Lewis Cass Embraces Emancipation

On September 14, 1861, the New York Times carried a brief but highly interesting piece that readers would have been forgiven for missing. It read:

Gen. CASS, in a recent conversation with President FAIRCHILD, of Hillsdale College, Michigan, said that though he had always been heretofore opposed to Abolition, yet this was now the only way to successfully and permanently end the contest. Without Abolition, if we had peace to-day, we should have war to-morrow.

“Gen. CASS” was no doubt Lewis Cass, one of the most prominent antebellum politicians in the United States and the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1848 (losing to Zachary Taylor). What makes his embrace of emancipation particularly significant was that before the Civil War he had been the leading proponent of “popular sovereignty.” This idea tried to take advantage of American federalism to solve the difficult issue of whether to allow slavery’s expansion by leaving that decision to the settlers in a particular territory. It was an appealing idea, but proved disastrous in practice in 1850s’ Kansas because extremists on both sides of the slavery issue refused to let the settlers there decide, leading to the early regional eruption of the Civil War in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Now in retirement, Lewis Cass accepted that popular sovereignty had not worked. Nor had appeasing southern interests when he was Secretary of State in the Buchanan Administration. Now like an increasing number of white Northerners, since the war’s start, he had come to recognize slavery’s centrality to the conflict and that there could be no peace until its destruction. That Lewis Cass changed his mind in such a big way is quite significant. Not only Republican radicals now supported freedom for the slaves, but also increasingly people from other parts of the political spectrum.

Still, in September 1861, most people in the North likely had not embraced emancipation. Most prominent, of course, was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s great concern that month was keeping the loyal slave states in the Union. He had spent the summer placating Maryland slaveholders, as their slaves disappeared into army camps as Union troops transited through their state bound for Virginia. Then Gen. Frémont had issued his emancipation order for Missouri at the end of August, and Lincoln again found himself reassuring loyal slave owners that their property rights were safe.

For example, on September 12, 1861, Abraham Lincoln received a letter from Joseph Holt, a prominent Kentucky Unionist, who had been Buchanan’s last Secretary of War. Holt was alarmed by Frémont’s emancipation order. He wrote:

DEAR SIR: The late act of Congress providing for the confiscation of the estates of persons in open rebellion against the Government was as a necessary war measure accepted and fully approved by the loyal men of the country. It limited the penalty of confiscation to property actually employed in the service of the rebellion with the knowledge and consent of its owners, and instead of emancipating slaves thus employed left their status to be determined either by the courts of the United States or by subsequent legislation.

The proclamation, however, of General Frémont under date of the 30th of August transcends and of course violates the law in both these particulars and declares that the property of rebels whether used in support of the rebellion or not shall be confiscated, and if consisting in slaves that they shall be at once manumitted.

The act of Congress referred to was believed to embody the conservative policy of your administration upon this delicate and perplexing question, and hence the loyal men of the border slave States have felt relieved of all fears of any attempt on the part of the Government of the United States to liberate suddenly in their midst a population unprepared for freedom and whose presence could not fail to prove a painful apprehension if not a terror to the homes and families of all.

You may therefore well judge of the alarm and condemnation with which the Union-loving citizens of Kentucky-the State with whose popular sentiment I am best acquainted-have read this proclamation.

The hope is earnestly indulged by them as it is by myself that this paper was issued under the pressure of military necessity which General Frémont believed justified the step but that in the particulars specified it has not your approbation and will not be enforced in derogation of law. The magnitude of the interest at stake and my extreme desire that by no misapprehension of your sentiments or purposes shall the power and fervor of the loyalty of Kentucky be at this moment abated or chilled must be my apology for the frankness with which I have addressed you and for the request I venture to make of an expression of your views upon the points of General Frémont’s proclamation on which I have commented.

It says a lot, both of Holt’s prominence and Lincoln’s concern with holding the loyal border states that the President replied the very same day. He wrote:

DEAR SIR: Yours of this day in relation to the late proclamation of General Frémont is received. Yesterday I addressed a letter to him by mail on the same subject and which is to be made public when he receives it. I herewith send you a copy of that letter which perhaps shows my position as distinctly as any new one I could write. I will thank you not to make it public until General Frémont shall have had time to receive the original.

