On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring that on January 1, 1863, slaves would be free in all areas still in active rebellion against federal authorities. The proclamation did not address the status of slavery in the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—states that had not seceded from the Union. The final version, signed on January 1, specified ten states in which it would apply. Some have criticized the Proclamation for achieving little—for freeing slaves only in areas over which the government had no control. What these critics miss, according to Harold Holzer, is an awareness of the tremendous impact the proclamation had in its day—and the anguished path Lincoln took to find the right time to make the proclamation public.
Lincoln first introduced his idea of making an emancipation decree at a meeting of his cabinet on July 22, 1862. Secretary of State William Seward raised the concern that with the war going so badly, such an act would be received as “a cry for help—a last shriek on the retreat.” Seward proposed postponing any such proclamation until the Union could achieve a victory on the battlefield. Lincoln agreed, conceding that he didn’t want it to seem like a “Pope’s bull against the comet.”
Unbelievable as it may seem to us today, the Cabinet kept the prospect of the imminent emancipation of slaves a secret for the next two months. So it was on August 19, when editor Horace Greeley wrote a scathing “open letter” to Lincoln in The New York Tribune, calling on the president to free the slaves as a way of weakening the Confederacy, Lincoln responded:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.It would not be until September 17, when General George B. McClellan’s army fought Robert E. Lee’s forces at Antietam—the bloodiest one-day battle in American history—that Lincoln would get his opportunity. While the battle’s outcome was inconclusive, it was enough of a victory for Lincoln. Five days later, Lincoln announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet and declared (according to Secreatary of Navy Gideon Welles’s diary entry for the day) that “he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” The Proclamation gave the North the moral high ground and changed its war objective. There could no longer be a compromise to “save the Union” by preserving slavery. The war would not end until the South was defeated.
Related LOA works: The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set); Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings
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