Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

The Proclamation of Emancipation initially did not seem to have much of an effect as it freed few slaves at the time it became effective in the middle of the Civil War. Photo: Library of Congress

SAN JOSE, February 11, 2012 – Prior to the 1970s, a federal holiday observed Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th. In 1971, the fond recollections of Lincoln took a back seat to the “one day fits all” celebration of President’s Day. Since that time, the memory of Lincoln’s greatness in the eyes of many seems to have gradually diminished over the years, while remembering Lincoln was limited to the study of his presidency in U.S. history classrooms throughout the country.

However, Abraham Lincoln is one of our greatest presidents and it is appropriate for Americans to remind themselves of the achievements of a truly great president from time to time to realize that America has been blessed with a few great men who rose to meet head on the challenges of their day and who worked diligently to do all they could to fulfill admirable accomplishments for the sake of the nation.

One of the most controversial, and oftentimes most confusing, of Lincoln’s accomplishments was the Proclamation of Emancipation. It was one of the most important actions of Lincoln’s presidency, but many Americans do not fully comprehend the value of Lincoln’s decree to free the slaves. There are many people who believe that it was announced after the Union finally prevailed over the Confederacy and the Civil War was over, but it was not. Many believe that Lincoln’s words were intended to free all slaves throughout America, but it could not. Also, many believe that the proclamation finally freed all of the slaves, but it did not. 

Lincoln initially announced his intent to free the slaves to his cabinet on September 22, 1862, five days after McClellan’s Federal forces met Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a bloody battle at Antietam Creek in northwestern Maryland. After this inconclusive battle, Lee decided to retreat to Virginia and the battle was deemed a Union victory by the North. Lincoln viewed it as a hopeful sign that the Confederate Army had been driven from the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania. It gave him confidence that the war was beginning to turn in the favor of the Republic. He proceeded with a decision that he had made months before.

The preliminary announcement in 1862 served as a challenge to the Confederate states to willingly free the slaves within their dominion and any rebel state to do so would be admitted back into the Union. Essentially, the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential directive freeing all slaves in the states that had seceded from the union but it could not apply anywhere else. Lincoln could only do this as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces while the U.S. was engaged in conflict with the Confederate States.

The Confederacy ignored Lincoln’s demands which may have seemed ridiculous to them as they were fighting to sever their ties with Mr. Lincoln and the Federal government. It may have seemed to them that the war had caused Lincoln to lose his mind. On the contrary, Lincoln could have predicted the response from the Confederates. Their response was of less concern to him than the response of African Americans who would recognize him as a man of his word, or the response from Great Britain because he hoped to undermine their possible assistance to the Confederate States.

The actual Proclamation of Emancipation was signed by the president on January 1, 1863. At the time, it fell far short of freeing any of the slaves in the South, but it refined Lincoln’s intent and the scope of the war to emancipate the slaves. Moreover, this single directive accomplished two powerful results. First, it gave hope to the slaves that their freedom was close at hand. Second, it altered international perception because it painted the Confederate States of America as a slave nation.  This meant that the British would avoid sending any foreign aid to such a government.   

The proclamation did not serve as a mandate aimed at freeing all slaves because Lincoln respected the Constitution as the law of the land. He did not believe that the President had the singular authority to take such powerful action. He was keenly aware that the abolitionists were not a majority within the country and he understood that presidents rule in a Republic fundamentally by the consent of the governed.

Also, Lincoln did not initially consider that the slaves should be freed immediately as he was concerned about the welfare of the whole country. He believed that the sudden end of slavery would hurt the nation as a whole. He preferred that such an ingrained institution would be dismantled gradually over time and through the slow economic eradication of the profit derived from free labor.

Nevertheless, by the summer of 1862, the war had worn on the president and he felt that something serious had to be done to turn the tide of the war. Lincoln explained later that “Things had gone from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan that we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game.” He reached a point of decision that the only way the Union could prevail and win the war would be to emancipate the slaves.

By the time he announced his decision to the cabinet in September, he explained to them that “I said nothing to anyone; but I made the promise to myself, and to my Maker…” These words are quite revealing as they show that Lincoln actually promised God to set the slaves free. He attempted everything in his power to do so and he even forfeited his life to preserve the Union and to ensure that this country would truly become the “Land of the Free.” 

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of may not have seemed too intelligent to Southerners at the time. It may not have been too popular with Northerners who weren’t as fiercely anti-slavery. It may not have freed many slaves during the middle of the Civil War. However, Abraham Lincoln’s decree doomed slavery as it served as the foundation for the Thirteenth Amendment that finally freed all slaves throughout the United States.

Abraham Lincoln rose to the occasion when the nation may have appeared to be self-destructing. He rose up from poverty to control the reigns of power, but he exercised great caution as well as great resolve in his leadership of a nation that was on the edge of disaster. America cannot afford to forget Lincoln. America would do well to raise more Abe Lincolns.


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.

 

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