Table of Contents
The institution of slavery was always and only hateful to the earnest and honest nature of Lincoln. He detested it with all the energy of his soul. He would, as he said, gladly have swept it from the face of the earth. Not even the extreme abolitionists, Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Whittier, abominated slavery with more intensity than Lincoln. But he did not show his hostility in the same way. He had a wider scope of vision than they. He had, and they had not, an appreciative historical knowledge of slavery in this country. He knew that it was tolerated by the Constitution and laws enacted within the provisions of the Constitution, though he believed that the later expansion of slavery was contrary to the spirit and intent of the men who framed the Constitution. And he believed that slaveholders had legal rights which should be respected by all orderly citizens. His sympathy with the slave did not cripple his consideration for the slave-owner who had inherited his property in that form, and under a constitution and laws which he did not originate and for which he was not responsible.
He would destroy slavery root and branch, but he would do it in a manner conformable to the Constitution, not in violation of it. He would exterminate it, but he would not so do it as to impoverish law- abiding citizens whose property was in slaves. He would eliminate slavery, but not in a way to destroy the country, for that would entail more mischief than benefit. To use a figure, he would throw Jonah overboard, but he would not upset the ship in the act.
Large numbers of people have a limited scope of knowledge. Such overlooked the real benefits of our civilization, and did not realize that wrecking the constitution would simply destroy the good that had thus far been achieved, and uproot the seeds of promise of usefulness for the centuries to come. They wanted slavery destroyed at once, violently, regardless of the disastrous consequences. On the other hand, Lincoln wanted it destroyed, but by a sure and rational process. He wished–and from this he never swerved–to do also two things: first, to compensate the owners of the slaves, and second to provide for the future of the slaves themselves. Of course, the extreme radicals could not realize that he was more intensely opposed to slavery than themselves.
Let us now glance at his record. We have already seen (in chapter V.) how he revolted from the first view of the horrors of the institution, and the youthful vow which he there recorded will not readily be forgotten. That was in 1831 when he was twenty-two years of age.
Six years later, or in 1837, when he was a youthful member of the Illinois legislature, he persuaded Stone to join him in a protest against slavery. There was positively nothing to be gained by this protest, either personally or in behalf of the slave. The only possible reason for it was that he believed that slavery was wrong and could not rest until he had openly expressed that belief. “A timely utterance gave that thought relief, And I again am strong.”
When he was in congress, in 1846, the famous Wilmot Proviso came up. This was to provide “that, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the republic of Mexico by the United States ... neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of the said territory.” By reason of amendments, this subject came before the house very many times, and Lincoln said afterwards that he had voted for the proviso in one form or another forty-two times.
On the 16th day of January, 1849, he introduced into congress a bill for the emancipation of slavery in the District of Columbia. This was a wise and reasonable bill. It gave justice to all, and at the same time gathered all the fruits of emancipation in the best possible way. The bill did not pass, there was no hope at the time that it would pass. But it compelled a reasonable discussion of the subject and had a certain amount of educational influence.
It is interesting that, thirteen years later, April 10, 1862, he had the privilege of fixing his presidential signature to a bill similar to his own. Congress had moved up to his position. When he signed the bill, he said: “Little did I dream, in 1849, when I proposed to abolish slavery in this capital, and could scarcely get a hearing for the proposition, that it would be so soon accomplished.”
After the expiration of his term in congress he left political life, as he supposed, forever. He went into the practise of the law in earnest, and was so engaged at the time of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise which called him back to the arena of politics.
In the early part of the war there were certain attempts at emancipation which Lincoln held in check for the reason that the time for them had not arrived. “There’s a tide in the affairs of men.” It is of prime importance that this tide be taken at the flood. So far as emancipation was concerned, this came in slower than the eagerness of Generals Fremont and Hunter. But it was coming, and in the meantime Lincoln was doing what he could to help matters on. The difficulty was that if the Union was destroyed it would be the death-blow to the cause of emancipation. At the same time not a few loyal men were slaveholders. To alienate these by premature action would be disastrous. The only wise plan of action was to wait patiently until a sufficient number of these could be depended on in the emergency of emancipation. This was what Lincoln was doing.
The first part of the year 1862 was very trying. The North had expected to march rapidly and triumphantly into Richmond. This had not been accomplished, but on the contrary disaster had followed disaster in battle, and after many months the two armies were encamped facing each other and almost in sight of Washington, while the soldiers from the North were rapidly sickening and dying in the Southern camps. Small wonder if there was an impatient clamor.
