Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lincoln and Emancipation

Last week, I finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's comprehensive book, Team of Rivals. The central theme of this book is the "political genius of Abraham Lincoln." Goodwin meticulously examines the lives of Lincoln and his cabinet from their youth to the 1860 Republican Convention and throughout the four-year struggle of the Civil War. While the focus is on Lincoln, she also closely examines the lives of his political rivals who became part of his official political family - the cabinet. Assembling a cabinet of Republican rivals and Democrats, all who believed in 1860 that Lincoln was unqualified to be chief executive, truly was a strike of genius, especially on the brink of the worst crisis ever experienced by our nation. Though at times it seemed that Lincoln was swayed or even controlled by some in the cabinet, especially Seward, Lincoln truly was the captain at the helm. He utilized the diversity of his cabinet and even their competitiveness to strengthen the Union cause and effectively manage a challenging war, despite numerous obstacles and setbacks.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC
(M. Broach, 2005)
Goodwin's book became the basis for Steven Spielberg's blockbuster hit, Lincoln, now appearing in theaters. Both the film and the book capture Lincoln's uniquely dynamic and attractive personality. It truly was Lincoln's charisma, insightful leadership and appealing good nature that made him the ideal president for guiding the union through four years of bloody civil war. It is hard to imagine how the nation would have fared if a Stephen Douglas, William Henry Seward or Salmon Chase had been president. Though Lincoln certainly could be moved on particular issues, he usually had a strongly formed position on the major issues of the day and then guided the nation, a union of radicals, moderates and conservatives, towards that position. He timed major decisions well and was uniquely able to disarm critics with an anecdote or story to prove a point. Even some of Lincoln's harshest critics came to see the wisdom of his vision: an indivisible nation that fulfilled the dream of the Founding Fathers - a republic of the people dedicated to the "proposition that all men are created equal."

This is a picture of the actual
Emancipation Proclamation (photo:
M. Broach, 2005)

Scanned Version
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This single act catapulted Lincoln to the fame he enjoys today and served as the critical turning point of the Civil War, making the Union cause one of freedom instead of simply political reunion. From early on, Lincoln detested slavery and viewed it as a moral evil. However, as a lawyer and politician, he held the view of many that it was a constitutionally protected institution in the South. As president, in the absence of war, he could only forbid slavery in lands controlled by the federal government - the western territories. This was his platform in the Election of 1860.  After the first shots of the Civil War, Radical Republicans and abolitionists pushed incessantly for emancipation. However, Lincoln hesitated, citing the cause of union as more important and questioning whether or not he had the legal authority to make such a bold move. As the war progressed and Union commanders began confiscating slaves as enemy property, the concept of emancipation loomed heavily on Lincoln and his cabinet. Lincoln took the wise view that he could not make any move until the Union had a significant victory on the battlefield. Furthermore, Lincoln still believed that any blanket emancipation order might drive the border states to the Confederacy or be held as legally invalid once the war concluded. Therefore, when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced in September 1862 after the victory at Antietam, it only applied to areas still in rebellion against the United States as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln was able to justify his legal qualms by using his extraordinary powers as commander-in-chief to issue this proclamation as a military measure in suppressing the rebellion. While some abolitionists criticized this move as a weak response to demands for ending slavery, Lincoln wisely knew that this action would help put slavery on the path of extinction. This proclamation also opened the door to the enlistment of colored troops, a critical dynamic in filling Union troop needs and as a powerful symbol to the South. Furthermore, by changing the nature of war from one of suppressing rebellion to one of ending slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation effectively closed the door to potential diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy by Great Britain or France.

The Thirteenth Amendment
(National Archives)
While the Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln's tool for suppressing rebellion and winning the war, it was the first critical step in permanently ending slavery in the United States, especially with the promise that slaves would be "thenceforward and forever free."  As the Union finally began to turn the tide against the Confederacy and victory seemed near, Lincoln worked hard - despite warnings from his cabinet members - on a final solution to the slavery question, the Thirteenth Amendment. While some believed that Lincoln should wait for the end of the war to work on such an amendment, he instinctively knew that the promise of freedom for those African-Americans already freed by the Emancipation Proclamation must be secured before the end of the war less they be returned to bondage. The only way to ensure that he achieved the vision of finally ending slavery was to have the constitutional protection of freedom passed before the political debates of Reconstruction could take away the hopes of millions of slaves and former slaves.

The ending of slavery made the Civil War a second revolution, finally achieving the ideals espoused by the Founding Fathers.

As always, I conclude with additional resources:

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