Lincoln Doubles Down

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.


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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7 Responses to Lincoln Doubles Down

  1. Margaret D. Blough says:

    I think it was definitely a gradual process on everyone’s part. In addition, Lincoln certainly believed that emancipation would be on sounder footing, especially for the freed people, if the loyal states did it on their own.

    • Edwin Thompson says:

      Margaret – I would disagree with that statement. But Donald has written similar things and I’ve never understood the basis.

      The gradual process was in changing the laws and our constitution. Lincoln and the people who elected him were firm in their beliefs – there wa nothing gradual.

      Long before Lincoln became President, his speeches were on the evils of slavery. The 1850’s saw the infamous Taney Court and decisions such as the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott Decision. No wonder northern states were helping slaves escape to Canada. Those states had abolished slavery yet their laws were being trumped by Federal Laws. It is ironic that today we hear of neo-confederates speak of states’ rights. What a twisting of history.

      Southern states were nothing but armed prison camps. John Brown was one crazy guy – but he was right and he inspired a generation of people. Slavery would be resolved with war (verses laws). And many northern soldiers went to war singing about this great American – as crazy as he was.

      No – there was nothing gradual in the minds of Lincoln and his followers. He wanted to preserve democracy and ban slavery as the northern states had done. To do that, he had to change the Constitution. And there is nothing gradual in that.

  2. Here is the take by former treasury agent Edward Pierce in his Atlantic Monthly article on Port Royal in 1863 about Lincoln in those early months of 1862:

    “At the suggestion of the Secretary, the President appointed an interview with the agent. Mr. Lincoln, who was then chafing under a prospective bereavement, listened for a few moments, and then said, somewhat impatiently, that he did not think he ought to be troubled with such details &;that there seemed to be an itching to get negroes into our lines; to which the agent replied, that these negroes were within them by the invitation of no one, being domiciled there before we commenced occupation. The President then wrote and handed to the agent the following card:

    I shall be obliged if the Sec. of the Treasury will in his discretion give Mr. Pierce such instructions in regard to Port Royal contrabands as may seem judicious ;A. LINCOLN; Feb. 15, 1862.

    The President, so history must write it, approached the great question slowly and reluctantly; and in February, 1862, he little dreamed of the proclamations he was to issue in the September and January following.”

  3. Margaret D. Blough says:

    I’m not sure that there IS a conflict in what you and I said. My statement was about the process of ending slavery, not Lincoln’s belief that slavery was wrong which was consistent and lifelong. However, Lincoln was very concerned in what would happen to emancipated former slaves after the war ended. He didn’t push the 13th amendment through until the lame duck session of Congress that began in in December 1864 and a prior attempt had fallen short earlier in 1864. Until that happened, the only Constitutionally sure way to end slavery in a loyal state was for the state itself to end it. He also felt that, if a state ended slavery voluntarily even if gradually, it would reduce the chances of widespread mistreatment of freed blacks. In addition, as difficult as getting the 13th Amendment through Congress was, he also had to prepare the ground so that it would be ratified. In some ways, Lincoln’s attacks on slavery was like Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg. Be flexible, try different approaches including the indirect ones, if one approach failed, adjust and keep moving toward the goal. The one thing that never changed and which Grant ultimately accomplished was his ultimate goal: the surrender of Vicksburg to Union forces.

  4. Margaret D. Blough says:

    My remark at 10:54 am is to Mr. Thompson

  5. Well said Margaret, I couldn’t have put it better myself. 🙂

  6. Edwin Thompson says:

    Yes – well said. I subconsciously assumed you meant that Lincoln’s efforts toward emancipation were intentionally “gradual”. But that is not what you said. Sorry about that – it’s not the first mistake I made today – haha. Lincoln was a lawyer and a politician looking for a solution to slavery. And as time went on and the war unfolded, he no longer had to make the same efforts for peace that he made in his first inaugural address. Your Vicksburg analogy is a good one that also applies to Lincoln’s methods to eliminate slavery. For an uneducated country lawyer, he had tremendous political skill.

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