The Emancipation Proclamation Within the Larger Process of Ending Slavery During the Civil War

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and every year on social media there seems to be a renewed debate about the effectiveness of the proclamation, Lincoln’s motivations in issuing it, and how the act shaped the overall war effort. The strangest thing in this debate is the weird convergence of neo-Confederates and some historians who profess (incorrectly) that the EP didn’t free any slaves; that Lincoln didn’t do enough to try and end slavery during the war (although some of those same folks would be the first to claim that Lincoln was a tyrant who abused his presidential powers); and that the act was borderline meaningless. And so it was interesting to read a couple Twitter comments after historian Kevin Levin posted a picture on Twitter of areas throughout the south where the Emancipation Proclamation took effect and immediately free thousands of slaves.  One academic complained that Lincoln’s proclamation was “public diplomacy” that didn’t go far enough in freeing the enslaved.

(In reality, the real act of “public diplomacy” was Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, in which he proclaimed that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery” while having already completed the writing of his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation).

True, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves of the South, it did not apply to slave states still in the Union, and would it not have had any legal standing once the war ended. But it fundamentally changed the nature of the Civil War and made the abolition of slavery a war aim. More specifically, the act would spread and apply to more enslaved people as the U.S. Army reacquired control of areas within the Confederacy and essentially became an army of liberation. It also encouraged African Americans to enlist in the United States military, and it set the table for future legal actions to abolish slavery, most notably the 13th Amendment, which would make slavery’s abolition permanent after the end of the war. Finally, it also garnered support for the U.S. war effort internationally.

I believe it’s best to view the Emancipation Proclamation as a major step within a larger legal process towards the end of slavery in the United States. Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, James Oakes’s Freedom National was important in showing me that the end of slavery was a process and not a single moment of jubilation. It started with three enslaved runaways who sought refuge at Fort Monroe and the Port Royal Experiment in South Carolina. It continued with the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect in 1863, and eventually loyal border slave states like Maryland (1864) and Missouri (1865) voluntarily abolishing slavery before the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865. These legal steps also can’t be separated from the actions of enslaved people themselves who played a role in their own liberation from slavery.

To appreciate the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, therefore, means fitting it within a broader context of the larger legal process undertaken during the Civil War to abolish slavery within the United States. It was not an overly radical act that freed all slaves in both loyal states and the Confederate states, but conversely it was not a meaningless piece of paper that did nothing to effect a change in slavery’s future in the country. It was radical in a sense and extremely significant within the context of the American Civil War.


A Review of “Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery” by Daniel W. Crofts

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In recent years an interpretation that might be best described as “emancipationist” has emerged to explain the motives of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party with regards to slavery at the beginning of the American Civil War. This interpretation—advanced by historians such as Adam Goodheart and James Oakes—argues that most Republican politicians at the beginning of the war conceived the conflict as a fight to end U.S. slavery. Remembering John Quincy Adams’s earlier claim that slavery could potentially be abolished as a military necessity during a time of war, these Republicans used the Civil War to seek a quick, deadly end to slavery as soon as shots rang out. In Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, Oakes argues that “secession meant war and war meant immediate emancipation” in the minds of most Republicans.

Historian Daniel W. Crofts puts the brakes on this interpretation in his new book, Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union. In an exhaustive analysis of the secession crisis that emerged following Lincoln’s 1860 electoral victory, Crofts convincingly demonstrates that most Republicans—Lincoln included—had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed or turning the war into an emancipation crusade. They made repeated overtures to the South expressing these views, and they even worked to pass a proposed thirteenth constitutional amendment (with Lincoln’s blessing) promising that Congress could not “abolish or interfere” with slavery in the Southern states where it already existed. Crofts offers one of the first major analyses of the “other” thirteenth amendment and proves that the Republican party’s embrace of legal emancipation emerged only when the contingencies of war made slavery’s abolition a necessary element for military victory over the Confederacy.

Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery is broken up into four parts. The first part focuses on anti-slavery thought before the Civil War and the limitations the Constitution placed upon any effort to abolish slavery throughout the country. While a small minority of abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and Lysander Spooner argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document—particularly the Fifth Amendment’s clause against any person being deprived of “life, liberty, and property”—most abolitionists and less radical anti-slavery thinkers acknowledged that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed and could therefore do little beyond encouraging residents and political leaders in those states to voluntarily abolish it. The antebellum anti-slavery political movement populated by Whigs, Free-Soilers, and later Republicans therefore pushed to “denationalize” slavery. “Denationalization” called for the federal government to reject all responsibility for maintaining slavery where it already existed, leaving the matter to the slave states themselves. Where the federal government had jurisdiction, however, “denationalization” supporters called for the the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., no future slave states to be established from the western territories, the end of the interstate slave trade, and repeal of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

The remaining three parts of the book focus on the aftermath of Lincoln’s 1860 election and the effort to assuage the concerns of white Southerners who believed the Republican Party would abolish slavery in the South. Republicans took several measures to address these concerns. Crofts argues that most Republicans believed themselves to be constitutional conservatives. They asserted that their anti-slavery beliefs squared up with the Founding Fathers, who considered slavery a national embarrassment. They hoped to block slavery’s future westward expansion and believed the institution would eventually die, just as the Founders had intended, but at the same time they accepted slavery where it existed and had no intentions of promoting immediate nationwide emancipation as had some of the more popular radical abolitionists like Douglass and Spooner had asserted. Moderate and conservative-minded Republicans like Lincoln even took steps to separate the party from the larger abolitionist movement and expressed their intentions to enforce every law in the book, including the hated Fugitive Slave Act.

Crofts shines in his detailed analysis of the origins of the “other” thirteenth amendment. Conciliatory Republicans like William Seward and Thomas Corwin pushed to have this amendment passed as a gesture to Southerners, particularly Southerners in the border states, to prove their intentions to not touch slavery in the South. Some Republicans went farther by agreeing to allow New Mexico territory to be organized for the purpose of establishing one or more slave states. Not all Republicans supported this amendment, however. More radical Republicans like John Bingham, James M. Ashley, and Charles Sedgwick opposed any amendments or conciliation with the South, arguing that the Constitution should be enforced instead of amended. Lincoln himself encouraged Seward and Corwin’s efforts to gain support for the amendment and expressed his own support for it in his First Inaugural Address, saying that he considered “such a provision to now be implied by constitutional law.” Crofts masterfully analyzes these sharply intense debates within the Republican Party about the extent to which compromise was necessary to keep the Union together.

Another important goal for Crofts is assessing the way historians have previously analyzed Lincoln, the Republican Party, and slavery at the onset of the Civil War. Crofts critiques various scholars throughout the book itself and in a detailed historiographical analysis at the end of the book who have, in Crofts words, produced “history from the heart – history as we might like it to have been” (277). Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harold Holzer, Adam Goodheart, Oakes, and even the writers behind Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film on Lincoln are all taken to task for making Lincoln more radically anti-slavery than he really was. Oakes in particular receives a great deal of criticism from Crofts for mishandling primary source evidence and for downplaying the importance of the original thirteenth amendment as merely a “pointless” and “meaningless” gesture to appease angry Southern politicians.

Most of these critiques are fair, but Crofts overstates the degree to which contemporary scholars still view Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator.” Furthermore, Oakes’s scholarship, in the opinion of this reviewer, still adequately highlights how slavery’s demise came about through a gradual, evolving process of emancipation during the war—as opposed to one singular moment with the Emancipation Proclamation—and why a “second” thirteenth amendment in 1865 abolishing slavery throughout the country was so necessary. Nevertheless, Crofts packs many punches in Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery and convincingly highlights the candidness of many leading Republicans in 1860 and 1861 to acknowledge their inability and unwillingness to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed.

