Abraham Lincoln Saved the Union, But Did He Really Free the Slaves?

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2004

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America by Allen C. GuelzoLincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America
Allen C. Guelzo (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004)

There was a time when every schoolboy learned that Abraham Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, they also learned, was a critically important step in achieving that goal.

Many historians have called this old conventional wisdom into question, arguing that Lincoln was not really motivated by commitment to end slavery. The proof, they claim, is his famous letter to Horace Greeley in which he wrote that “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or 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.”

Many of Lincoln’s critics, especially African-Americans, go so far as to claim that he was no friend of blacks and did not want to risk the political fallout that would surely result from emancipation, but was eventually forced by circumstances to do so. In the words of Julius Lester, “Blacks have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln. How come it took him two whole years to free the slaves? His pen was sitting on his desk the entire time.”

Many also have questioned the real significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, arguing that it was merely a piece of propaganda and that it actually freed no slaves. As Richard Hofstadter wrote, “had the political strategy of the moment called for a momentous human document of the stature of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln could have risen to the occasion.” Instead, he produced a document with “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” In addition, the document he issued only freed slaves where the federal government had no power. It did not apply to slaves in the loyal slave states or in those parts of the Confederacy under Union control. Indeed, Lincoln did not free the slaves; they freed themselves.

Unfortunately, Lincoln’s defenders often don’t do him any favors. They claim either that he “grew in office,” progressing from a position of moral indifference and ignorance regarding emancipation at the time of his election to one who came to favor black freedom by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, or that he had the patience to wait for the opportune moment to issue the proclamation.

In his magnificent new book, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, Allen Guelzo makes a strong case for the old conventional wisdom: Lincoln was indeed committed to ending slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation played a central role in achieving this goal. Guelzo argues, indeed, that “the Emancipation Proclamation was the most revolutionary pronouncement ever signed by an American president, striking the legal shackles from four million black slaves and setting the nation’s face toward the total abolition of slavery within three more years.”

Guelzo’s earlier book, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President received the Lincoln Prize for 2000, but if he doesn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for history for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, there is no justice. The book is a tour de force, making it impossible for anyone to take seriously the simplistic views of Lincoln and the Proclamation that all-too-often dominate the historical debate today.

Guelzo carefully examines the alternatives available to Lincoln. He places Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of political and military events. He “connects the dots,” making clear linkages that others have missed. He ends by tracing the way in which the reputation of the Proclamation has evolved over time, noting with particular sadness the defection of African-Americans from the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. It’s a long way from Frederick Douglass to Lerone Bennett.

Guelzo claims that to understand Lincoln’s approach to emancipation, one must recognize the role of prudence, the virtue that Aristotle claimed was most characteristic of the statesman, in his actions with respect to emancipation. Prudence is the practical wisdom that seeks the best means for achieving fixed ends. Since the ends are fixed, prudence is concerned with deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means). In political affairs, prudence requires the statesman to be able to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the means that are best given existing circumstances. For Lincoln to achieve the end of ending slavery while preserving the Union, he had to choose the means necessary and proper under the circumstances.

Guelzo contends that neither Lincoln’s critics nor his defenders understand the politics of prudence. The former criticize him for not sacrificing everything to the absolute moral good of emancipation. The latter pull means and ends apart and then apologize for the first or attempt to explain away the second.

Guelzo argues persuasively that Lincoln’s “face was set toward the goal of emancipation from the day he first took the presidential oath.” To achieve this goal, he planned to pursue a policy of legislated, gradual, compensated emancipation from the very outset of his presidency. He believed he could convince Congress to appropriate funds for compensating slave owners to gradually free their slaves. His plan was to begin where slavery was weakest: in the northern most slave states, especially Delaware.

The key to his strategy was to convince the legislatures of slave states to changes their statutes relating to slavery. The Constitution after all left the issue of slavery to the states. This state legislative strategy also offered the best chance for keeping the issue of emancipation out of the federal court system, where an unfavorable judgment could set back its prospects. This strategy also explains what seems to be his total lack of concern about the consequences of the proposal at the beginning of his term for an amendment foreclosing forever the possibility that the federal government could interfere with the institution of slavery, even by future amendment.

But while he was willing to accept this proposal as a way of bringing the seven states that had seceded back into the Union fold, he adamantly refused any compromise on the expansion of slavery. In a series of letters written to Lyman Trumbull, William Kellogg, Elihu Washburne, and Thurlow Weed in December, 1860, Lincoln adjured them to “entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery.”

