Liberty Is a Slow Fruit: Lincoln the deliberate emancipator
September 23, 2012
William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery abolitionist editor of the Liberator, had struggled for decades to see slavery abolished, but when Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, the long-awaited action came as a disappointment. Garrison was furious. Lincoln’s decree would free the slaves in rebel-controlled areas in the seceded states on January 1, 1863, a hundred days away. The delay was intended to give the Confederate states a chance to return to the Union and thus prevent the proclamation from applying to them. Lincoln also believed that the public needed time to digest this unprecedented development. “The President can do nothing for freedom in a direct manner, but only by circumlocution and delay,” lamented Garrison, who on an earlier occasion declared, “If he is 6 feet 4 inches high, he is only a dwarf in mind.”
What was taking Lincoln so long? Did he not understand that slavery caused the rebellion and that to end it he must immediately attack the institution? In a speech delivered on October 1, 1861, nearly a year before the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner had thundered, “It is often said that war will make an end of Slavery. This is probable. But it is surer still that the overthrow of Slavery will at once make an end of the war.” Sumner kept steady pressure on the president, visiting the White House not once but twice on July 4, 1862, to implore Lincoln to sanctify the day by emancipating the slaves. Yet Lincoln did nothing more than try to placate Sumner—the Massachusetts senator, he said, was only a month or six weeks ahead of him in his thinking.
The timing of the final proclamation was part of the withering criticism it faced, and the decree has never fully escaped allegations cast by commentators across the political spectrum: that it was unconstitutional, that it could not be enforced, that it would lead to racial warfare, and that it hardly liberated anyone. The soulless language of the document has seemed especially galling to some. In 1948, Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter quipped that the Emancipation Proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading,” and the censure has stuck. In recent decades, a shift in scholarly focus to those outside traditional channels of power suggested that Lincoln did not free the slaves, but rather, the slaves, by running away, freed themselves. Lincoln the emancipator was reduced to Lincoln the procrastinator.
It is lamentable that we have distanced ourselves from the proclamation and have allowed it to be diminished by criticisms of its timing, prose, and perceived efficacy. Lincoln was a cautious politician, and he would not be pressured. He once told the story of a man with a mill, located at the top of a hill, whose water supply came from a lake. The man “opened the sluice a trifle & the water rushed out, widening the passage until its volume swept off mill & miller.” If not handled with care, emancipation could have been the torrent that drowned one and all. Lincoln took every precaution to make certain that would not happen; freedom hurried could be freedom lost. His deliberate decision making may have driven radicals to despair, but it assured the triumph of the final Emancipation Proclamation.
“I am naturally anti-slavery,” Lincoln wrote in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.” The inconvenient fact was that the states controlled the disposition of slavery within their borders, and under the Constitution, Lincoln could not interfere. The president could implore, encourage, and cajole, and he tried repeatedly to persuade the four slave states that remained in the Union—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—to adopt plans for gradual emancipation. But as long as he treated secession as a domestic insurrection, a course he took in hopes of preventing European nations from recognizing the Confederacy, the rebellious states were still entitled to constitutional protection as if they had never left.
“The occasion is piled high with difficulty,” Lincoln observed in December 1862, and indeed it was. It took the doctrine of military necessity, which gave the commander-in- chief power to act in time of war, to cut through the constitutional obstacles to emancipation. The notion that Congress and the executive had such powers in regard to slavery had been addressed as early as 1836, when the former president John Quincy Adams proclaimed, “from the instant your slaveholding states become the theatre of war, civil, servile, or foreign, from that instant the war powers of Congress extend to interference with the institution of slavery in every way by which it can be interfered with.”
With the start of the Civil War, opponents of slavery pressed the doctrine upon the president. They despaired in May 1862, when Lincoln overturned General David Hunter’s general order that declared slaves in his Department of the South, comprising South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, “forever free,” but took hope from a line in the veto message that announced “whether it be competent for me, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, to declare the Slaves of any state or states, free, and whether at any time, in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintainance of the government, to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself.” If anyone were to act, it would be the president, not his generals…