A Memo to Mike Huckabee: The Military Has Always Been a Social Experiment

Last night, for better or worse, I decided to watch the first GOP debate in its entirety. I watched it partly for its entertainment value but mostly from a sincere desire to try and understand the arguments and characteristics of the candidates who claim to be competent enough to run the United States as our next President.

In the course of the debate candidate Mike Huckabee was asked a question about the military’s recent decision to lift its ban on transgendered troops. He gave a laughable response:

The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. It is not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America. I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines makes our country safer.

Cheers and clapping came from the party faithful in response to Huckabee’s comments, but this is simply bad history. The United States military has always been a social experiment whose actions have most certainly transformed our “culture.” Indeed, serving in the military and killing people and breaking things is itself a social experiment, right?

Take, for example, President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. A passage in the Proclamation proclaims that African Americans “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.” Blacks were already serving with the Navy prior to Lincoln’s Proclamation (and have served in every American war since the Revolution), but the message signaled an important transformation within the ranks; ten percent of the military’s fighting force would be composed of United States Colored Troops by the end of the Civil War.

Some scholars such as Lerone Bennett and Michelle Alexander downplay the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation by saying that it didn’t free any slaves (which is false) or that its only significance lies in its utility as a war measure, but the vitriolic responses from some border state Unionists and the Confederate government at the time reflect a belief that the Proclamation was a radical social experiment that threatened law and order. Border State politicians and slaveholders wondered what would happen to their slaves; Kentucky troops fighting for the Union allegedly threatened to lay down their arms if abolition became a war aim and blacks enlisted in the military; and many white Northern troops who may have publicly accepted the changes wrought by the war still held private doubts about the fighting capabilities of blacks.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis also understood the radicalism of the Emancipation Proclamation and responded with fear and disgust:

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation ‘to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.’ Our own detestation of those who have attempted by the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by a profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.

Davis believed that the Proclamation would encourage black-on-white violence in the South in the name of “self-defense” and that emancipation would ultimately lead to their extermination by giving them freedom, guns (for the men), and a place outside their “sphere.” The military is not a social experiment!

On January 1, 1861, the St. Louis Courthouse (now the Old Courthouse) hosted its final slave auction. Exactly two years later Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation encouraged those same slaves–people that could have been bought and sold as property–to enlist in the military. That’s radical. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood that the Proclamation had implications that went beyond military service when he asserted that blacks who enlisted had “earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” While I would argue that African Americans earned citizenship for other reasons in addition to military service, it is undeniable that their military service during the war played a significant role in shaping the fourteenth amendment (which gave all native-born and naturalized residents the right of citizenship) and the fifteenth amendment (which gave all men regardless of color the right to vote). The Emancipation Proclamation was a clear case of what we could call a “social experiment” that involved the military.

The military was also used as a social experiment in the twentieth century. Before desegregation in public facilities and schools throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 ordering the military to integrate. Just like the Emancipation Proclamation, Truman’s order aroused claims of “social experimentation” within and without the military. Lieutenant General Edward Almond, for example, believed integration would be demoralizing to white soldiers. He actively fought to deny justly-earned medals to black soldiers during the Korean War and continued to lament the perceived ills of integration well into the 1970s. And of course we cannot deny the evolving role of women in the military as nurses, factory workers, administrators, and eventually combat soldiers in our current military.

When we take a look at the social transformations that have taken place in the U.S. military throughout its history we can safely conclude that the opposite of Huckabee’s claim is true – that the military has always provided a means of social change with profound consequences for the social, political, and cultural fabric of American society. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a few years ago continued this trend by allowing people the chance to serve in the military while openly gay, and now transgender people can enlist. Until I see some sort of empirical evidence suggesting that a military with transgendered people in the service puts my country’s national security at risk (which I highly doubt), I will gladly applaud and encourage their service in our military.


