150 years later, examining the creation of Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation
The summer of 1862, 150 years ago, was particularly hot in Washington, D.C., and Abraham Lincoln spent as little time in the stuffy White House as he could, preferring to spend his evenings in the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home a few blocks to the north. But on Tuesday, July 22, he ordered a special meeting of his seven-man cabinet there, in the oval library on the second floor instead of his own office on the first, an indication that he felt a little sense of ceremony was appropriate.
“I said to the cabinet,” Lincoln recalled later, “that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them.” A proclamation, he said, on “the adoption of the emancipation policy.” Emancipation. Finally, it seemed, the president was taking the bold step that so many radicals in his party and most of the abolitionists throughout the North had been urging upon him for the better part of the last year, his first in office.
The reaction was a careful silence. “Little was said,” remembered Gideon Welles, the Navy Secretary, “by any one but the president.” Lincoln proceeded to read from two sheets of lined vellum on which he had written in his small, careful hand a sort of legal document, two pages long, with none of the grandeur and elegance he would evince in other statements. It was, he asserted, a “war measure,” taken under his authority as commander-in-chief, and had no need to acquire congressional assent.
After all, if he had used his war powers to bypass Congress and suspend habeas corpus, as he did in April 1861, to arrest and imprison perhaps 15,000 Northern critics without trial, to shut down more than 300 newspapers for varying periods, to censor telegraph communication, to issue postal censorship, to create a naval blockade of the South, to declare martial law in Delaware, and to invade Maryland and rig elections there to keep it from seceding — and, as a matter of fact, to declare war without congressional authorization — then why should this be any more problematic?
The first paragraph was a dry assent to a bill Congress had passed a few days earlier allowing confiscation of property of those “participating in, aiding, countenancing, or abetting the existing rebellion ... as within and by said sixth section provided.”
Nothing here, they must have thought — this couldn’t be why a special cabinet session was called. The second paragraph turned to a scheme Lincoln had advanced before, getting Congress to pass a law giving Federal aid to any Southern states that would recognize the Union. Nothing here, either — every man there had heard this idea and knew it had scant support in the legislature.
But then Lincoln turned the page and announced, “And, as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I ... do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of Our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixty three, all persons held as slaves within any state or states” in rebellion from the United States “shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.”
Mark you, the declaration did not apply to the states not in rebellion where slavery flourished (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, as well as the District of Columbia), and that is because at its heart its intent was not so much to create free people as to foster slave rebellions in the South (especially on plantations whose owners had gone to war) and to disrupt the food production on which the Confederate army depended. In other words, as Secretary of State William Seward remarked ironically at the time, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
Nonetheless, the cabinet members were receptive to the proclamation, with only a few demurs. Attorney General Edward Bates argued that it had to go hand in hand with compulsory colonization, a resettlement of freed slaves to South America or Africa, an idea that Lincoln had previously championed but without support from a Congress that feared the cost; Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase worried that its sweeping power to annul state laws would not be upheld by federal courts, a fear that Lincoln had earlier expressed, and that “universal emancipation” would set off “depredation and massacre” across the South; Seward said that it seemed like “the last measure of an exhausted government” and should not be issued until there were some signs of Union success on the battlefield, lest the public regard it as without any effect, as, he pointed out, the famous papal bull against Halley’s comet.
Lincoln heard their responses but was not inclined to engage in a long discussion. He had come to announce his decision, not to ask for advice. In fact he was inclined to issue the proclamation the next day, and only a fervent plea by Seward at a meeting that evening persuaded him to delay. But only for the opportune moment, the right Union success, and he figured that would not be long.
For this was something that, as a “military measure,” he was determined to do. When the time was right.
It would be months before that time came.
Kirkpatrick Sale, a resident of Mount Pleasant, is the author of 12 books of history and environmental politics, and is writing a book on the Emancipation Proclamation due out in January.