Would Lincoln Free the Slaves? Did It Even Matter?


From: Harper’s Weekly, December 20, 1862. Source: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1862/december/emancipation-proclamation-cartoon.htm

As December 1862 progressed the date approached (January 1, 1863) for President Abraham Lincoln to make good on his promise in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in the portions of the rebellious states not under control under federal control if those states did not return to the Union by the end of 1862. Not surprisingly, there was disagreement in the press over whether Lincoln would actually do it. As mentioned in the last edition of Civil War Emancipation, the President had generated some of the uncertainty in his annual message to Congress, dated December 1, 1862, by making a last attempt to convince the slave states to accept gradual compensated emancipation, followed by the emigration of freed slaves out of the United States. So the artist of the cartoon above from Harper’s Weekly certainly can be forgiven for doubting Lincoln’s resolve on this issue.

The pro-administration newspaper in Washington, D.C., the National Republican, sought to reassure its readers as Christmas approached that President Lincoln was standing fast. It stated in its December 23 issue:

The late interview which the border State Congressmen held with the President has developed the fact that he will stand by his proclamation. The President told these gentlemen that [emphasis in the original], “he was an anti-slavery man, and considered slavery to be the right arm of the rebellion, and that it must be lopped off.” We congratulate the country upon the firm stand the President of the United States has taken upon this important matter. It is characteristic of Abraham Lincoln, and when his mind is made up, and he is satisfied that he is right, he is not to be moved.

Two days later, on Christmas Day, the National Republican mocked Republican conservatives and others for whom the impending finalization of the Emancipation Proclamation stirred the old fear that once freed the slaves would embark on a violent orgy of vengeance aimed at their former owners and other whites. The paper opined:

There is considerable feeling in certain quarters, in respect to [emphasis in the original] servile insurrection. We desire to treat this apprehension with due respect, but we have no belief in these apprehensions, because, in fact, the danger does not lie in the direction which these sensitive people suspect.

It is asserted, with apparent fear and trembling, that if the President sticks to his proclamation, there will be trouble in this regard. Such a conclusion is absurd, and has no foundation in the nature of things. The danger does not lie in that direction. It is not in affirming and maintaining the proclamation that servile insurrection will find its incentive, but the abandonment of that principle, and giving up the bondsman to hopelessness and interminable doom to which slavery consigns him.

Human nature is the same the world over. We forget this generic fact, when we discuss this slavery question. The negro is not unlike the rest of mankind, unless it be in this particular, that he is more grateful for favors than the white race.

The negro, with all his stupidity, understands as well as we do, that his liberty can be secured only as fast as we, or our arms, achieve the control of the country where the slaves abound. This is understood by the negro in his bondage as well as by us. He will, therefore, wait patiently for the hour of his release, believing that while Abraham Lincoln holds to the doctrine of his proclamation, the good time will be sure to come sooner or later. Annul that proclamation, as the frightened conservatives would have Mr. Lincoln do, and who would be answerable to the consequences? Servile insurrection would be the almost certain result of so-ill timed a step.

No human being rises to minister vengeance upon those who do him favors, whether the favor is voluntary, and comes from the individual tyrant’s own volition, or is extorted from him by external causes over which he can exercise no control.

How was it in the British West Indies? The slave there understood that his master gave him liberty per force of English law, enacted thousands of miles away in the little island of the seas. Did the slaves of those islands arise and kill their masters, who yielded to this outside pressure with extreme reluctance, but nevertheless yielded? Not at all. They received this boon of freedom with uplifted hearts to God in solemn prayer, and not with murderous hands against their former masters. This is history, and it is human nature the world over. And it is worth infinitely more in settling a question like this than any amount of theorizing and speculation, such as the fearful and quaking conservatives are wont to put forth.

It is only when you cut off a man’s freedom, or attempt to subjugate him to the rule of despotism, that he resists you unto blood. This is the lesson of San Domingo. It is the lesson, also, of history, ever since the world began. Let then the timid and mistaken conservatives, who would induce the President of the United States to withdraw his proclamation, cease their efforts in that direction. Their safety, the safety of the nation, and the safety of the slaveholders are solely dependent on the maintenance of the President’s proclamation.

On December 27, the National Republican mocked a specific slave insurrection scare that had broken out in Missouri, which as a loyal slave state was, of course, exempt from the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation. It reported:

St. Louis, Dec. 26.–The Halleck Life Guard left the city this morning for Gray’s Summit, Franklin county, on special duty. It is said that they are ordered to that place to prevent trouble from the negroes from apprehended insurrection; but inquiries have failed to elicit a reliable foundation for such rumors. There are but few negroes in that county, not enough to get up an insurrection on a large scale.

While correct about the newly liberated not rising in vengeance the National Republican misunderstood something fundamental about American slaves in the Civil War. This article, quite openly racist, assumed the slaves were passive waiting for the moment of their liberation. If the scholarship of recent decades on emancipation has proven anything, the slaves were anything but passive in their own emancipation. While there was no large-scale organized resistance by slaves during the Civil War, through countless acts of self-interest they chipped away little by little at the foundation of slavery in the American South, whether it be by fleeing to federal lines, joining the Union Army, or insisting they would no longer work without being paid. So while the suspense in December 1862 over whether Abraham Lincoln would made good on his pledge to free the slaves was certainly justified, to an extent it was merely confirming a social revolution already in progress in the slave states that had been unleashed by the Civil War.

Sources: 1) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/1862-12-23/ed-1/seq-2/; 2) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/1862-12-25/ed-1/seq-2/; 3) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/1862-12-27/ed-1/seq-2/.

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 donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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