The Emancipation of Abraham Lincoln
The pivotal moment in both the Civil War and in Lincoln’s views on race occurred on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. While criticized by contemporaries and scholars for its conditional nature and its lack of style (Richard Hofstadter famously remarked that it “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading”), the Emancipation Proclamation changed the terms of the war from one of restoring the old Union to a revolution that would create a “new nation, conceived in liberty” by also destroying slavery. It also unleashed the forces that compelled Abraham Lincoln to emancipate himself from his racist attitudes, and and confront directly the place of blacks in America.
The Final Emancipation Proclamation punctures one of the biggest holes in the Libertarian caricature of “Lincoln the Racist” propagated by Thomas DiLorenzo. This caricature is based on Lincoln’s words in addresses, speeches, and actions before 1863—before the Emancipation Proclamation. This is because the Proclamation itself, and the Lincoln that emerges during its implementation, defy the cartoon racist Lincoln that DiLorenzo has drawn for his audience. DiLorenzo attempts to freeze Lincoln in time as a white supremacist, allowing for no change over the years of the war. In this cartoon, Lincoln simply used blacks for his own nefarious purposes.¹
This cartoon, of course, is incompatible with the reality of Lincoln’s words and deeds in 1863. In this period, Lincoln underwent a change. While we can never know to what extent Lincoln rid himself of his racist views, we can see that his views did change, and that he came to understand that, whatever his personal prejudice—and whatever the white public’s prejudice—black Americans clearly were Americans, and deserving of most of the rights enjoyed by whites.
The Emancipation Proclamation was the most radical act of Lincoln’s presidency. It was also the most unpopular act of his presidency. Libertarians and other Lincoln Loathers point to its conditions—that it famously freed very few slaves on the day of its issue—and its sterility—that it had no soaring language (although, I admit they make this a minor complaint, since Loathers despise all of Lincoln’s eloquence as cynical)—as evidence of Lincoln’s racism. This is because they A) refuse to properly understand the Proclamation; and B) its conditions and language, coupled with Lincoln’s subsequent defense of the Proclamation, actually show Lincoln’s personal realignment on race.²
The Emancipation Proclamation has been thoroughly and richly analyzed by scholars—James Oakes and Eric Foner to name just two recent excellent works—and we need not recapitulate the whole of that analysis here. It’s enough for our purposes to focus on two paragraphs in particular that reveal some of Lincoln’s feelings about blacks.
First, the Proclamation urges slaves to free themselves and flee north. In so doing, Lincoln
… enjoin[ed] upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages. [My emphasis]
The qualifiers in this sentence are quite remarkable, as Eric Foner points out [at minute 54:18 ]. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, a couple days after the Battle of Antietam, had been criticized by Democrats who feared it would foment servile insurrection, and encourage blacks to murder whites in their beds. Lincoln certainly did not want that. But neither would he insist that newly freed blacks remain helpless. And so the Final Emancipation Proclamation recognized that self-defense in the name of freedom was a completely reasonable and justifiable use of violence—as much for blacks as whites. In addition, Lincoln hoped that the freedmen would work for the military, thus freeing up many white laborers for military service. The Final EP extolls blacks to work for “reasonable wages”—not merely “wages.” Why? Lincoln need not have used this extra word, and when considering a master wordsmith like Lincoln, we must consider every word carefully. The answer, as Foner puts it, is that he was communicating with blacks as people—not as property, not as chattel.
Second is the Proclamation’s next paragraph, which held the key to Lincoln’s evolution in thought on race:
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. [My emphasis]
One practical reason for issuing the Proclamation was to drain the Confederacy of the manpower it used for logistical support as slaves ran away to Union lines. But that negative—depriving the South—could become a positive for the North. Defeat after defeat on the battlefield had cooled Northern enthusiasm and slowed recruitment into the Union Army. Those numbers could easily be made up by recruiting blacks, arming them, training them, giving the blue uniform of their country.
But the thing about doing this is that using black troops would invariably alter the legal status of blacks in the country. As Frederick Douglass said in a March, 1863 speech:
Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.
And it was this participation by over 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army, as much as anything else, that changed the Civil War into a true revolution; and, for our purposes, forced Lincoln to reconsider, again and again, the status of blacks in American society. And there is no way Lincoln did not understand these implications–this power–within the Proclamation.