Addendum: Upon further reflection I think it’s important to further clarify that I do not mean to suggest that the military as an institution leans to the left of the political spectrum or that it embodies liberal or “progressive” ideals any more than it embodies conservative ideals. Rather, I am trying to suggest that the military has historically been targeted by activists because various social groups (including the aforementioned ones here) have earned expanded citizenship and suffrage rights through military service.

Emancipation: A Long, Complex Process

Thomas Nast's famous depiction of the end of slavery in the United States
Thomas Nast’s famous depiction of the end of slavery in the United States

I’m still reflecting a bit on the U.S. military’s agency in destroying slavery. Please bear with me. It is still my contention that the military played a significant role in that crucial event in our history. Something that was mentioned in my conference paper that has not been mentioned here is the fact that the contraband policy–which determined that slaves that had run away from their (Rebel) masters to seek protection within Union military lines were to be protected by the military, not sent back to their masters–was a creation of the military, specifically General Benjamin F. Butler, not the U.S. government. The idea behind it was that since slaves were considered “property” under Confederate (and U.S., for that matter) law, this “property” of the Confederacy could now be confiscated by Union forces for the benefit of the Union war effort as “contraband of war.” We should remember that Abraham Lincoln didn’t even like this measure at first! Eventually, as the United States military began to penetrate deeper into the South, they “systematically uprooted tens of thousands of slaves from their plantations to relocate them in areas safe from the reach of their former masters,” according to James Oakes in his new book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (pg. 281). (These ‘Contraband camps,’ were actually not very safe for their health, however.)

I often tire of the discussion regarding “who freed the slaves?” because it presupposes that it was one person or entity that was responsible for ending it. On one side we get the crowd who calls (and writes about) Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” while on the other we get a growing crowd who seem to be arguing that the slaves themselves were almost wholly responsible for freeing themselves (this is an interesting article from Indian Country Today Media Network, which offers a wholly different interpretation on Lincoln’s legacy, by the way).

The reality is that emancipation was a long, complex process that involved Lincoln, the slaves themselves, the abolitionists, the Union military, the Confederacy (which determined that the institution of slavery was safer out of the Union than in it. Oops!], and many, many other actors and agents. Furthermore, I think it’d be impossible for one to put all of these factors into a ranked list and say that “X did this much to end slavery, Y did this much, Z did this much.” In speaking about the military’s agency in emancipation I am not arguing that they did more or less than any other person or organization with an interest in ending slavery. Rather, I’m seeking to follow Gary Gallagher’s steps and establish some sort of acknowledgement for their part in the process.


The U.S. Military and Emancipation: A Question of Agency

The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free. (Click to Enlarge)

I enjoyed presenting my paper and meeting several historians throughout the states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee at the IAH Conference today. As mentioned two days ago, the central argument of my paper was that the U.S. military has played an active role in shaping the constructs of social policy throughout our history, and that more research is needed to understand the military’s influence in these matters. After my presentation an audience member asked me a very good question that is worth further elaboration here. He asked how I was able to determine a difference between the agency [the power of choosing or determining a course of action] of the federal government and the military in shaping social policy. If I understood the question correctly, he is basically asking the following:

“Isn’t the military supposed to take orders from the Chief Executive?”

“Is it fair to say that the military played a role in shaping social policy when in actuality they were merely enforcing the orders of the federal government, the true agents in calling for emancipation during the Civil War and the end of segregation during the Civil Rights movement?”

On the face of it, the answer to both is yes. When looking at events during the Civil Rights movement, the question of agency and the U.S. military is tougher to answer. However, the circumstances surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and the military’s part in helping to enforce the act demonstrate that the military did have a fair amount of agency in helping to destroy the institution of slavery during the Civil War.  It was not merely an act of the military “enforcing orders” from the President. I’ll explain why.

