SAN JOSE, Calif., Jan. 12, 2016 – One of the most controversial, and often most confusing, of Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishments was an executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. It was one of the most important actions of Lincoln’s presidency and can be viewed as a turning point in the history of the United States.
While many Americans do not fully comprehend the deeper value of Lincoln’s decree to free the slaves, still others possess a distorted understanding of the purpose of the executive action. Regardless of the confusion and the controversy, this decree represents a testimony to the strength of a president who strove to bring America back to its original values and founding principles. It is a stretch to label this an example of tyranny.
In reality, in the summer of 1862, President Lincoln was not sure that the Union would survive the Civil War, let alone impose tyranny over the Confederates. The war had persisted much longer than what Lincoln had anticipated. In that summer he wrote: “Things had gone from bad to worse, until I felt we had reached the end of our rope on the plan we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game.”
In this period, Lincoln felt strongly he needed to do something to change what appeared to be the inevitable outcome of the war. The horrendous war caused the president to sincerely seek the best way to end the war without destroying the nation – including the ideals espoused at the founding: liberty and equality. In that summer of 1862, Lincoln explained to two cabinet members that he had given much thought to creating a proclamation freeing the slaves as a necessity to save the Union. He eventually announced his proclamation of emancipation to the full cabinet, and it was discussed. Secretary of State William Seward cautioned “that you postpone its issue until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war.”
Lincoln heeded Seward’s advice and waited until McClellan’s Army of the Potomac claimed a dubious victory against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, as the Union troops repelled the rebels at Antietam Creek in northwestern Maryland. Lee’s army turned back to Virginia. Five days later, on Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln called his cabinet together to revisit his proclamation:
Gentlemen, I have, as you are aware, thought a great deal about the relation of this war to slavery, and you all remember that several weeks ago, I read to you an order I had prepared on this subject… I think the time has come now. I wish it were a better time…
When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a proclamation of emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone; but I made the promise to myself, and to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.
On that same day, Lincoln issued the proclamation he had read to his cabinet in the summer. As the commander in chief of the Army and Navy, he promised the war would be prosecuted in the same manner as previously by the Union, but from Jan. 1, 1863, the slaves in all the states still in rebellion would be declared “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” It was all but ignored by the Confederate leadership and President Jefferson Davis. On the surface, it may have appeared as a futile attempt at freeing slaves held captive in the Southern states, and it may still have seemed to the Confederates as if Lincoln were quite desperate and a bit premature.
Frankly, the Union had struggled to win significant battles against the Confederate troops and did not appear capable of winning the war. Yet, on New Year’s Day 1863, President Lincoln slipped away from a multitude of guests celebrating the festivities at the White House and signed his Proclamation of Emancipation. He remarked at the time: “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”
Unfortunately, throughout 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation seemed an impotent ultimatum from a president with virtually no authority over the slave empire of the South. The white southern aristocracy would not be deterred by what appeared as Lincoln’s idle threats. The Confederates had such pervasive authority, and were fighting to eliminate forever any federal interference in their “rights” — their lawful rights to own what they deemed to be fully protected by the U.S. Constitution as legitimate property: human beings. Lincoln’s proclamation challenged this premise.
Actually, the net effect of Lincoln’s proclaiming the emancipation of the slaves was to return the nation to the original foundation established under the Declaration of Independence: all men being equal under the law, and all people enjoying unalienable rights as citizens derived from God. Lincoln addressed this long before his Emancipation Proclamation in June of 1857, after the Dred Scott Decision:
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration of Independence is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge (Stephen) Douglas 0argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes.
I think the authors of that incredible instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare men equal in all respects.
[but] …equal in certain ‘inalienable rights among which are life. Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant.
American slaves had never enjoyed such rights of life liberty, or the pursuit of happiness because they were not seen as human beings by the slave empire in the Deep South. The old, entrenched white southern aristocracy did not respect the ideals of the Declaration of Independence; and a serious case can be made that the Confederate slave owners only had the name of being Americans, yet they were not fundamentally Americans.
To Lincoln, holding the Union together represented more than just the control of land or territories. The war threatened to destroy the deeply rooted values and the very foundation of the American heritage. The Confederate constitution promoted the opposite of the ideals and values of the fundamental principles of the Union.
As Lincoln expressed in his Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” In January 1863, Lincoln was not sure that the Union would survive the Civil War, but he put in play the presidential decree that helped to save “a nation so conceived (in liberty) and so dedicated (to the proposition that all men are created equal).”