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.
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.