The pressures of emancipation

It is clear to see that Abraham Lincoln had personally felt disgust toward the idea of slavery and saw it as a morally abhorrent institution, writing in 1858 “as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy[i]” and later in 1859 that “those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it[ii].” Lincoln’s views reflected the mind of most northerners and a growing minority of southern non-slave owners. When the Civil War exploded in 1861 however, Lincoln vowed that the objective of the war was not to free the slaves but rather to restore the Union.

By 1862 inept Union generalship under George McClellan had lead to a series of defeats, setbacks and stalemates at the hands of the outnumbered and outgunned Confederacy. McClellan’s paranoia and lack of will resulted in stagnation on all fronts and provided an exploitable advantage for General Robert E. Lee. Union defeat seemed imminent as southern forces expelled Union forces from the areas surrounding besieged Richmond following the Second Battle of Bull Run and set out to cross the Potomac and strike into the north, meeting at Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Battle of Antietam.

While the Union suffered more casualties at Sharpsburg and was not successful in routing or destroying Lee’s army it did succeed in repelling the southern forces from the north and was considered to be a strategic victory. Several minor union victories at Perryville, Kentucky, Corinth, Mississippi and Newtonian, Missouri would follow. Lincoln took advantage of this situation to offer preliminary emancipation to the slaves, an event which would become crucial in bringing the war to a “higher level” and allowing for the possibility of Union success. After the Emancipation Proclamation the Union was emboldened to win as the war shifted from a political to a moral crusade. Lincoln’s reasons for such emancipation may have more to do with pragmatic advantages than moral considerations however.

The countries of Europe, chief amongst them England and France, had become reliant upon the south’s cotton industry. Lincoln feared entry of France or England into the war, especially considering the poor tactical decisions of his leading general which had led the Union to the edge of defeat. Entry of France or England into the war at that critical point would have spelt sure defeat for the already disenchanted Union soldiers. By declaring emancipation Lincoln ensured that the slave-free European states could not enter into the war with good conscience and cut off a grand potential ally for the Confederacy.

Lincoln also considered the spirit of the Union soldier. Prior to the Emancipation Union soldiers had fought to uphold the political status quo and generally felt no great calling to fight, as contrasted with the typical Confederate soldier who fought for his home, family and country. Even though the Confederates were always outnumbered in all of the major battles (and often outgunned) they fought with ferocity and cunning that was only made possible through such a calling. Lincoln’s declaration of emancipation emboldened the Union soldiers and rallied them to fight with comparable resolve. Along with the reinstatement of the already fiery Ulysses S. Grant as principal general after Antietam, the Union now went on a furious offensive as the Confederates did.

But emancipation was not a stress-free decision for Lincoln, who was surrounded at the highest level of government and within his own cabinet by contrasting opinions. While the northern popular opinion reflected the President’s own disposition Lincoln had doubts about the loyalties of Congress (namely the “War Democrats” or democrats which supported the war for purposes of maintaining the union) and his generals to the notion. More alarmingly Lincoln feared that an early emancipation declaration, without a strong Union military victory, would inspire the border-states such as Kentucky to withdraw from the Union, a fate which would surely mean defeat. He declared grimly in a letter to O. H. Browning, September 22, 1861: “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” The emancipation had to be declared in a position of power and seeming victory, lest it appear as a cry of desperation. Lincoln went as far as to reverse previous emancipation decisions by Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Generals Freemont and Hunter, who had declared local emancipation as military governors in occupied territories.

Lincoln had to juggle the possibility of political disunity and fragmentation with the passing of the emancipation and the possibility of popular disapproval, low battlefield morale and foreign intervention if he did not declare it. The intra-political implications for such a proclamation would be lessened by the recent victories as the Union was now on the offensive and so Lincoln seized the moment of opportunity, hoping that he could capture the hearts and minds of the people of both the north, the oppressed slaves in the south as well as the fidgety European parliaments.

The effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was vastly more successful than Lincoln could have imagined and galvanized the people to strike hard into the south with a new goal of liberating an oppressed people. The Emancipation also would lead to the eventual full emancipation of the slaves via the 13th Amendment, as such a firestorm and furor for liberty had been kicked up that it seemed a natural conclusion of the bloody civil war.


[i] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, (August 1, 1858?), p. 532.

[ii] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, “Letter To Henry L. Pierce and Others” (April 6, 1859), p. 376.