What was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation about?

What was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation about?

US Civil War

In the course of human events, the challenge of leadership is clear to see in many who have governed the masses. Conflicting opinions within the people quickly lead to chaos and confusion as seen by the results of the disputes between the North and the South. When Lincoln assumed the Presidency, the country was divided, and matters in the White House were rapidly declining. The challenge of his role was to somehow satisfy everyone -not only abolitionists but also slave masters. Accepting the challenge, Lincoln listened to the voices of the people and changed the course of human history.

On the first day of 1863, amidst the most devastating war in United States history, Abraham Lincoln effectively ended the institution of slavery in the States by issuing the infamous Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom for the slaves was inconceivable just a decade ago because of the drastic changes it would produce. Lincoln did not overlook the occasion or the impact that this document would have on the future of America, thus, there was a multitude of factors that had to be weighed in. Most importantly, to issue the Emancipation, Lincoln listened to all the factors from not only the abolitionists who sought a less moderate approach in their president or the self-liberating slaves who were abandoning the fields and running to the Northern lines, but also himself, who was a steadfast Christian whose morals relied on God’s words. He carefully listened to and conversed with his advisors about the threat of foreign aid to the Confederacy and strategically used military advantages to bring on his many policies. 

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, there was a great divide between the North and the South in many aspects of life. The primary difference was that the South’s economy was mostly dependent on the production of cash crops through the exploitation of generations of slaves which became ingrained in the society. On the other hand, their Northern counterparts found that the soil was rocky and tough, so they fell back on factories and small businesses. Almost entirely from this one difference yielded a variety of differences, ranging from education and literacy rates to urban vs rural residential areas. 

Relations within the country began to quickly decline as the societal differences between the two sides proved to grow uncontrollably. For example, when Kansas became a state, the land was to assume either the North or the South’s culture. The Southern settlers immediately began to trickle into the western states, bringing their slaves with them to take advantage of all the new land. This angered many Northerners especially those who fiercely opposed slavery. In the following years, many bloody border feuds in Kansas occurred giving them the fitting name “Bleeding Kansas.” Throughout these events, compromises and acts were passed as attempts to steer the citizens from fighting, but they were of no use.

Medical examination photograph of Gordon, widely distributed by abolitionists to expose the brutality of slavery. What was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation about?

For the Presidential election of 1860, Lincoln was not a notable nor regular candidate and had only recently gained national attention due to the Lincoln-Douglas debates two years prior. As a Republican nominee, Lincoln ran on a political platform that was opposed to the expansion of slavery which gained the support of many Northerners but was heavily opposed by all of the Southern states. In spite of this, Lincoln won both the electoral college and the plurality. His election led to immediate outrage in the South where almost zero people had voted for him.

In the following months, many Southern states seceded as a reaction to his election and in anticipation of the policies that he could implement against slavery expansion. Beginning within a year after the secessions, on April 12, 1861, the Civil War began its course as the bloodiest war and focal point in American history with over an unprecedented 600,000 deaths from combat, disease, and starvation. It brought about transformations of the American government and civilian life on a scale that had never been seen before. 

For most of Lincoln’s life, he was described as anti-slavery, not an abolitionist despite his saying, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” However, very importantly, “Lincoln did not sympathize with the abolitionist goal of immediate emancipation.”As president, Lincoln balanced his commitment to preserving the Union and Constitution with his convictions against slavery. Although Lincoln saw slavery as an evil, he believed that swift eradication was not smart rather he preferred a “great revolution in public sentiment slowly but surely progressing,” proving his moderation in the issue.

By mid-1862, Lincoln had changed his mind. The Confederacy’s armies had been consistently outmaneuvering and beating down the Union armies in a shocking beginning to the war. No longer did there seem to be a way to leave slavery out of the conflict, and Lincoln realized that emancipation might be the only choice. Convinced that emancipation was no longer simply a moral issue, but was a “military necessity,” Lincoln could shift the central issue of the Civil War from just the Union’s survival to also including the eradication of slavery. In July 1862, Lincoln revealed to his advisors that he would issue an executive order to free all the slaves in the rebellious Southern states. This declaration stunned many in his cabinet, and they persuaded him to wait for success in the battlefront. 

