The Liberator
From the March 8, 2004, issue of National Review


Mackubin Thomas Owens

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, by Allen C. Guelzo (Simon & Schuster, 332 pp., $26)

There was a time when every schoolboy learned that Abraham Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was a crucial step in that process. Many historians have called this traditional account into question, arguing that Lincoln was not really motivated by a commitment to end slavery; they cite as evidence a famous letter to Horace Greeley, in which Lincoln proclaimed, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery.” Many of Lincoln’s critics go so far as to claim that he was no friend of blacks, and did not want to risk the political fallout that would result from emancipation, but was eventually forced to do so by circumstances. Many have also questioned the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, arguing that it was a piece of propaganda that didn’t actually free any slaves.

Unfortunately, Lincoln’s defenders often don’t do him any favors, claiming–for example–that he “grew in office,” away from an original position of moral indifference regarding emancipation. In this magnificent new book, however, historian Allen Guelzo (author of the Lincoln Prize-winning 1999 book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President) makes a strong case for the traditional account: Lincoln was, in fact, committed to ending slavery–and the Emancipation Proclamation played a central role in his effort. Guelzo argues that “the Emancipation Proclamation was the most revolutionary pronouncement ever signed by an American president, striking the legal shackles from four million black slaves and setting the nation’s face toward the total abolition of slavery within three more years.” This book is a major accomplishment: It demolishes the simplistic views of Lincoln and slavery that have gained so much currency in recent years.

Guelzo places Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of political and military events. He claims that to understand Lincoln’s policy, one must recognize the role of prudence–the practical wisdom that seeks the best means for achieving fixed ends. Aristotle claimed that prudence is the virtue most characteristic of the true statesman, and Guelzo contends that neither Lincoln’s critics nor his defenders understand its importance. He argues persuasively that Lincoln’s “face was set toward the goal of emancipation from the day he first took the presidential oath”; to achieve this goal, he planned out a policy of legislated, gradual, compensated emancipation. He believed he could convince Congress to appropriate funds for compensating slave owners to free their slaves gradually. His plan was to begin where slavery was weakest: in the northernmost slave states, especially Delaware. The key to his strategy was to convince the legislatures of slave states to change their statutes on slavery. The Constitution, after all, left the issue of slavery to the states. This state-legislative strategy offered the best chance for keeping the issue of emancipation out of the federal court system, where an unfavorable judgment could have been devastating.

This strategy explains his apparent lack of concern about the proposal–at the beginning of his term–of a constitutional amendment foreclosing forever the possibility that the federal government could interfere with the institution of slavery, even by future amendment. Lincoln was willing to accept this proposal as a way of bringing the seven states that had seceded back into the Union fold, but he adamantly refused any compromise on the expansion of slavery: In a series of letters to political leaders in December 1860, Lincoln urged them to “entertain no proposition” that would allow slavery’s reach to be extended. He believed that if he could prevent the expansion of slavery into the federal territories and prevail upon state legislatures to accept gradual, compensated emancipation, he could shrink slavery, making it uneconomical and placing it back on the road to eventual extinction that he believed the Founders had envisioned.

The outbreak of war derailed the original version of his grand scheme, but even after the war began, Lincoln believed that if he could convince the legislatures of the loyal slave states to agree to compensated emancipation, he could end the rebellion, restore the Union, and begin the end of slavery. He reasoned that the combination of military success against the Confederacy and compensated emancipation in the loyal slave states would lead to the collapse of the Confederacy, which had staked its hopes on eventually incorporating the so-called border states.

But neither condition came to pass: Lincoln’s proposals for compensated emancipation were rejected by the border states, and McClellan’s army was driven back from Richmond. Lincoln concluded that he did not have the time to pursue his preferred legislative strategy in the border states, and that therefore something stronger and more precipitous was now needed to win the war. On September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation–giving the Confederates 100 days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation.

Lincoln was taking an immense political gamble. Those who argue that Lincoln was only “waiting for the right time” to issue the Proclamation must confront the fact that, because of his action, the Republicans paid an enormous price in the 1862 elections. Guelzo writes that “the timing of the Proclamation amounted to political suicide.” The Proclamation was also a gamble in another sense: It opened the possibility that emancipation would end up in the federal courts. Lincoln feared that if the federal judiciary under Chief Justice Roger Taney ever took up emancipation, it would become in effect the guarantor of slavery, setting back the prospect for all future emancipation just as Dred Scott had set back the effort to prevent the expansion of slavery into the territories. The fact that the Prize Cases, which essentially affirmed the legality of the Union’s conduct of the war, were decided by a vote of only 5–4 in the midst of the war seems to confirm the wisdom of Lincoln’s desire to keep emancipation out of the courts.

This desire also explains his preference for compensated emancipation over the alternatives: treatment of fugitive slaves under federal control as “contrabands of war”; confiscation; and emancipation as part of martial law. All these, he believed, were unconstitutional and open to legal challenge. Indeed, it was possible that even after a successful war to subdue the rebellion, a slaveholder whose property had been seized in this manner could sue successfully in federal court. “Once the war emergency was over,” writes Guelzo, “the federal dockets would fill up with appeals that either attacked [martial law emancipation] proclamations as unconstitutional or denied that specific cases really fell within the definitions of the proclamation.”

So why, in 1862, did Lincoln, who had treated emancipation with such a scrupulous regard for legalities, begin to contemplate a step that was vulnerable to similar objections? Guelzo argues that because 1) Unionist slaveholders rejected even the mildest legislative emancipation policy and 2) the Union war effort, before Antietam, was not visibly succeeding, Lincoln was left with a stark choice: issue a presidential proclamation or see emancipation swept off the table altogether. Of course, a long-term legislative solution was still required. (It would eventually be provided by the Thirteenth Amendment.) The Proclamation, writes Guelzo, “was an emergency measure, a substitute for the permanent plan that would really rid the country of slavery, but a substitute as sincere and profound as the timbers that shore up an endangered mine shaft, and prevent it from collapsing entirely.”

But what about the claims that the Proclamation actually freed no slaves and that it was the slaves themselves who, by running away, put pressure on Lincoln and Congress to “catch up” with the reality of self-emancipation? Guelzo shows that this account has things backwards. Lincoln may not have had the power on January 1, 1863, to free every slave in the Confederacy, but he had the authority to do so, and in law the authority is as good as the power. And it was the Emancipation Proclamation that provided the impetus for many slaves in territory not under federal control to run away. Perhaps more significantly, those runaways could not have remained “self-emancipated” for very long without the legal freedom conferred by the Proclamation. “Without the Proclamation, even a Confederacy in defeat would have retained legal title to its slaves, and there is little in the oppressive patterns of coercion Southerners employed before the Civil War or afterward in Reconstruction to suggest that they would not have been willing to reclaim as many of their self-emancipated runaways as they could, and if the record of the federal courts in the post-Civil War decades is any proof, the courts would probably have helped them.”

The Emancipation Proclamation may lack the rhetorical elegance of the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural, but Guelzo demonstrates that the Proclamation is the most epochal of Lincoln’s public pronouncements. This book is the definitive treatment of emancipation; Allen Guelzo deserves our gratitude for returning this document to its place of honor in the history of the Republic.

– Mr. Owens, a contributing editor to National Review Online, is a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.


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