One of the more momentous dates in American history. On July 22, 1862, President Lincoln stuns his cabinet by showing them a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Artist Francis Carpenter in February 1864 heard from Mr. Lincoln’s own lips about this cabinet meeting. This was appropriate since Carpenter spent six months in the White House immortalizing the scene for future generations in his painting First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln which is at the bottom of this post. Here is what Carpenter recalled Lincoln saying:
“It had got to be,” said he, “midsummer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game! I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy; and, without consultation with, or the knowledge of the Cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and, after much anxious thought, called a Cabinet meeting upon the subject. This was the last of July, or the first part of the month of August, 1862.” (The exact date he did not remember.) “This Cabinet meeting took place, I think, upon a Saturday. All were present, excepting Mr. Blair, the Postmaster-General, who was absent at the opening of the discussion, but came in subsequently. I said to the Cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them; suggestions as to which would be in order, after they had heard it read….. Various suggestions were offered. Secretary Chase wished the language stronger in reference to the arming of the blacks. Mr. Blair, after he came in, deprecated the policy, on the ground that it would cost the Administration in the fall elections. Nothing, however, was offered that I had not already fully anticipated and settled in my own mind, until Secretary Seward spoke. He said in substance: “Mr. President, I approve of the proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reverses, is so great that I fear the effect of so important a step. It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.” His idea,” said the President, “was that it would be considered our last shriek, on the retreat.” (This was his precise expression.) “Now,’ continued Mr. Seward, ‘while I approve the measure, I suggest, sir, that you postpone its issue, until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war!'” Mr. Lincoln continued: “The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force. It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was that I put the draft of the proclamation aside, as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory.”
It was a bold move by Lincoln. Legislation had been passed giving the government the power to confiscate slaves as contraband of war. Union officers were under instructions not to return slaves seeking sanctuary with the Union army to their masters. However, all of this was a far cry from Lincoln, with a stroke of his pen, seeking to emancipate all slaves in territory controlled by the Confederacy. Abolitionists of course had been demanding such a policy since the beginning of the War. However, pro-Union men from border slave states, Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland, predicted that a policy of emancipation would drive their states out of the Union and into the Confederacy. Across the North, many Democrats were ready to fight to preserve the Union, but they swore they would not support a war to free the negro.
So risky, but the rewards were also obvious:
1. Intervention by Great Britain would probably be rendered impossible once the War became a crusade against slavery.
2. Emancipation would pave the way for enlistment of former slaves in the ranks of the Union army.
3. Every run away slave seeking freedom with the Union armies in the South, lessened the economic strength of the Confederacy.
4. It solved a problem that I am sure Lincoln saw clearly. As he indicated in his Second Inaugural, it was clear to all that this great Civil War was all about slavery:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.
A popular cry among pro-war Democrats in the North at the beginning of the War was: The Union as she was and the Constitution as she is. In other words once the Confederates gave up and the Union was preserved, the South could keep slavery.
I think Lincoln realized that if the cause of the War, slavery, was not removed, then the Civil War ending with both the Union and slavery preserved, would merely be the first of such conflicts. If the Union was to be truly preserved, if the House was no longer to be divided, slavery had to die, and that I think is the fundamental reason why Lincoln transformed the War for the Union, into a War for the Union and to end slavery. I can think of no greater, or riskier, act of Presidential leadership in American history.