without some form of legislative emancipation policy in place." (p. 6) Today, Lincoln is often derided for not doing enough, but Guelzo shows that not only did Lincoln do all he could, he was able to navigate a minefield better than anyone else of his day to push the country towards true equality. Most of all, Lincoln understood the danger posed by anything other than a legislative solution. He had seen the damage the judiciary could do in Dred Scott. This acknowledgement of the danger any proclamation would face on myriad fronts explains the legal language, so widely criticized. It may not have been flowery or lyrical, but it accomplished a significant change in America.
Guelzo has organized his book into five broad chapters. The first is called "Four Ways to Freedom," and details the efforts after the Civil War began but preceding the Proclamation to free slaves. The election of Abraham Lincoln started the whispers of freedom among the slaves. Lincoln believed this as well, but unlike the Abolitionists, he preferred a gradual, orderly emancipation that would pass Constitutional muster. However, a war would come first. Once Union troops began to show up in the South, slaves made their way to the encampments, believing that if they could just get there, they would be free. This presented a logistical problem of what to do with them. In addition, General Fremont was in Missouri declaring all the slave free under Martial Law. This was a mess Constitutionally and a PR disaster with the border states. Legally the Fugitive Slave Act was still in force. A case could be made that the slaves were war materiel, but only if it could be proved that their ownership furthered the Confederacy's efforts. This was hard to determine and hard to enforce. Generals, making decisions in the field, often led to contradictory and unconstitutional outcomes. While the Confiscation Act was passed by Congress to try to clear up the ad hoc methodology, nothing was permanent and the future of the freed slaves was wholly unknown. Whether they were considered contraband, confiscated from Confederate forces, or declared free through Martial Law, this was not the way to free the slaves.
Lincoln, while appearing maddeningly indifferent to the efforts of those in the field to free slaves, had a plan he felt could pass constitutionally and would forever guarantee the slaves' freedom. He wanted the federal government to buy the slaves, emancipate them, and then work with states to legally outlaw slavery in their respective state. He had a plan for gradual emancipation that would allow for time to transition the slaves into the role of freemen. In addition, he favored colonization for the freed slaves in either Africa, the West Indies, or South America. He believed there was far too much water under the bridge for blacks and whites to ever live together peacefully. Although his plan would be very expensive, he thought he could appeal to the border states, and eventually the South with compensation. It would, after all, cost less than a war, and be far less damaging to the country.
Lincoln thought Delaware would be the place to start with his plan. He surreptitiously introduced his idea to some Delaware legislators. He was disheartened to find little support. Even from blacks themselves. It seemed that abolition had come to mean that whites would be free of the problem of slavery, and they did not much care what would happen to the freed slaves. The slaves were not interested in colonization or in any plan orchestrated by whites, ostensibly for their own good. They wanted to be involved in determining their destiny. Whites worried that once the slaves were free, they would come to live and work among them, and racist attitudes could not stomach that. Ironically, they preferred to send their sons and husbands to war, fighting for abstract ideals, to actually emancipating slaves and having to deal with a post-emancipation society. As is so common to humans, we fight for something because it makes us feel good, but the actual consequences of success are neglected and ignored. Abraham Lincoln's plan forced Northern whites to face the consequences of their feel-good ideas, and they didn't like them. Meanwhile, McClellan's intransigence in fighting the war and his veiled threats of a military coup, led a discouraged Lincoln to conclude that gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization was not going to happen.
Finally, Lincoln came to the conclusion, that in order to save the Union, he would have to put forth an Emancipation Proclamation that would forever free the slaves in the rebellious states. This, he believed, would shift the focus of the war and clarify the position of slavery henceforth. When he presented it to his cabinet, he brooked no argument except as to his wording. He knew a hostile Supreme Court would do all in its power to nullify it. But he believed he had the power under the not-as-yet-defined war powers, and he intended to use it. Additionally, he did not believe it could be called unconstitutional because, definitionally the southern states had excluded themselves from the protections of the Constitution when they seceded. After taking a few suggestions from a stunned cabinet, he was presented with the option to wait for a military victory before issuing it. The thought was that if he put forth the Proclamation when the war was going badly, it would look like a desperate move and lead to discouragement. By waiting for a victory, he could ride that momentum. But a victory with McClellan would take a miracle. Not a particularly religious man for most of his life, Abraham Lincoln was beginning to see the need for God in his life. Yet he would serve Him in his own way. In fact, when a group of ministers met with him, saying that God wanted him to declare emancipation, Lincoln rashly replied that God should speak directly to him if that was the case. It didn't take long before that happened. In a field, some Union soldiers came across Lee's war plans wrapped around cigars. Even McClellan could not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with such divine backing. After the win, and of course McClellan did not pursue Lee to finish it off, Lincoln had his divine sign that the time was right. In September, after telling his cabinet that he discerned the hand of God in the timing, he issued the Proclamation, designed to go into effect on January 1. He gave the rebellious states four months to stand down.
Abraham kept the country guessing right up until the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was officially issued whether or not he would actually do it. When he put it into action on January 1 as he promised, the country reacted in celebrations and denunciations. His friends and allies split. Some called it unconstitutional, while others rushed to his defense. Even these however, rested their case on shaky ground. While he justified the act under his war powers, granted by the Constitution, he felt compelled to add an handwritten note at the end to further explicate his rationality. He had worded the declaration very carefully, trying to escape a legal challenge. However, he added, "Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgement of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God." (p. 203) Lincoln knew he had to shore up the proclamation with his plan for gradual, compensated emancipation. Even his supporters were aware of the extent to which he had stretched the war powers. He also took this opportunity to fire General McClellan. All of this before the upcoming 1864 elections. He played his whole hand and relied on the country to support him and return him to office.
The expected race wars that were assumed did not happen. Rather, the North won the war, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed, and Reconstruction began. Unfortunately, the South devolved into Jim Crow. For the 50th anniversary, the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated, but by the 100th anniversary, the document began to be derided. It was clear by this time that the promise had not fully materialized. That would take a bit more time.
Abraham Lincoln deserves his vaunted place in history for being a true statesman capable of navigating unimaginably difficult waters. He balanced so many competing positions and I believe he perfectly threaded the needle. Although what followed was not something to necessarily take pride in, I think that had he lived, we would have seen a far different outcome. While he was disappointed with Abraham Lincoln's commitment to abolition in many ways, Frederick Douglass summed it up well. "Measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined... [Lincoln] is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever." (p. 283)