Gradual Emancipation’s Last Stand

Since early March 1862, Abraham Lincoln had lobbied the remaining loyal border states to embrace a plan of gradual compensated emancipation. His efforts had met with steadfast refusal by slaveholders there determined to hold on to their human property and believing their loyalty did nothing but strengthen their claim to their slaves. If anything, the loyal slaveholders in the Border States in July 1862 were angry with President Lincoln for not doing more to help them reclaim their slaves that had found sanctuary with Union forces, and for signing bills to prevent the army from returning slaves in March and emancipating slaves in the District of Columbia in April.

On July 12, 1862, Lincoln made one more attempt to convince the loyal slave states to embrace his plan for gradual compensated emancipation. Meeting with their congressional representatives that day, Lincoln made several arguments to try to convince these congressmen of his position. First, he claimed that his plan was the best way to end quickly the Civil War. Lincoln indicated:

I intend no reproach or complaint when I assure you that in my opinion, if you all had voted for the resolution in the gradual emancipation message of last March, the war would now be substantially ended. And the plan therein proposed is yet one of the most potent, and swift means of ending it. Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that, in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not, much longer maintain the contest.

Second, he tried to convince the loyal Border States that in the atmosphere of civil war, slavery was doomed and it was in their interest to agree to gradual compensated emancipation to make sure their states experienced the least social disruption possible and did not lose the capital they had invested in slavery. The President argued:

The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of it’s [sic] value is gone already. How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event.

Finally, Lincoln warned the Border State congressmen that they did not have long to accept his offer of gradual compensated emancipation because political pressure was growing for immediate uncompensated emancipation. The President alluded to Gen. David Hunter’s emancipation order in the Department of the South and the political cost he was paying for reversing it. He stated, “in repudiating it, I gave dissatisfaction, if not offence, to many whose support the country can not afford to lose. And this is not the end of it. The pressure, in this direction, is still upon me, and is increasing. By conceding what I now ask, you can relieve me, and much more, can relieve the country, in this important point.

Two days after the July 12 meeting, President Lincoln presented another plan of gradual emancipation to Congress, similar to his March 6 proposal. States agreeing to emancipation would receive federal bonds as compensation. The July 14 plan was different though in allowing for immediate emancipation. If a state chose immediate emancipation, it would receive all its federal bonds at once. If the state chose gradual emancipation, it would receive its bonds in installments. The new proposal also nullified the value of the bonds if a state changed course later and tried to keep slavery.

The response to Lincoln’s new push for gradual compensated emancipation was not encouraging. While the congressmen from the Border States did not reject the proposal outright, they claimed it was impractical, and either counter-proposed what amounted to delaying tactics or suggested that Congress appropriate money to purchase slaves individually from willing owners to free them.

Abraham Lincoln evidently expected the response he received from the loyal Border States because on July 13, the day after his meeting with the congressmen and the day before his new gradual compensated emancipation proposal was made formally to Congress, Lincoln met with Cabinet members William H. Seward (Secretary of State) and Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy). At this meeting, the President read to Seward and Welles an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, leaving both men stunned. Obviously, Lincoln had not drafted this document overnight, raising questions about the sincerity of his meeting with the Border State congressman. Ever the canny politician, Abraham Lincoln was no doubt keeping his options open and starting to assemble political cover for the momentous change in Union war aims the Emancipation Proclamation would constitute. Which meant convincing the nation he had given the loyal Border States ample opportunity to embrace gradual compensated emancipation, before announcing a policy which while it did not formally free their slaves set slavery nationwide on the road to a rapid, uncompensated end.

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

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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2 Responses to Gradual Emancipation’s Last Stand

  1. Margaret D. Blough says:

    I don’t think anyone has come up with a better, though unsentimental, appreciation of Lincoln’s importance and his leadership, than Frederick Douglass in his speech about Lincoln at the 1876 dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument in DC

  2. Sounds like Lincoln was just checking off a box on the road to emancipation.

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