The Emancipation Proclamation led to the end of slavery, and is one of the most controversial documents in American history. Human slavery was the focus of political conflict in the United States from the 1830s to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for presidency in 1860, personally abhorred slavery and was pledged to prevent it from spreading to western territories. At the same time he believed that the Constitution did not allow federal government to prohibit slavery in states where it already existed. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me” (McPherson 21).
In accordance with his quote, when President Lincoln issued the unprecedented Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lincoln freed slaves in the Southern states, but he and his actions were being controlled by Civil War. The Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865 between the Northern states, or the Union, and the Southern states, or the Confederacy. On September 22, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln put forth a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (Tackach 45). The document stated that after January 1, 1863, slaves belonging to all Southern states that were still in rebellion would be free (Tackach 45). However, the Emancipation Proclamation had no immediate effect; slavery was not legally prohibited until the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1865, about three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was decreed (Tackach 9-10).
If the Emancipation Proclamation did not completely abolish slavery, what was the point of the document? Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not actually written for the purpose of freeing any slaves. Rather, it was a war tactic to militarily weaken the South, add soldiers to the Union cause, and please abolitionist Northerners. From the start of the Civil War, Lincoln clarified that the goal of the war was not “`to put down slavery, but to put the flag back,’” and he refused to declare the war as a war over slavery (Brodie 155 as qtd. in Klingaman 75-76). In a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, in August 1862, Lincoln wrote: “My paramount object in this struggle is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it…” (Tackach 44).
Lincoln also refused to declare that slavery was the Civil War’s main focus because many Whites in the North and in the much-valued Border States would not agree with a war to free slaves since they believed Blacks were inferior to Whites (Wheeler 225-226). The political and military advantages of the Border States made Lincoln reluctant to proclaim the Civil War to be a war about slavery (Wheeler 225-226). Even Jefferson Davis, president of the enemy Confederacy, disagreed with a war about slavery (Wheeler 226). Then why did President Lincoln, in the midst of a war he claimed was not about slavery, issue the Emancipation Proclamation? The Emancipation Proclamation itself answers the question, stating that Lincoln was freeing the Southerners’ slaves, “upon military necessity” (Klingaman 232). Lincoln freed Southern slaves, “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing… rebellion” (Klingaman 231).
President Lincoln took advantage of his position as Commander-in-Chief of the United States, as well as his ability to act without Congress’ consent, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation for military reasons (Heinrichs 15). Lincoln knew that the proclamation would prove to be a useful tool of defense during the fierce Civil War. It can only be concluded that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation for somewhat selfish reasons, as to increase the North’s chances of victory in the Civil War. By issuing a document that freed slaves, the North could undoubtedly gain foreign allies, and at the same time deprive the South of their foreign support. Great Britain was supportive of the South’s secession from the Union because Britain relied on the South’s cotton (Tackach 43).
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts claimed to Lincoln that since Great Britain was anti-slavery, if Lincoln would change the Civil War’s main focus to slavery, the abolitionist North would gain Britain’s support (Tackach 43). By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln changed the Civil War’s focal point from secession to slavery, transferring Great Britain’s support from the Confederacy to the Union (Tackach 43). In fact, the original reason why Jefferson Davis did not want the war to revolve around slavery was to prevent loss of support from foreign governments (Wheeler 226). In addition, should the Southern slaves be freed, the South would lose certain advantages that slavery presented them with. Some slave owners forced their slaves to aid the Southern war cause by working for the Confederate army (Tackach 45). Also, slaves tended to their owners’ plantations, allowing the owners to enlist in the Confederate army without having to worry about their land’s upkeep (Tackach 43).
Should the Emancipation Proclamation be issued, the Confederate army would lose beneficial slave labor, resulting in the loss of many soldiers, since many plantation owners would be forced to return home to maintain their land (Tackach 43, 45). Furthermore, the Emancipation Proclamation stated that the United States government would take no action against freed slaves exercising their freedom (Tackach 45). Northerners believed that freed slaves would rise up, rebel and therefore weaken the South with this additional method (Wheeler 227). In most wars, the overall sum of troops has a considerable impact on the war’s outcome. In the Civil War, Lincoln utilized the newly freed slaves and gained a military advantage by allowing them to enlist in the Union army (Tackach 47). Lincoln referred to Blacks fighting for the Union as “`the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union’” (Hunt 133).
