On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln publicly announced his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, effective on January 1, 1863. Under the terms of this Presidential Order, any area in a state of rebellion against the Union would immediately forfeit the institution of “legal” slavery without compensation. Lincoln had actually come to his own private conclusion to issue the Emancipation Proclamation earlier, perhaps as early as the spring of 1862, and certainly by July 22, 1862, when he shared his initial draft with his Cabinet and requested suggestions and comments from each of his fabled “team of rivals.”
His closest and most devoted friend in the Cabinet, Secretary of State William H. Seward, noted how poorly the war effort was going up to that point, including recent retreats, defeats and other setbacks in Virginia, such as General George McClellan’s delays, retreats and lost opportunities during the Battle of the Peninsula. Seward suggested, and Lincoln and others agreed, that the President should postpone the announcement of his plan to issue the Proclamation until the Union had secured a victory, so as not to be perceived as grasping at desperate measures.
But that elusive victory (at Antietam/Sharpsburg) was still almost two months in the future. And thanks to McClellan’s incompetence, that victory was largely marginalized by General Robert E. Lee’s successful escape from the brink of total defeat. In the meantime, the Union would again meet with frustration and defeat at Manassas/Bull Run, and the capture of Harper’s Ferry, VA by the Confederates.
But Lincoln was determined to exercise his emergency war powers authority to attack the institution of slavery. Upon making his September 22 announcement, Lincoln then had to suffer intense northern opposition as well as further military embarrassment due to continued inaction of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan. In November, the President fired McClellan (permanently, this time), and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside, who proceeded to suffer a brutal and decisive defeat by Lee’s forces at Fredericksburg, VA in December.
Yet Lincoln remained firm in his commitment to keep his promise, even in the face of significant opposition across the Union. Anger and resistance to the elimination of slavery came not only from the Border States, but from throughout the anti-slavery northern states as well. Long before urban planners had coined the term NIMBY (not in my backyard), there was great trepidation across the North that freed slaves would migrate from slaveholding states into their own communities.
When January 1, 1863 arrived, Lincoln received the formal Emancipation Proclamation document for signature from the State Department. But, ever the careful lawyer, he noticed an error and sent the document back for correction. Three hours later, after greeting numerous guests at the White House New Year’s Day celebration, Lincoln again sat down to review and sign the proclamation. But this time, after three hours of shaking the hands of New Year’s Day visitors, he worried that his fatigued and trembling hand would project doubt or uncertainty into the signature that would launch the end of slavery in America.
Turning to Seward, Lincoln said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper… my arm is stiff and numb… any way, it is going to be done!” Completing his signature, he looked up, smiled, and said in a quiet voice, “That will do.” He gave the signature pen to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a long time strident abolitionist who had nearly died from injuries he had sustained when brutally beaten with a metal tipped walking stick by a pro-slavery Congressman on the floor of the Senate in 1856.
Over the past 149 years, there has been much discussion centered on criticism as to perceived shortcomings of the Emancipation Proclamation, including the fact that it only applied to the Confederate States, and not to the Border States of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Furthermore, critics contend that Lincoln’s only reason for issuing this historic proclamation was as a political and military ploy.
These criticisms, although flawed, are not without foundation, and therefore require a more thorough discussion and analysis than this week’s column can accommodate. These issues and other complexities and nuances to Lincoln’s character and legacy will be examined in future columns, with ample citation to some of the leading historians and scholars whose insights are essential to an understanding of this period of American history: James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Mark Neely, Michael Burlingame, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harold Holzer, David Herbert Donald, David Blight, Drew Gilpin Faust, Allan Guelzo, and others.
It seems fitting to highlight a couple of the most immediate and heartfelt assessments and comments by the African American anti-slavery leaders of Lincoln’s own time in assessing the significance of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the President’s unwavering determination to issue it and enforce it.
Frederick Douglass, in March 1863, called it “the greatest event in our nation’s history.” Underground Railroad leader Sojourner Truth, like Douglass an escaped slave herself, told Lincoln in person that he was the only president who ever did anything for her people. She reported that Lincoln modestly replied, “And the only one who ever had such opportunity. Had our friends in the South behaved themselves, I could have done nothing whatever.”
Among the numerous excellent sources for accurate and in-depth historical facts and analysis on the Emancipation Proclamation, for purposes of this column I relied heavily on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery In America, by Allen C. Guelzo (2004, Simon & Schuster), and Abraham Lincoln: A Life, a two volume work by Michael Burlingame (2008, Johns Hopkins University Press).
Patrick Teegarden writes about the Civil War for The Colorado Statesman. He can be reached at: Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.