The Myth of Confederate Emancipation

There are some people who like to claim that had the Confederacy survived it would have soon emancipated its slaves.  While I suppose this event might have occurred eventually as farm machinery made slave labor in the South uneconomic it certainly wouldn’t have been in the offing in the near term, as the purpose of the Confederacy was to preserve the institution of slavery.

Don H. Doyle, McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, argued this point eloquently yesterday in a post to H-Net group, H-South.  I am reprinting his post here with Dr. Doyle’s permission.


Date: Tue, Jan 25, 2011 at 10:11

Regarding Confederate plans for emancipation:

It was common during the war for defenders of the CSA to suggest that
slavery would eventually be phased out in the South, and even that this
was likely to happen sooner in an independent South. This vague promise
of emancipation became an important part of the international campaign
to win public support and diplomatic recognition abroad. It worked
better before than it did after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The notion of setting forth a formal plan for Confederate emancipation
was indeed a topic of discussion, and early on among CSA agents abroad
who quickly realized that their nation’s commitment to slavery was a
major obstacle to foreign recognition and support. This finally
resulted in the 11th hour mission of Duncan Kenner, CSA special
commissioner to Europe, who was authorized by the CSA to offer
emancipation for recognition. Bruce Levine’s excellent book on this
whole topic, Confederate Emancipation, examines this issue in full.

The CSA was set up to perpetuate, not abolish, slavery. As to the
possibility that there might be some future effort to phase out slavery,
the CSA constitution explicitly forbad such legislation: Article 9,
Section 4: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or
impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” Had
individual states abolished slavery it would not stop slave owners from
coming into their state, for Article 4, Section 2 stipulated that “The
citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and
immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right
of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their
slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves
shall not be thereby impaired.”

John Bigelow, US Consulate in Paris during the war, wrote a marvelous
piece for Century Magazine in 1891. It is a sardonic review of the claim
that the Confederates were on the path to emancipation. He closes with
the observation: “If the South had made the abolition of slavery a part
of its policy there would have been no war and the Confederate maggot
would never have been hatched.”

–Don H. Doyle
McCausland Professor of History
University of South Carolina

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
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1 Response to The Myth of Confederate Emancipation

  1. Pingback: 150 years ago in Middletown, Connecticut … Week of October 8, 1862 « Middlesex County Historical Society

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