Tomorrow is the sesquicentennial of the release of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It is certainly one of the most momentous events concerning emancipation in the Civil War, demonstrating the Lincoln administration’s embrace of immediate, uncompensated freedom for the slaves. Or did it?
One thing that can be certain in September 1862 was Abraham Lincoln was committed to freeing the slaves. For the first half of 1862, President Lincoln had sought to coax the remaining four loyal slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky) into embracing gradual compensated emancipation. If nothing else demonstrated Lincoln’s sincerity on emancipation, his patient lobbying on this doomed initiative should put all doubts to rest.
Yet if the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation shows anything, it was that Abraham Lincoln was willing to be flexible about the terms of emancipation, and let slavery persist for a time (although likely not permanently) if it would end the war and save the Union. For one thing, the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation exempted the loyal slave states and areas of the Confederacy then under Union occupation in the hopes of conciliating slaveholders there to the federal government. For another, Lincoln would not free any slaves if the rebellious states returned to the Union by the end of 1862.
No doubt Lincoln did not expect the leaders of the Confederacy to accept his offer of reconciliation. But as he had with his plan of gradual compensated emancipation with the loyal slaves states, it was necessary politically to give the slaveholders of the rebel states the chance to keep their slaves for the time being if they would resume their loyalty to the Union. But the Confederates’ rejection of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation helped to justify divesting them of their slaves immediately when the document became final on New Year’s Day 1863.
Yet would the Emancipation Proclamation free any slaves at all? It was one thing for Lincoln to declare emancipation. It was quite another to put it into effect. This is where historians like Gary Gallagher have a point. Without a doubt the Union Army was indispensable to freeing the slaves. Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation effectively turned it into an army of liberation. Where the Union Army went freedom usually followed for the slaves. It also turned the Confederate army into a force seeking to keep slavery, however much many southern soldiers might deny that fact. Hence, in a clever bit of political jujitsu, Abraham Lincoln made it difficult for the South to claim it merely was fighting for independence, and in the process made it all but impossible for the nations of Europe to recognize the Confederacy, however much it was otherwise in their geo-political interest to do so.
Still, it also is impossible to deny that without the slaves’ initiative, Abraham Lincoln likely would not have moved as far as fast as he had. Without intending to, but in countless acts of self interest by people desperate to be free, slaves fled to the Union-controlled territory and by doing so made an issue of themselves, and one that could not be ignored, however much certain Union commanders tried. So many slaves had fled to and fallen into Union hands by September 1862, slavery in the United States had suffered a grievous blow that made its long-term survival questionable, especially if the war continued, which it would for two and a half more years that would seal the completion of emancipation.
So, the Emancipation Proclamation, preliminary or final, was the executive branch of U.S. government recognizing what was already in many ways an accomplished fact. Adam Goodheart, in his April 2011 article on emancipation in the New York Times magazine relates a wonderful anecdote to this effect, which like he did I will close with. He writes:
On the September day of Lincoln’s edict, a Union colonel ran into William Seward, the president’s canny secretary of state, on the street in Washington and took the opportunity to congratulate him on the administration’s epochal act.