A serious result of this delay was the danger arising from European sources. The monarchies of Europe had no sympathy with American freedom. They became impatient with the reports of “no progress” in the war, and at this time some of them were watching for a pretext to recognize the Southern Confederacy. This came vividly to the knowledge of Carl Schurz, minister to Spain. By permission of the President he returned to this country–this was late in January, 1862–to lay the matter personally before him. With the help of Schurz, Lincoln proceeded to develop the sentiment for emancipation. By his request Schurz went to New York to address a meeting of the Emancipation Society on March 6th. It need not be said that the speaker delivered a most able and eloquent plea upon “Emancipation as a Peace Measure." Lincoln also made a marked contribution to the meeting. He telegraphed to Schurz the text of his message to congress recommending emancipation in the District of Columbia,–which resulted in the law already mentioned,–and this message of Lincoln was read to the meeting. The effect of it, following the speech of Schurz, was overwhelming. It was quite enough to satisfy the most sanguine expectations. This was not a coincidence, it was a plan. Lincoln’s hand in the whole matter was not seen nor suspected for many years after. It gave a marked impetus to the sentiment of emancipation.
To the loyal slaveholders of the border states he made a proposal of compensated emancipation. To his great disappointment they rejected this. It was very foolish on their part, and he cautioned them that they might find worse trouble.
All this time, while holding back the eager spirits of the abolitionists, he was preparing for his final stroke. But it was of capital importance that this should not be premature. McClellan’s failure to take Richmond and his persistent delay, hastened the result. The community at large became impatient beyond all bounds. There came about a feeling that something radical must be done, and that quickly. But it was still necessary that he should be patient. As the bravest fireman is the last to leave the burning structure, so the wise statesman must hold himself in check until the success of so important a measure is assured beyond a doubt.
An event which occurred later may be narrated here because it illustrates the feeling which Lincoln always had in regard to slavery. The item was written out by the President himself and given to the newspapers for publication under the heading,
“THE PRESIDENT’S LAST, SHORTEST, AND BEST SPEECH.”
“On Thursday of last week, two ladies from Tennessee came before the President, asking the release of their husbands, held as prisoners of war at Johnson’s Island. They were put off until Friday, when they came again, and were again put off until Saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On Saturday, when the President ordered the release of the prisoners, he said to this lady: You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread in the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.”
As the dreadful summer of 1862 advanced, Lincoln noted surely that the time was at hand when emancipation would be the master stroke. In discussing the possibilities of this measure he seemed to take the opposite side. This was a fixed habit with him. He drew out the thoughts of other people. He was enabled to see the subject from all sides. Even after his mind was made up to do a certain thing, he would still argue against it. But in any other sense than this he took counsel of no one upon the emancipation measure. The work was his work. He presented his tentative proclamation to the cabinet on the 22d of July, 1862. The rest of the story is best told in Lincoln’s own words: –
“It had got to be midsummer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations 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 consultation with, or knowledge of, the cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and after much anxious thought called a cabinet meeting upon the subject.... I said to the cabinet 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, suggestions as to which would be in order after they had heard it read.”
The members of the cabinet offered various suggestions, but none which Lincoln had not fully anticipated. Seward approved the measure but thought the time not opportune. There had been so many reverses in the war, that he feared the effect. “It may be viewed,” he said, “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.” He then suggested that the proclamation be not issued until it could be given to the country supported by military successes. This seemed to Lincoln a wise suggestion, and he acted on it. The document was laid away for the time.
It was not until September 17th that the looked-for success came. The Confederate army had crossed the Potomac with the intention of invading the North. They were met and completely defeated in the battle of Antietam. Lincoln said of it: “When Lee came over the river, I made a resolution that if McClellan drove him back I would send the proclamation after him. The battle of Antietam was fought Wednesday, and until Saturday I could not find out whether we had gained a victory or lost a battle. It was then too late to issue the proclamation that day; and the fact is I fixed it up a little Sunday, and Monday I let them have it.”
This was the preliminary proclamation and was issued September 22d. The supplementary document, the real proclamation of emancipation, was issued January 1, 1863. As the latter covers substantially the ground of the former, it is not necessary to repeat both and only the second one is given.
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:–
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 designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free, and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid by proclamation, designate the states and part of states, if any, in which the people thereof respectively shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any state, or the people thereof, shall on that day be in good faith represented in the congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such state shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such state and the people thereof are not then in rebellion against the United States:–
Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States, in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority of, and government of, the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days from the day first above mentioned, order, and designate, as the states and parts of states wherein the people thereof respectively are this day in rebellion against the United States [here follows the list].
And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states and parts of states, are and henceforward shall be free; and that the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free, to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense, and I recommend to them, that in all cases, when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of almighty God.
In Testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my name and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President: WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
So he fulfilled his youthful vow. He had hit that thing, and he had hit it hard! From that blow the cursed institution of slavery will not recover in a thousand years.