How Great an Emancipator?

Does Lincoln get too much credit for freeing the slaves—or not enough?

Abraham Lincoln, 1863.
Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

In Hollywood, at least, Lincoln’s reputation as the Great Emancipator is safe and sound. Earlier this year, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter presented a man who “fought a war for the soul of the country” against the “demon of slavery.” Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a tireless warrior pushing for passage of the 13th Amendment, which would forever abolish slavery in the United States. In a high-pitched drawl that captures the sound of Lincoln’s voice as described by contemporaries, Daniel Day-Lewis declares, “Abolishing slavery settles the fate for millions now in bondage and unborn millions to come.”

But if Hollywood’s Lincoln is on the side of the angels, in historical circles his reputation has fared less well. The flashpoint for debate is not the 13th Amendment, but the Emancipation Proclamation, which was unprecedented in its assault on slavery, but did not abolish the institution. Though Democrats shrieked that the proclamation went too far, many of Lincoln’s Republican supporters believed it did not go far enough—and there have been historians ever since who have agreed. There were sound reasons, however, for why the document emerged as it did, and indeed it was Lincoln’s recognition of its limitations that led him to seek a more definitive measure. His efforts to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, the central drama of Lincoln, cannot be understood without the backstory of his gradual move toward emancipation.      

Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. The decree announced that on Jan. 1, 1863, three months away, he would free the slaves in Confederate areas still in rebellion. The loyal slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky would not be affected, nor would designated rebel areas under Union control.

In 2011, at the unveiling of a rare signed copy of the proclamation, President Obama imagined how today’s cynical political commentators might headline a story announcing the proclamation: “Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’ ” Indeed, some said as much in 1862: “The president can do nothing for freedom in a direct manner, but only by circumlocution and delay,” howled the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

The criticisms have continued ever since. In his classic work The American Political Tradition (1948), historian Richard Hofstadter condemned the document as having “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” During the civil rights era, dismayed by the lack of progress for blacks, writers such as Ebony executive editor Lerone Bennett denounced Lincoln as a racist who never made the slaves’ interests paramount and instead envisioned a white America cleansed of blacks.

Lincoln’s reputation slipped farther in the 1990s as scholars such as Ira Berlin and his colleagues at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project re-examined the question “who freed the slaves?” They argued that, in fleeing to Union lines, the slaves altered military policy by compelling generals to make a decision about what to do with runaways. In effect, they forced themselves onto Lincoln’s agenda; the enslaved freed themselves.

More recently, libertarians, reviving a strain of criticism that dates to the Civil War, have denounced Lincoln as a dictator whose paramount goal was to centralize power. The economist Thomas DiLorenzo, for example, has labeled the Emancipation Proclamation “little more than a political gimmick.” For libertarians, Lincoln took every opportunity to exercise executive power and create a centralized, bureaucratic state. According to this view, he did not care about emancipation but merely used the decree to stabilize his Republican base and bash his opponents.

Under this barrage of condemnation on several fronts, Lincoln the Emancipator has shrunk in some circles to Lincoln the Equivocator; and the Emancipation Proclamation itself, is seldom read and often misunderstood. This is shameful. Lincoln’s actions against slavery constituted the most heroic undertaken by any president to eradicate a social evil. That he did so methodically and deliberately, without flourishes or grand but empty gestures, at a time when a misstep might have cost the life of the nation itself, makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

Still, it is worth asking what took Lincoln so long to act. There is no doubt that he opposed slavery: “I am naturally anti-slavery. 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.” he wrote in 1864. But he also understood what every leader must acknowledge: Ideals are one matter, politics another.

Because he subscribed to the widespread view that slavery in the states was constitutionally protected, Lincoln knew he could not move against the institution without violating his oath of office. Even if this obstacle hadn’t existed, a direct assault on slavery early in the Civil War would have had disastrous consequences for the war effort by deeply dividing the North, where opposition to emancipation was strong in some quarters (as Lincoln does a good of portraying), and by provoking the border slave states to secede. (“To lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” he said nearly a year to the day before issuing the preliminary proclamation.) Before he could act, he would have to develop a constitutional rationale for emancipation, to ensure that northern public opinion was prepared to sustain him and that the border states could be held in the Union.

That rationale would turn out to be the doctrine of military necessity, which would allow Lincoln to act against slavery not as president but as commander-in-chief. If slaves were being used to support the Confederate war effort, freeing them would bolster Union war operations by depriving the rebels of a significant resource. Lincoln stressed the double benefit of emancipation—denying the Confederacy of the slaves’ labor and gaining it for the Union.