Think about this for a moment, in the context of mid-nineteenth century America–an America where racism was endemic, where in the South slavery and the terror regarding slave insurrection reigned: black men were to take up arms and kill white men. While this sounds completely unremarkable to us today (or, at least I hope it is unremarkable), at the time of the war it must have turned the world upside down. Certainly, the Confederacy reacted in shocked horror, as the words of Jefferson Davis attest (“The most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man”), and the actions of Confederate soldiers at Fort Pillow and The Crater show.
I said that the Emancipation Proclamation was the most unpopular action of Lincoln’s administration, and it was. Lincoln very much needed to explain to white Americans what he had done and why. One such explanation occurred in August of 1863. Lincoln was asked to come to a rally of true-blue Union men in Illinois, but he couldn’t leave Washington. However, he did send a letter to be read “very slowly” to these supporters. The letter was, however, clearly aimed at disloyal “peace” Democrats (or Copperheads), and their hostility toward the Emancipation Proclamation. But even more than just calling out Copperheads, this use of a public letter had become Lincoln’s method of explaining to all Americans—Republican and Democrat—his ultimate thinking on emancipation.³
In this “Letter to Conkling,” Lincoln first outlines the disagreement between him and the Copperheads:
But, to be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro. Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose you do not. Yet I have neither adopted, nor proposed any measure, which is not consistent with even your view, provided you are for the Union. I suggested compensated emancipation; to which you replied you wished not to be taxed to buy negroes. But I had not asked you to be taxed to buy negroes, except in such way, as to save you from greater taxation to save the Union exclusively by other means.
He points out that he tried other methods, and they failed. Lincoln also addresses the legality of the Proclamation:
You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional—think differently. I think the constitution invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy? Armies, the world over, destroy enemies’ property when they can not use it; and even destroy their own to keep it from the enemy. Civilized belligerents do all in their power to help themselves, or hurt the enemy, except a few things regarded as barbarous or cruel. Among the exceptions are the massacre of vanquished foes, and non-combatants, male and female….
He then offers a remarkable and pragmatic observation on the motivation of blacks, and their new partnership to save the Union:
You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.
I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept…. [My emphasis]
Finally, Lincoln makes a devastating comparison between the Copperheads and black soldiers:
Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost. And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it. [My emphasis]
The imagery here is unforgettable. Blacks as soldiers (which the image of the bayonet makes clear) with their determination are doing more than disloyal whites to save the country. Who, then, is the true patriot? But, really, they are doing far more than just saving the country. Black soldiers were not merely fighting to restore the Union; they were helping “mankind on to this great consummation.” Consummating what? And what would come of such a consummation?
One doesn’t find an overabundance of birth-type metaphors in Lincoln’s addresses or speeches, so it is a bit striking when they do show up. In August, he spoke of a “consummation.” By November, at Gettysburg, that consummation ripened into “a new nation, conceived in liberty” and a “new birth of freedom.” There is no indication that Lincoln the Writer consciously carried over this imagery to the Gettysburg Address, but the link to “birth metaphor” is there nonetheless. And the two documents taken together strongly imply that the consummation provided in part by blacks was indeed gestating into the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln describes at Gettysburg.
Of course, this “new nation” created by the Civil War–and “midwifed” by American blacks–was something different than the old Union. This is because Lincoln had finally freed himself of his Jeffersonian prejudices, and given up on what had been the basis of the old Union: the Free White Republic that had lingered in his (and most white Americans’) imagination–the one whose loss he had lamented to the black clergymen back in August of 1862. This new nation could no longer be a white republic with a black sub-nation uncomfortably embedded within it. The logic of black military service confounded that. There would be no removal—no colonization—of this population. The new nation was to be one nation. The valor and blood of black Americans ensured in Lincoln’s mind their fitness for citizenship—and, as it turns out, much more.
In the next (and last) post in this series, we will see how Lincoln’s proximity to blacks helped to free him from his prejudice, and helped him to see blacks as something like full-fledged Americans.
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¹ In The Real Lincoln, DiLorenzo does spend time on the Emancipation Proclamation, but only to show its divisive nature in Northern society. And even there, his hackneyed analysis is badly out of context.
² As with any critique of The Real Lincoln, the work of James Epperson at http://www.jfepperson.org/dilorenz.htm is invaluable.
³ For a summary of the context of the Conkling Letter, see Louis P. Masur’s piece in the “Disunion” series in the New York Times, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/read-it-very-slowly/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1; for a quick, excellent overview of Lincoln’s use of public letters, see Brooks Simpson’s talk here: http://www.c-span.org/video/?310863-1/abraham-lincolns-war-policies . Reference to both these pieces is at Crossroads.