Lincoln believed that if he could prevent the expansion of slavery into the federal territories and prevail upon state legislatures to accept gradual, compensated emancipation, he could shrink slavery, making it uneconomical and place it back on the eventual road to extinction that he believed the Founders had envisioned. The outbreak of war derailed the original version of his grand scheme, but even after the war began, Lincoln believed that if he could convince the legislatures of the loyal slave states to agree to compensated emancipation, he could end the rebellion, restore the Union, and begin the end of slavery. He reasoned that the combination of military success against the Confederacy and compensated emancipation in the loyal slave states would lead to the collapse of the Confederacy, which had staked its hopes on eventually incorporating the so-called border states.

But neither condition came to pass: Lincoln’s proposals for compensated emancipation were rejected by the border-states, and the Army of the Potomac under Gen. George McClellan was driven back from Richmond after coming close to capturing it. Lincoln concluded that he did not have the time to pursue his preferred legislative strategy in the border states and that therefore something stronger and more precipitous was needed to bring the war to a successful conclusion. The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s response to the failure of Union arms and compensated emancipation. The time had come, as he wrote to Cuthbert Bullitt, to stop waging war “with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water.” Thus after Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September that gave the Confederates one hundred days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation.

Lincoln took an immense gamble by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. It was foremost a political gamble. Those who argue that Lincoln was only “waiting for the right time” to issue the Proclamation must confront the fact that because of his action, the Republicans paid an enormous price during the 1862 elections. Guelzo writes that “the timing of the Proclamation amounted to political suicide.” Lincoln put the most highly charged issue of the war before the voters in the midst of an un-won conflict. Votes for Republicans fell by 16 percent from 1860. The Party suffered disastrous setbacks in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, New York and New Jersey. As Guelzo remarks, “it is one measure of Lincoln’s reverence for constitutional process that it seems never to have entered his head to use his war powers to declare a national emergency and suspend the elections.”

The Proclamation was also a gamble because it opened the possibility that emancipation would end up in the federal courts. Lincoln feared that if the federal judiciary under Chief Justice Roger Taney ever took up emancipation, it would become in effect the guarantor of slavery, setting back the prospect for all future emancipation just as Dred Scott had set back the effort to prevent the expansion of slavery into the Territories. The fact that the Prize Cases, which essentially affirmed the legality of the Union’s conduct of the war, were decided by a vote of only 5-4 in the midst of the war seems to confirm Lincoln’s desire to keep emancipation out of the courts.

This desire also explains his preference for compensated emancipation over the alternatives: treatment of fugitive slaves under federal control as “contrabands of war;” confiscation; and emancipation as part of martial law. All, he believed, were unconstitutional and open to legal challenge. Indeed, it was possible that even after a successful war to subdue the rebellion, a slave holder whose property had been seized in this manner could sue successfully in federal court. “…[O]nce the war emergency was over,” writes Guelzo, “the federal dockets would fill up with appeals that either attacked [martial law emancipation] proclamations as unconstitutional or denied that specific cases really fell within the definitions of the proclamation.”

In addition, they put Lincoln in a quandary concerning the status of the Confederacy. To apply confiscation and contraband as they were understood in international law gave the Confederacy belligerent status. This was at odds with Lincoln’s insistence that the states of the Confederacy could never legally leave the Union. On the other hand, if the war was only a domestic rebellion, as Lincoln held, then confiscation of slave contraband violated the constitutional prohibition against attainder.

A similar problem arose with the use of martial law to effect emancipation. For this reason Lincoln revoked the emancipation that General John C. Fremont proclaimed in Missouri at the beginning of the war. Lincoln believed that to invoke emancipation for political rather than for military reasons, as Fremont was, unconstitutional.

Additionally, Lincoln believed Fremont’s action would antagonize the loyal slave states, providing them an impetus to join the Confederacy. As he continued in his letter to Orville Browning, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly to the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.”

So why in July of 1862 did Lincoln, who had treated emancipation with such a scrupulous regard for legal and constitutional strictures, begin to contemplate a step that was vulnerable to the same objections as the approaches he had abjured? Guelzo argues that because Unionist slave holders rejected even the mildest legislative emancipation policy he cold devise and because of a lack of military progress against the rebellion, Lincoln was left with only the choice between issuing a presidential proclamation or seeing emancipation swept off the table altogether. Of course, the long-term legislative solution that the Thirteenth Amendment provided was still required. “The Proclamation was an emergency measure, a substitute for the permanent plan that would really rid the country of slavery, but a substitute as sincere and profound as the timbers that shore up an endangered mine shaft, and prevent it from collapsing entirely.”

But what about the claim that the Emancipation Proclamation actually freed no slaves and that it was the slaves themselves who, by running away, put pressure on Lincoln and Congress to “catch up” with the reality of self-emancipation? Guelzo shows that this argument has things backward. Lincoln may not have had the power on January 1, 1863 to free every slave in the Confederacy, but he had the authority to do so, and in law the authority is as good as the power. And it was the Emancipation Proclamation that provided the impetus for many slaves in territory not under federal control to run away.

