On this day in 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Labor historian Erik Loomis at LGM details the reasons why it was considered a cowardly half-measure by some at the time, and also why it was political genius as well as morally correct:
On the other hand, African-Americans, north and south, knew what the war was about. While many in the North were trying to say it wasn’t about slavery per se, like southern whites, African-Americans never had any question of the stakes. Frederick Douglass and other northern black leaders urged Lincoln to immediately emancipate the slaves and organize black regiments for the Army. Perhaps more importantly, slaves themselves took advantage of nearby U.S. troops, fleeing to the military. Generals such as Benjamin Butler quickly recognized the potential of taking away the South’s labor force and turning that into a Union labor force. But Lincoln, nervous about the effects of making this an official policy on his plans to lure the South back into the Union, originally rejected the idea.
By mid 1862, Lincoln began to change his mind about the expediency of freeing slaves. The situation in the border states was more secure, with the ardent secessionists now significantly outnumbered by unionists. Congress pushed him on this, passing in March 1862 a law barring the military from returning escaped slaves to their owners. Still, Lincoln decided to avoid Congress and issue the proclamation as Commander in Chief, thus avoiding a tense debate and possible rejection. Lincoln wanted a major victory by Union forces before he issued it so it didn’t look desperate. Unfortunately, he had George McClellan as his commanding general, which meant that no major victories was likely. With the partial victory at Antietam a few days earlier as good as Lincoln was going to get, he decided this was the time.
There is a reason we revere certain people in our history, and not because of any one single thing they might have done. Any country is blessed to have individuals who can navigate conflicts with no obvious right answer or guaranteed outcome. Courage, sure. But also willingness to change one’s mind, an ability to see through perilous issues and steer clear of needlessly dramatic acts in favor of compromise, even and especially when it comes at a cost to your reputation and credibility. Lucky to have someone who could walk this minefield at that hour, even though we’re now mostly unable to appreciate the doubt and misgivings it took Lincoln to think he could preserve a union that was worth preserve. Without an elevated idea of his country and its countrymen, only lesser outcomes would have been imaginable.
Image: “Emancipation,” Thomas Nast lithograph, circa 1865, via Library of Congress.