History generally lionizes Abraham Lincoln for his role in emancipation in the Civil War. He gets called “The Great Emancipator” and his Emancipation Proclamation gets treated as one of the great documents of American history. While Lincoln certainly does deserve credit for embracing emancipation during the Civil War and sticking with it, without question early in the war Congress took the lead on this issue with the President following along later.
The first such instance of Congress getting out ahead of President Lincoln on emancipation came on July 9, 1861, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that simply stated, “That in the judgment of this House it is no part of the duty of the soldiers of the United States to capture and return fugitive slaves.” The July 9 resolution was non-binding, meaning it did not prevent Union soldiers and officers from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act if they wished. However, it clearly would have appealed to men like Col. Alexander M. McCook, commander of the 1st Ohio Infantry, who clearly demonstrated his hostile exasperation with assisting slaveholders trying to recover their slaves in his July 5 letter profiled in the last edition of Civil War Emancipation.
Despite the attempt of the New York Times, closely aligned with the Lincoln Administration, to deny on July 11, 1861, that the resolution had abolitionist intent to judge from the identity of its sponsor it had exactly that aim. The sponsor of the July 9 resolution was Owen Lovejoy of Illinois. Lovejoy had been a conductor for the Underground Railroad and was the brother of Elijah Lovejoy, killed by a mob in 1837 in Alton, Illinois, while trying to defend the press of an abolitionist newspaper. In short, Owen Lovejoy was a leading abolitionist in Illinois and in Congress. Presumably, his July 9 resolution would make it harder for loyal owners to reclaim slaves who fled into Union military camps, and undermine the peculiar institution in slave states that had not seceded, much as the contraband policy was harming slavery in Confederate areas that came under occupation by federal troops.
The July 9 resolution passed the House by a vote of 92 to 55, demonstrating the growing enmity to slavery in Congress and showing the willingness of the body, while not explicitly embracing emancipation, to support policies inimical to slavery’s survival, such as absolving Union troops of the obligation to aid in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Hence, the Lovejoy resolution put Congress ahead of President Lincoln in July 1861 by supporting a policy that would hurt slavery in the loyal border states, when the contraband policy–having the blessing of the Lincoln Administration–merely undermined slavery with disloyal owners. Congress would take another big step hostile to slavery in less than a month’s time, but that is a story for another day.