Perhaps more significantly, those runaways could not have remained “self-emancipated” for very long without the legal freedom conferred by the Proclamation. “Without the Proclamation, even a Confederacy in defeat would have retained legal title to its slaves, and there is little in the oppressive patterns of coercion Southerners employed before the Civil War or afterward in Reconstruction to suggest that they would not have been willing to reclaim as many of their self-emancipated runaways as they could, and if the record of the federal courts in the post-Civil War decades is any proof, the courts would probably have helped them.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is Guelzo’s treatment of the relationship between Lincoln and Major General George B. McClellan, the commanding general of the largest Union force, the Army of the Potomac. Military historians tend to treat McClellan as a first rate organizer, equipper, and trainer, but an incompetent general who was constantly outfought and outgeneraled by his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee.

That much is true, but there is more to the story. McClellan and many of his favored subordinates disagreed with many of Lincoln’s policies, and indeed may have attempted to sabotage them. McClellan pursued the war he wanted to fight—one that would end in a negotiated peace—rather than the one his commander-in-chief wanted him to fight. The behavior of McClellan and his subordinates led Lincoln to conclude that emancipation might trigger a military coup.

There is perhaps no more remarkable document in the annals of American civil-military relations than the letter McClellan gave to Lincoln when the president visited the Army of the Potomac at Harrison’s Landing on the James River in July of 1862. McClellan, who had been within the sound of Richmond’s church bells only two weeks earlier, had been driven back by Lee in a series of battles known as the Seven Days.

McClellan’s letter went far beyond the description of the state of military affairs that McClellan had led Lincoln to expect. Instead, McClellan argued against confiscation of rebel property and interference with the institution of slavery. “A system of policy thus constitutional and conservative, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty.” McClellan continued that victory was possible only if the president was pledged to such a policy. “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies” making further recruitment “almost hopeless.”

Guelzo’s assessment of the implications of the Harrison’s Landing letter is reinforced by an event that Guelzo does not discuss. In early June of 1862, while the Army of the Potomac was still moving toward Richmond, McClellan had designated his aide, Col. Thomas Key to represent him in prisoner-of-war negotiations with the Confederates, represented by Howell Cobb. But McClellan went far beyond the issue at hand, authorizing Key to investigate the possibility of peace between the sections. McClellan apparently thought it was part of his duty to negotiate with the enemy on the terms for ending hostilities and to explain to that enemy the policies and objectives of his commander-in-chief without letting the latter know that he was doing so.

McClellan’s pursuit of his own goals in the war cast his notable lack of aggressiveness in a different and more sinister light. He was accused of tarrying when John Pope’s Army of Virginia was being handled very roughly by Lee at Second Manassas. Indeed, one of his corps commanders, Fitz-John Porter, clearly serving as a surrogate for McClellan, was court-martialed for his alleged failure to come to Pope’s aid quickly enough.

I have long believed that there was little evidence to support the charge that McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness was the result of a near-treasonous sympathy for the South, or that Porter was guilty of the actions for which he was court-martialed. But now I am not so sure. There is no question that McClellan’s language and that of some of his officers was often intemperate. McClellan wrote his wife that “I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!” He also wrote her about the possibility of a “coup” after which “everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet.”

He did not limit the expression of such sentiments to private correspondence with his wife. Lincoln and his cabinet were aware of the rumors that McClellan intended to put “his sword across the government’s policy.” McClellan’s quartermaster-general, Montgomery Meigs expressed concern about “officers of rank” in the Army of the Potomac who spoke openly of “a march on Washington to ’clear out those fellows.’” Such loose talk did not help McClellan or his army in Lincoln’s eyes.

Lincoln understood that he had to take action to remind the army of his constitutional role. He did so after learning that one Maj. John Key, aide-de-camp to general-in-chief Henry Halleck and brother of McClellan’s aide, the aforementioned Col. Thomas Key, had, in response to a query from a brother officer as to “why…the rebel army [was not] bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg [Antietam],” replied “that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”

Lincoln dismissed Key from the service, despite pleas for leniency (and the fact that Key’s son had been killed at Perryville), writing that “it is wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as Major Key is within proved to have done.” He remarked to John Hay “that if there was a ’game’ ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game.” Shortly thereafter, Lincoln relieved McClellan himself after another long bout of inactivity following Antietam.

The Emancipation Proclamation may lack the rhetorical elegance of the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural, but Guelzo makes it clear that the Proclamation is the most epochal of Lincoln’s public pronouncements. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is the definitive treatment of emancipation. Allen Guelzo deserves our immense gratitude for returning this critical document to its place of honor in the history of the American Republic.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.