Lincoln’s Strategy: Emancipation Was an Early Goal

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2005

For the most part, I agree with Peter Lawler’s critique of the recent New York Times column by David Brooks on Lincoln and the evangelical abolitionists. But Lawler says one thing that is dead wrong and needs to be corrected. Lawler writes that “Lincoln opposed abolitionism before the Civil War because he believed it was unconstitutional; the Constitution only opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories. Abolitionism was a revolutionary principle, and it could finally only be justified by Lincoln after civil war had begun.” While Lawler is correct in observing that Lincoln was no abolitionist, his argument plays into the hands of Lincoln’s detractors who argue that Lincoln really cared nothing about black freedom and only accepted the principle of emancipation out of desperation.

Lawler’s argument also misses a point that Lincoln understood very well: The key to ending slavery where it existed lay not with the national government but with the states. Lawler needs to read Allen Guelzo’s remarkable book, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.

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 prevent the expansion of slavery into the federal territories while working to convince the legislatures of slave states to changes their statutes relating to slavery. After all, the Constitution 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, a likelihood as long as Roger Taney was chief justice, 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. Lincoln’s detractors have pointed to this amendment as more evidence that he didn’t really care about ending slavery. But he was willing to accept it because he didn’t think it really mattered and it certainly didn’t interfere with his own strategy for ending slavery.

Thus while he was willing to accept this proposal as a way of bringing the seven states that had seceded back into the Union fold at the time of his inauguration, 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’s strategy relied on the economic principles of supply and demand. He believed that if he could prevent the expansion of slavery into the federal territories and prevail upon state legislatures, beginning with the northern-most slave states, to accept gradual, compensated emancipation, the demand for slaves would fall while the supply would increase in the deep South. The combined effect would be to reduce the value of slave property. By thus “shrinking” slavery, he would make it uneconomical and once again 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 September 22 that gave the Confederates 100 days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military