In December 1861, Abraham Lincoln indicated in his annual report to Congress that he was embracing the idea of gradual compensated emancipation in which the freed slaves would be encouraged to emigrate outside the United States. This was a significant break with his previously stated policy of non-interference with slavery where it already existed. Lincoln backed his words with action by authoring a plan for gradual compensated emancipation in Delaware, which he hoped with relatively few slaves would be most amenable to it, establishing a workable precedent he could take to the other loyal slave states. However, the Delaware legislature rejected his proposal, and Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky also balked at the idea of gradual compensated emancipation.
After seeing his initial overture rejected, Abraham Lincoln had a choice: 1) he could do nothing; 2) publicly back off his Delaware proposal; 3) or double down by expanding his Delaware emancipation plan to all the loyal slave states. Lincoln chose to double down. On March 6, 1862, he sent a message to Congress recommending they adopt a resolution stating, “Resolved, That the United States ought to cooperate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.“
President Lincoln wanted gradual compensated emancipation, which he saw as more practical and less socially disruptive than sudden freedom for the slaves, plus cheaper than fighting the war. He stated:
In my judgment, gradual and not sudden emancipation is better for all. In the mere financial or pecuniary view any member of Congress with the census tables and Treasury reports before him can readily see for himself how very soon the current expenditures of this war would purchase, at fair valuation, all the slaves in any named State.
Lincoln also argued gradual compensated emancipation would help to save the Union by removing the incentive of the Upper South slaves states to secede and aid in binding them more closely to the northern free states. He wrote:
The leaders of the existing insurrection entertain the hope that this Government will ultimately be forced to acknowledge the independence of some part of the disaffected region, and that all the slave States north of such part will then say, “The Union for which we have struggled being already gone, we now choose to go with the Southern section.” To deprive them of this hope substantially ends the rebellion, and the initiation of emancipation completely deprives them of it as to all the States initiating it. The point is not that all the States tolerating slavery would very soon, if at all, initiate emancipation; but that while the offer is equally made to all, the more northern shall by such initiation make it certain to the more southern that in no event will the former ever join the latter in their proposed confederacy.
But what is particularly significant about Lincoln’s March 1862 proposal for gradual compensated emancipation was its voluntary nature. This what not the Lincoln of January 1863, ordering freedom for slaves in the disloyal states as a military necessity. It was Lincoln attempting to cajole the loyal border states, that had every legal right to keep their slaves even under the First Confiscation Act, to accept the idea that slavery and the societies created around it would not survive the present generation. In the political context of Spring 1862 it was a bold proposal, although certainly not as bold as Congress would get months later with the Second Confiscation Act or Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. But compared to his first inaugural address a year before, it was revolutionary. Further revolutions were to follow.