So while retired statesmen like Lewis Cass were free to change their mind about slavery early in the war, Abraham Lincoln, engaged in the dirty business of running that war, had to do what was necessary to save the Union. At that moment, saving the Union meant to President Lincoln preventing the secession of the remaining loyal slave states. Lincoln would not change his mind on emancipation until it became clear he could not save the Union without ending slavery. And that change of heart in September 1861 was still almost a year away.

Sources: 1) http://www.nytimes.com/1861/09/14/news/gen-cass-on-the-abolition-of-slavery.html; 2)http://www.simmonsgames.com/research/authors/USWarDept/ORA/OR-S2-V1-C4.html.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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5 Responses to Lewis Cass Embraces Emancipation

  1. Also, Lincoln felt that it would be disastrous to let individual generals unilaterally determine national policy matters. It totally undermined the concept of civilian control of the military in general and the President’s role as commander-in-chief, specifically. The US really didn’t have a clear concept or clear set of rules regarding martial law. It’s ironic, given some groups’ obsession with the idea of Lincoln as Tyrant, but Lincoln was adamant about trying to limit the war’s impact on individual rights. Some was unavoidable (although destroying railroad lines & cutting telegraph lines doesn’t qualify as peaceful protest.) Through 1862, Lincoln did everything in his power to persuade loyal slave states to end slavery on their own with US government financial assistance since state legislative action was the one way of ending slavery that was unquestionably legal even before the war). He warned those states’ congressmen that, if the offer of federal assistance was taken, events were rapidly moving beyond anyone’s control. The states rejected the offer at that time. Three years later, the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery immediately and without compensation everywhere in the US, not just the rebel states.

    • Hi Margaret. Great observations. It never ceases to amaze me that as nasty as Lincoln could get with rebels and rebel-sympathizers, how much he bent over backwards early in the war to appease loyal slaveholders. – Don

      • Edwin Thompson says:

        Don – I would respectfully disagree. It’s incorrect to say that Lincoln bent over backwards to appease loyal slaveholders. He did not suddenly embraced emancipation in 1862. His personal history tells the story. He grew up poor, never went to school, taught himself the law, practiced law throughout Illinois, and loved the republic – a government managed by laws. It is clear that from the beginning he was intent to uphold the law, even if the law was morally repugnant to his personal views on slavery. His greatness was in changing the law. John Browns greatness was in confronting evil laws violently.

        So did he appease the slaveholders. No – he was a politician and a lawyer, and he upheld the law when he had to and changed them when he could. He was managing the northern Black Republicans and the southern Fire-eaters to maintain the republic. As we know, his joining the Republican party, his words in the Douglas debates, and his Cooper Union speech make his personal views clear. But the law was not written to support his personal views. He was a lawyer that knew the republic could only stand with laws. Emancipation was always in the equation. It was happening all over the world.

      • Hi Edwin. I agree with you that Lincoln personally didn’t like slavery and didn’t think it would survive forever. But it is clear that Lincoln’s primary concern in the Civil War was saving the Union. And he was going to do whatever it took to do it. As he wrote Horace Greeley in August 1862 (after he had made the decision to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation but before he made the decision public):

        “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”

        So to say that Lincoln planned to free the slaves all along is reading back into history for Lincoln an intention that wasn’t there. In September 1861, he defended the property rights of loyal slaveholders because he believed doing so would help save the Union. Over the next year, he gradually shifted in the direction of emancipation because he came to realize freeing the slaves was necessary to save the Union. But Lincoln’s paramount concern always was saving the Union. If doing so had meant he was required to leave all or some slaves in chains, I have no doubt Lincoln would have done so.

  2. Edwin Thompson says:

    We are in a delicate interpetation of Lincoln’s thoughts. I challanged your statement that he appeased loyal slaveholders. My response was that he did it because he believed in the law. He believed in the republican form of government – a government by the people, for the people.

    Lincoln did not plan on freeing the slaves (nor did I make this statement) – but he knew this was an option. The British already set the stage for that solution. Emancipation of slaves was a common solution to the slavery problem. Lincoln knew this – and he used it when the time came. This is what made him great.

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