Clearing the way for Emancipation


The din of time has a way of clouding what we remember about important events, even those we deem as seminal in the timeline of our nation. This weekend presents an interesting case in point. This Sunday is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the popular collective conscious, this document ended slavery in the United States. A more precise reading of it tells a markedly different story.

The crux of the document states, “… on the first day of January (1863)… 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.”

In other words, if the states of the Confederacy did not relent and rejoin the Union, their slaves would be freed — at least according to what the Southern states regarded as the order of a foreign nation. It would be something akin to Canada ordering the United States to shut down all its coal-fired electrical plants. Our response would likely be on the order of, “make us…” So it was with the Confederacy.

Then there was another, slightly more complicated matter: four non-rebellious states, namely, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware were all slave states at the time of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The document does not address their obligation to make a change. In a narrow legal view, the proclamation changed nothing. Congress had already passed laws ending slavery in the rebel states. As above, border states were similarly unaffected. Moreover, it was not until passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 — ratified after Lincoln’s assassination — that slavery was formally ended across the nation. It bears noting that Delaware refused to ratify the 13th Amendment — and continued to hold slaves after Lee’s surrender — until the 13th Amendment took effect in December 1865.

The document itself lacks the emotional rhetorical punch of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but that was part of the president’s strategy. It needed to be a relatively dry, legally sustainable document. Lincoln knew that the Supreme Court held many Southern sympathizers. As such, a repeat of Dred Scott couched in some loophole would not serve his (or the nation’s) interests.

Nonetheless, it was a seminal moment of political rhetoric. It stands as a testament to Lincoln’s political savvy. First, it was delivered after a major Union victory, Lee’s repulsion from Maryland at Antietam. This victory gave substance to what might have otherwise been regarded as an empty threat.

Second, the Emancipation Proclamation was part of a larger strategy to demoralize the South. Poor Southern whites increasingly began to regard their losses as little more than suffrage in the cause of wealthy land owners. As news of the Proclamation spread, it sparked an en masse exodus of slaves. This in itself helped Union forces in places like Vicksburg, a critical northern victory.

The document also had international ramifications. England and France, nations that had both been giving secret assistance to the Confederacy, could not officially recognize a country that still held slaves (even though their own colonial exploits were just as grimly draconian). Europe as a whole was loathe to provoke a nation that was now officially fighting slavery.

Beyond political implications, the Emancipation Proclamation came to symbolize the greater context of the Civil War. It was no longer just about states’ rights, rebellion or nullification. Rather, with this one document, Lincoln reframed the conflict into one foremost about slavery.