The Emancipation Proclamation

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Emancipation Proclamation

(Historic Moments: North American History)

Article abstract: In an effort to preserve the Union, President Lincoln declares all slaves in rebel states to be free.

Summary of Event

The cabinet met at noon on September 22, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln sought to put the members at ease by reading to them from a book of humorous stories, but soon he came to the business at hand. The president announced that he intended to issue that day an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln stated that, since he had consulted the cabinet on the subject before, he desired no comments from them on this occasion. Then he read the proclamation. As of January 1, 1863, all slaves held in states “in rebellion against the United States” would be forever free.

Lincoln had not reached his decision to proclaim emancipation without much thinking and soul-searching. From his youth, he had opposed slavery on both moral and economic grounds. Yet Lincoln was a practical politician and a pragmatic man. He negotiated the secession crisis always inspired by a desire to preserve the Union. It is fair to say that Lincoln wished to abolish slavery but would translate his wish into action only if abolition would enhance his efforts to attain peace. Because he was a practical man, Lincoln realized that emancipation was only part of the solution to the problem of race relations in the United States. He foresaw the plight of the freed slaves and favored compensated emancipation (emancipation accompanied by compensation for former slave owners) and voluntary colonization for African Americans to soften racial adjustment. Because of the priority Lincoln gave to union, until 1862 he subordinated his convictions and tentative solutions about slavery to the struggle for union. In part, Lincoln hedged on the idea of emancipation so as not to risk the secession of the loyal slave states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—to the Confederacy.

The president did not find it easy to divorce the ideals of union and emancipation. Both abolitionist ideologists and practical men pressed him to expand his administration’s war aims to include emancipation and had done so since the Civil War began in 1861. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts carried on a one-man campaign to move Lincoln to action on the question of slavery. Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune criticized the Lincoln Administration for its lack of concern for the moral issue. Delegations of citizens petitioned Lincoln to act against human bondage. Lincoln heard these and other pleas but made no commitment to official action.

Sometime in the late spring of 1862, the president made his decision. The war was not going as well as he wished; emancipation would not hinder the effort and might help. He determined to emancipate the slaves by presidential proclamation. Lincoln still pondered the timing of his momentous step, and so he told no one of his decision. He retreated often from the White House to the telegraph room of the War Department, in search of privacy. Early in June, the president began drafting his proclamation in the telegraph room. He worked slowly and kept his own counsel. Between mid-June and mid-July, Lincoln spoke with a few members of his administration about the step he contemplated.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln read a draft proclamation to the entire cabinet and asked for comment. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton applauded the document and expressed the opinion that emancipation would assist the war effort. Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the Treasury, thought the move too sudden and sweeping. Chase favored emancipation by the military, as areas of the South were occupied by federal troops. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair feared political repercussions in the fall congressional elections and predicted doom for the Republicans should the president carry out his intentions. Secretary of State William H. Seward’s comments impressed Lincoln most of all. Seward favored the issuance of an emancipation proclamation but questioned...

(The entire section is 1,343 words.)