In looking at the relationship between the military and the executive branch during the Civil War (and, by extension, the period from 1776-1898) we must internationalize our context and compare/contrast the military-executive relationship with a wider range of countries. When we do this, we see that the United States and their republican form of government are the exception to the rule of governmental structures during this period. We must remember that England, France, Austria, Hungary, Russia, the areas that would eventually become the countries of Italy and Germany, and many other countries still had a monarchical form of government at this time. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind the fact that the power of these monarchical regimes relied on the military to enforce the King’s actions. In sum, these Kings greatly relied on the military for legitimacy. If the King took an action that the military didn’t like, there was always a possibility that a military coup would overthrown the King’s government and put in its own puppet regime. You can see here that there were many successful military coups in the 18th and 19th centuries, and this was the world in which the United States was attempting to maintain a form of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Abraham Lincoln.

The world was watching the Civil War and waiting to see what would happen to this republican form of government. Would it perish? Would Lincoln be overthrow by the Union military when things starting going bad in 1862? Would a new Northwest Confederacy emerge?

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, there remained a sense of uncertainty about how the act would be received in the border slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Maryland, and Delaware) and the Union military. Rumors spread that thousands of soldiers were going to throw down their guns and go home in protest against a war for abolition. Such concerns in Lincoln’s mind led him to prevent John Fremont from issuing his own Emancipation edict in Missouri earlier in 1861.

Given the high number of recent military coups that had occurred in Europe and the widespread criticism Lincoln received for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, I’m not convinced that the process of having the Union military enforcing emancipation is as easy as “following orders” from the President because the military-executive relationship was tenuous and unstable. Turning the war into one for abolition was risky and could have possibly led to a coup against the Lincoln government from the soldiers of the border and/or western states. If the Union Army refused to enforce emancipation, what would have happened?

According to Reid Mitchell, following the Emancipation Proclamation, “some soldiers were jubilant, others horrified, and still more accepted the war’s transformation with troubled minds.” That last part is notable. Many soldiers put their own feelings aside and simply soldiered on. Let us look at a letter from Andrew Bush, an Indiana soldier in the 97th Indiana volunteer regiment, for his reaction to Emancipation:

We have not much news here but much anxiety is felt for northern news amongst some of the soldiers in regard to the welfare of old Hoosier. It is reported frequently amongst us that Indiana is about to form a government [the aforementioned Northwest Confederacy] of her own with some other of the western states… Some of our boys are jubilant over the news; they think that if old Indiana should slip out of the Union they would get to go home; but they will find out that they are in mistake for us soldiers don’t belong to Indiana, for we are sworn to obey the president of the United States and we are in his service and he can hold us in spite of anything that we and our friends can do.

I don’t like old Abe’s proclamation but I can’t help myself at this time. If I had thought that it was the idea to set the negroes all free they would not have got me to act the part of a soldier in this war. But as it is I am willing to fight for the Union if it will cause the freedom of the last beastly negro in the South for I don’t think that they are human. I am in for anything that will cause Union and peace of our once happy government.

Andrew Bush did not care one ounce for African Americans, but he helped to end the institution of slavery in the country by being a Union soldier. Following the Emancipation Proclamation he refused to lie his gun down because his nationalism and belief in a republican form of government overrode his personal views. “We are in his service,” Bush claims. There were no further questions to ask. This was not a European country ruled by an oppressive king and his strong military, but a government ruled by the people and the ballot box, and this was the ideal Bush believed he was fighting for. Such letters reinforce my argument that many members in the military–guided by a strong sense of nationalism during the Civil War–put aside their personal views and decided to support Lincoln’s controversial measures during the deadliest war in American history. So it seems to me that the military did have an element of agency in helping to end slavery in this country. In the words of Gary Gallagher, they became “an army of liberation.”

P.S.: It did NOT take me this long to answer the question at the conference!

150 Years Ago Today…

Emancipation Proclamation

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

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 parts 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 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, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

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-defence; 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 witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand 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: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

Click here for a thoughtful Op-Ed from Eric Foner on the Emancipation Proclamation.