SAN JOSE, CA, August 11, 2014 –In the middle of the summer of 1862, the United States was in the midst of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln had not anticipated that the conflict would last past 1861. But the Union Army had been fairly ineffective in subduing the Confederate military, and this period was an incredibly terrible time as the nation was tragically ripped apart by the horrors of warfare.
In addition, the war had attracted the attention of the great powers of Europe, and the Confederate government seriously sought the help of both France and Great Britain. Napoleon III, the Emperor of France, had offered the services of Great Britain, Russia, and France to help negotiate the conflict between the North and South. The Lincoln administration rejected the sly offer.
By July of 1862, Lincoln felt grave concerns over the inability of Union forces to defeat the Confederate Army, while at the same time, he was aware that Napoleon III had French troops invading Mexico. The Union Army, under Gen. George B. McClellan, had been defeated in mid-July by General Robert E. Lee in the North’s attempt to take over the Confederacy’s capital at Richmond.
While it was no secret the Confederate government had sent envoys to seek aid from European nations, there existed a serious sentiment in Europe to recognize the Confederate States of America as an independent nation. The Confederates were indeed buying warships from France and Great Britain. In fact, the Confederates came close to actually manufacturing ironclad ships in France, but failed in successfully setting it up.
During this time of the French invasion of Mexico, the Lincoln Administration was essentially powerless to do anything to enforce the Monroe Doctrine which deemed such actions an act of war upon the U.S. as well as the nation being invaded. The U.S. had to be quite careful in any attempt to help the Mexican government because Texas was a Confederate state and any actions of U.S. troops would have to be covert as they would be operating behind enemy lines.
However, if the Lincoln administration did nothing, the French, if successful in seizing control of Mexico, it would be in a great position to control the Gulf of Mexico and directly aid the Confederacy. Although, it never proved successful, this proved a grave danger to the Union at this point of the war when the Army of the Potomac had scant success.
By the summer of 1862, the war had taken its toll on Lincoln as well, and he expressed his grave concerns when he explained later to Francis Carpenter (an artist who painted the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation) that:
It had got to be midsummer of 1862. Things had gone from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations that we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game! I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy and without consulting with, or the knowledge of the Cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation …
This was the last of July, or the first part of the month of August, 1862.
During this same time, in July of 1862, Lincoln had devised a plan to compensate slave owners with some reimbursement if they would voluntarily free their slaves. On July 14th, Lincoln presented to Congress a bill to compensate states that would abolish slavery. This plan was more along the lines of Lincoln’s belief that slavery would eventually and gradually be eliminated within the nation.
Viewed in light of this proposal, the presidential proclamation was more of a desperate measure, while the bill he was introducing in Congress was more substantial and a more comprehensive approach to ending slavery. Many historians point out that Lincoln was looking for any means possible to end slavery, and the proclamation was only a temporary measure that had limited effect while the Union was fighting the Confederate States.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not proclaim freedom for all the slaves throughout the U.S. Such a myth seriously reflects a misunderstanding of the capabilities and power of the office of the President.
First, Lincoln understood that the Constitution gave him no authority to act as a tyrant in eliminating slavery via a presidential mandate. Lincoln still believed that he was working in the best interests of the entire nation – that he was also leader of the rebellious Confederate States. However, even though Lincoln was intent on freeing the slaves, he believed that there was no legal way to do so. Actually, members of his cabinet helped him realize that as Commander –in-Chief of the U.S. military he could make an impact on the war through presidential orders.
Lincoln hoped his bill compensating slave owners for giving up their slaves, a bill that had Congressional approval, would have the potential to make longer lasting changes.
On the other hand, a proclamation could only be aimed at freeing the slaves in the states the U.S. was fighting, and a presidential decree could not effectively free any slaves in the North, or in the border states.
The Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott had determined that the federal government had no right to interfere with the rights of individual states regarding the institution if slavery and there was not really anything in the U.S. Constitution that specifically prohibited slavery.
Lincoln was a politician who believed in staying within the bounds of the Law of the land.
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s plans for eliminating slavery did not accomplish a success in freeing many slaves. The bill calling for financial compensation for the Southern states that eliminated slavery within their borders was a failure. In addition, his Proclamation of Emancipation fell far short of freeing many of the slaves in the South, but it did refine Lincoln’s resolve to truly emancipate the slaves.
Yet, the emancipation did generate at least three very important achievements: 1) the slave population began to trust that Lincoln was not like the other presidents before – they freed themselves and fled to the Union lines; 2) this decree undermined the efforts of the Confederate government to attain substantial support from Great Britain; and 3) it created the foundation for the Thirteenth Amendment which made slavery illegal.
Even the Civil War did not end slavery. Ending slavery required the dead serious will and sure determined actions of an extremely focused president to set in motion the governmental machinery to ensure that slavery was ruled unconstitutional in the U.S. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation practically served as a Declaration of Independence for those in bondage.
Lincoln had gone back to the founding documents to get through this horribly dangerous time in American history and challenged America to remember the original ideals of the Founders, and to come to terms with such lofty ideals. He transplanted those foundational principles into his time so that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, would have a new birth of freedom and never perish from the planet.