Lincoln had to wait a few months because if he announced the proclamation during a series of Union defeats, he would seem clumsy and desperate for troops. Only after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam could Lincoln take the spotlight and issue the proclamation. 

Black man reading newspaper by candlelight. Note: Man reading a newspaper with headline, “Presidential Proclamation, Slavery,” which refers to the Jan. 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Drawing; watercolor. Library of Congress. What was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation about?

Throughout all of this, since the day that Lincoln took office, he had been pressured and slandered by the abolitionist movement for being too moderate in dealing with emancipation. Lincoln’s open houses were often a time when abolitionists would come to him to discuss these things and pressure him to act more radically. Lincoln had witnessed slavery as a young man and fiercely opposed it, but he explicitly stated multiple times how he viewed the war and how slavery was not on his radar. In fact, in his inaugural address, he asserted that “directly or indirectly interfer[ing] with the institution of slavery” was not among his policies. His sole purpose was to “preserve the Union,” not to make the war a vehicle for abolition. 

In addition to the abolitionists, the Border States were very unstable in the sense that they were on the verge of seceding. Any wrong or radical move from Lincoln could result in the loss of any of the Border States and the capital with Maryland. Meanwhile, the self-liberation of slaves was also worrying Lincoln as they were “abandoning rebel farms and plantations and escaping to Union lines by the thousands.” Although Lincoln had no part in the self-liberation, the legality of the situation was questioned by Southerners who were looking for ways to convict the President of wrongdoings. 

All these political pressures that were placed on Lincoln’s shoulders forced him to deal with the problems one way or another, resulting in the Emancipation Proclamation.

In addition to the verbal pressures that Lincoln had to undertake, the threat of an external, foreign threat was still looming. The US and Great Britain had, only fifty years ago, fought the War of 1812. If the leaders of the Confederacy could get the foreign attention that they needed, the British could prove to be an important supplier for the South. This would be catastrophic for the US who already were struggling against the Confederate armies. Lincoln needed to make sure that the British were not going to interfere with the conflict. 

At the time, the British had already abolished slavery and were proud of that. Sumner stated that “if Lincoln made the obliteration of slavery a Union war aim, Britain would balk at recognition and intervention.” In following the British, Lincoln would not necessarily gain the approval of the British, but they would at least disengage from the conflict. 

Finally, Lincoln knew about the untouched potential of the slaves. Because slave labor was the cornerstone of the Southern states, Lincoln knew that uprooting that central core would most likely lead to the demise of the rebellion. However, although they were humans, they were socially and legally the property of their masters. Thus, Lincoln believed that the Fifth Amendment barred him from removing slavery, stating that he had “no lawful right to do so.” 

Eric Foner on the Civil War. Pulitzer Prize Winning Columbia History Professor on the Civil War. What was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation about?

Advisors such as Charles Sumner reminded Lincoln that he needed “more men, not only at the North but at the South.” The Union army’s numbers and morale were decreasing much faster than the Confederacy’s due to Lincoln’s lack of very skilled generals, which was an immense benefit for the Confederate armies who were, in contrast, guided by renowned and skilled men such as Robert E. Lee. 

Ultimately, upon issuing the proclamation, the slaves in the South were free to leave their fields and come fight for the Union. Not only would the Confederacy collapse from its loss in labor, but the Union would gain more troops with every piece of land they conquered. 

Lincoln’s issuing of the EP was certainly rushed, and he had the pressure of the entire country in his hands. He had many reasons to fully support the proclamation, but another great deal of reasons to turn away from it. Lincoln’s thoughtfulness and caution with each of his words and actions can help explain why he was able to bring the Southern states back to the US, and why he is thought of by some as the greatest President in our history. Lincoln realized the power that he held with every single decision that he made, and he held that burden.

While the country was still left in ruins after he was gone, he was the savior that the country needed at the exact right time. Just like a band-aid, abolition had to be ripped off from the US. While Lincoln tried to take it slow during the war, in four years, he was able to eradicate slavery which was deeply rooted in the lives of millions of American civilians. Lincoln’s setting for his presidency was impossibly difficult, but with all the odds stacked against him, he prevailed. His ability to work under pressure and listen to so many other voices, simply unparalleled. And will likely never be seen again.

Written by Jiming Xu

US Civil War
What was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation about?