But even if the war effort gave Lincoln cover to circumvent slavery’s constitutional protections, he still had to contend with extraordinary political difficulties. The vast majority of northern Democrats, who made up about 45 percent of the free-state electorate—and 40 percent of the Union armies—were hostile to emancipation and might be alienated from the war effort if he moved against slavery prematurely. Lincoln also feared a backlash by northern whites anxious that emancipation would lead to freed blacks swarming northward to compete with white men for jobs. Lincoln was attuned to these fears, partly because his home state of Illinois was especially militant in its hostility to blacks, but also because of his own ambivalent attitudes toward African-Americans. Being anti-slavery was one matter; embracing equal citizenship rights quite another. Up until the promulgation of the final Proclamation, he supported the voluntary colonization of blacks outside of the United States to Africa and Central and South America. The idea of colonization was a 19th-century panacea advanced by numerous politicians, including Lincoln’s hero Henry Clay. Yet each scheme Lincoln supported turned out to be more unrealistic than the one before. The one administration-backed colonization project that was actually implemented, on the Île à Vache

 of Haiti, was such a disaster (colonists suffered from starvation and disease) it was terminated in less than a year with several hundred survivors brought back to the United States. Moreover, black Americans did not want to leave the country of their birth. Lincoln would soon abandon public support of the enterprise.

For all his deliberation, even on Sept. 22, 1862, the date he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln only announced that he planned to act: The decree stated his intention to authorize emancipation in any area still in rebellion but not until Jan. 1, 1863. This may look like weakness, but in fact it was shrewd. Over the course of those three months he monitored the reactions to his announcement. Some Northern Democrats denounced him as a tyrant, but many jurists defended the proclamation as a legitimate exercise of his powers as commander-in-chief. Some claimed that soldiers would never fight to free the slaves, but the army did not disintegrate. In the fall elections, Republicans suffered major losses, but retained control of Congress. Political opponents thought Lincoln wouldn’t dare issue the final proclamation, but he read the midterm results as a referendum on the war’s progress rather than on emancipation. In November, he told a delegation of Kentucky Unionists that he “would rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom.”

As Jan. 1 neared, Lincoln held fast. In fact, he made the final document more powerful by deleting the call for colonization contained in the preliminary proclamation and by authorizing the enlistment of black troops. Doing so would set the stage for citizenship rights, including suffrage, after the war. He also added a line to the final proclamation that called the decree “an act of justice.” Far from selling out the slaves, his actions assured their eventual freedom.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not liberate all of the slaves. It did not pertain to the half million slaves held in bondage in the four border states. Nor did it apply to 300,000 slaves in Confederate areas exempted from the decree because they were under Union control and, therefore, the doctrine of military necessity did not apply. Some Northern newspapers published a chart that specified “on how large a number of human beings the president’s benediction falls.” Of the 4 million slaves in the United States, the proclamation applied to roughly 3.2 million people.  

But Lincoln did not stop on Jan. 1. He continued to defend emancipation and encouraged border states to enact abolition. Worrying that the proclamation had “no constitutional or legal justification except as a military measure,” he pressed for a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery throughout the United States, and make the freedom granted by proclamation inviolate and irreversible. This is where Spielberg’s movie begins, but in doing so it sidesteps the dramatic story of Lincoln’s bold if deliberate path toward emancipation.

William Lloyd Garrison, for one, eventually admitted that he had been wrong about Lincoln: “the people do not elect a president … to enforce upon the nation his own peculiar ethical or humanitarian ideas, without regard to his oath or their will … It was wiser to be slow and sure, than premature and rash.” Frederick Douglass rejoiced. He understood that the Emancipation Proclamation would stand alongside the Declaration of Independence as one of the two polestars of American freedom. “The Fourth of July was great,” he proclaimed, “but the first of January, when we consider it in all its relations and bearings, is incomparably greater.”

Martin Luther King Jr. also understood the import of the proclamation. Standing before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he explained that “this momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves.” Yet, he added, “one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free.”

But whatever disappointment we feel today about the march toward freedom, it speaks to our own failures, not Lincoln’s. Steven Spielberg has said that he chose to release his film after the election because he did not want it used for political ends. Perhaps he also hoped that the story of Lincoln’s struggle to eradicate the “pestilence” of slavery might serve as balm for a wounded nation. (And perhaps even an inspiration—what better example for our own moment than a story of hard-fought bipartisan compromise.) But Lincoln’s story also teaches us the virtue of patience, a lesson our current president seems to have taken to heart. Obama might have had Lincoln in mind when he stood on stage in Chicago this week to deliver his election-night speech. “As it has for more than two centuries,” he said. “Progress will come in fits and starts.”