The Emancipation Proclamation was a prosaic statement by Lincoln that seemed like it was a revolutionary treatise on the future treatment and freeing of African Americans, but in fact, the Emancipation Proclamation was simply a politically inspired ruse. It did not grant freedom for slaves, nor did it generate a greater hope for equality and for these reasons, it can be easily argued—even without the compelling evidence presented by Lerome Bennett in the book “Forced Into Glory“ based on the letters and statements of Lincoln as well as some of the statements within the Emancipation Proclamation itself.
Before this debate about the Emancipation Proclamation begins, it is necessary to offer a few historical insights. The purpose of the Civil War, at least from a Northerners standpoint, was to eradicate slavery and regain the Union of the states, partially for the economic benefits of having such a union. Several Southern states had broken off and formed the Confederacy and this, with the issue of slavery for the Confederacy at the forefront, led to the War. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which stated that all the slaves in Confederate territories be granted their freedom. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation did not have a significant impact on slavery and only a few slaves were actually freed as a result of this decree. Slaves in Border States such as Kentucky, West Virginia, and Maryland were not a part of the emancipation either since they were part of the Union or it was shown that as long as an area fought for the Union, slavery was still legal. In many ways then, it is clear that the Emancipation Proclamation was something of a farce. It is cloaked in the language of equality and freedom, but in fact, the legal power of it is very limited and its true (and far more sinister) purposes are now fodder for scholarly debate. While this essay will not attempt to support the presuppositions of Bennett in stating that Lincoln was a racist from the beginning and wished for relocation or extermination, it will examine the broader and less contestable issues at the heart of his debate as well as address Lincoln’s documents on the level of language. His feelings about this treatise to free the slaves is filled with ideals and even clichés, but knowing the anticlimactic ending to the Proclamation causes on to examine the grandiose ideas expressed by Lincoln under a harsher light.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation sounded like a convincing and grand demand for the end of slavery in the South, it’s role as merely a political document is clear in the language. The Emancipation Proclamation has the sound and quality of language of a legal and binding tract, consider the beginning, which states, “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom” (Emancipation Proclamation 1863). The heavy-handed wording and unmistakably legal tone to this document make it clear that the military and war are equally important in this announcement. It is not until later that the President makes it clear about the issues of rights and freedoms, but instead seems more focused on the role of the “military and naval authority” and more importantly, he directly addresses the “rebellion” as one of the first elements.
Moreover, the concluding part of this first paragraph is a very wide-ranging view of what freedom is and it seems that Lincoln is suggesting radical change—as though Americans would wake up the next day and suddenly see a world of racial equality. At the risk of sounding like Bennett, it does seem as though Lincoln knew that these demands were unrealistic, so instead he focused the attention of the grand Enlightenment ideals of freedom before making the “exceptions to rule” that would prove the Emancipation Proclamation to not be as revolutionary as it sounded since very few slaves would actually be freed. The clincher comes closer to the end of the document when, after getting the listeners or readers envisioning grand and widespread equality, it is stated that everyone will be free “except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued” (1863). These “minor” exceptions would be one of the many issues related to the perceived deception involved with the Proclamation and are the most useful when forming an argument about how the Proclamation was simply a political tract rather than a revolutionary leap forward for slaves.
Although Bennett’s book may be a little too radical for some, he does make a number of interesting points. For example he states, “What Lincoln did–and it was so clever that we ought to stop calling him honest Abe—was to ‘free’ slaves in Confederate-held territory where he couldn’t free them and to leave them in slavery in Union-held territory where he could have freed them” (Bennett 64). For the purposes of politics, if Bennett’s theory that he offers a mere summary of in “Forced into Glory” is correct, this would have been a brilliant move by Lincoln—it would have won him the further support of his party and not caused too many waves in either the North or the South, especially if people were able to see right away that there was something missing logistically-speaking from the equation—the ability within the document to truly grant power. While Lincoln comes across as seeming highly dedicated to spreading freedom and equality in the Emancipation Proclamation, which was, of course, a very public document, his private letters reveal more ambivalence about the issue of slavery versus more immediate political concerns. In his “Letter to Horace Greeley” (1862) Lincoln, who already had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation formed, said, “My paramount object is to save the Union, and is not to either save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” The primary goal in this letter shows that Lincoln, much like Bennett suggests, is using slavery for political purposes and it is merely the “issue of the day” rather than a cause that he seems genuinely committed to. Lincoln closes this set of thoughts by stating, “What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union” (1862).
The Emancipation Proclamation was an attempt to disguise Lincoln’s political desires since in other letters and speeches he is, at best, lukewarm about the issue of slavery. This pattern is broken slightly by Lincoln’sLetter to James C. Conkling, in which he defends his views about the emancipation of slaves by countering the opposition. “You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free Negroes” (Letter to James C. Conkling 1863). It is clear in the rebuttal that Lincoln does have strong feelings, but they many of his points are not simply based upon the benevolent notion of helping free the blacks, but are infused with greater political purpose. While it does seem that history may have led many to believe in the common image of Lincoln as a savior to the country, this may not be an entirely correct assumption. Although Bennett’s book makes some convincing arguments that might lead one to believe that he was Lincoln was a complete racist, relying simply on his opinions would also be a fallacy. After a review of Lincoln’s documents with Bennett’s thoughts in the background, it is clear that the Emancipation Proclamation was not as simple as it may have seemed at first and in fact, Lincoln had other motives that were more political in nature than they were humanitarian.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Slavery in America’s South : Implications and Effects • The Kansas-Nebraska Act Controversy • Discussion of Black Majority: Negroes in South Carolina From 1670 to the Stono Rebellion by Peter Wood • The Influence of the Enlightenment on The Formation of the United States • Overview of the Reconstruction Era