Altogether, 185,000 Blacks fought for the Union army, about ten percent of the total sum of Union troops throughout the Civil War (Tackach 54, Wheeler 255). Over 37,000 former slaves died fighting for the Union army (Heinrichs 28). The amount of enlisted Blacks undoubtedly helped secure the North’s victory in the Civil War. Eventually, Jefferson Davis allowed Blacks to fight in the Confederate army (Wheeler 224-225). But with no records of Blacks’ combat, Davis’ decision to use Black troops came too late (Wheeler 257, 224-225). The South’s lack of Black soldiers and ultimate defeat reflect how advantageous and strategic Black soldiers were in the Civil War. Military advantage was not the only matter persuading Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; Northerners’ pleas for abolition also influenced Lincoln’s decision to free Southern slaves. In the beginning of the Civil War, Northerners did not actively oppose slavery (Klingaman 21-22).
But as the war progressed, more and more Northerners began to believe that abolition of slavery went along with defeat of the South (Klingaman 81). One reason for the change of heart was the impact of eyewitness accounts of slavery’s brutality. During the Civil War, many Union soldiers situated in the South witnessed the horrors of slavery and informed their families of the cruelty they had seen . Due to these eyewitness accounts, Northerners sympathized with slaves, leading to increased favor of abolition By January 1862, about half the Union soldiers wanted slavery to be obliterated (Klingaman 92).
Many Northerners agreed with Massachusetts clergyman Thomas W. Higginson’s quote that stated, “`…the idea of conquering rebellion without destroying slavery is only to be equaled by the idea of storming hell without disturbing the personal comfort of the devil’” (Klingaman 81). A common statement among Northerners, voiced by an Iowan citizen, proclaimed, “`I believe that slavery (the worst of all curses) was the sole cause of this Rebellion, and until this cause is removed and slavery abolished, the rebellion will continue to exist’” (McPherson 118). Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to silence such pleas for abolition from Northerners, and because abolitionist sentiment in the North pushed Lincoln to consider abolishing slavery. Lincoln’s dishonest intentions for the Emancipation Proclamation to help the North militarily, and not to eradicate slavery from the United States, were hinted through weaknesses in the actual Emancipation Proclamation.
First of all, the Emancipation Proclamation stated that only those slaves in the Southern states, and not all slaves in the United States, would be freed on January 1, 1863 (Tackach 9-10). Secondly, the Emancipation Proclamation could only legally apply under certain circumstances. The North would have to win the Civil War; should the South win the war and become its own nation, the Emancipation Proclamation would have no legal effect whatsoever (Tackach 9-10). In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation could only become a United States law through an amendment to the Constitution (Tackach 9-10). The wording of the Emancipation Proclamation also displays Lincoln’s halfhearted feelings toward freeing Southerners’ slaves: The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation deemed Southern slaves “forever free,” but in the actual Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln changed the wording to “free” (Klingaman 228).
The Emancipation Proclamation was not even immediately effective in those areas where it did apply: Some Texan slaves did not hear of their freedom until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued (Heinrichs 24-25). When Lincoln was signing the Emancipation Proclamation, his hand was shaking uncontrollably (Klingaman 227). Perhaps Lincoln was aware and nervous that he was wrongly freeing slaves for military reasons, and not for the sake of their freedom. Also, Lincoln decreed the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 only to see how the public would react to such a document (Wheeler 227). If Lincoln was issuing the proclamation for the welfare of slaves, he should not have cared about public opinion. The Emancipation Proclamation achieved very little for the slaves themselves.
Lincoln’s Act seemed like both an act of desperation and a selfish document. The reason why the Lincoln did not free Northern slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation was because Lincoln felt he could gain the upper hand militarily in the Civil War without having to free all United States slaves. Lincoln only freed the Southern slaves since those slaves alone would present Lincoln with enough military advantage to boost the Union’s chances of winning the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation wrongly convinced slaves that Lincoln truly cared about their freedom. Lincoln only acted out of concern for his Union, his war, and his place in history.