President Abraham Lincoln was a great leader who genuinely sought peacefulness in the form of nationalism, perhaps above all else. He is more often than not remembered as the sole bringer of freedom for those subjected to the institution of slavery; an institution which had endured as a conservative means of laborious work in the new world as long as it had been subjected to western civilization. It is important for students of American history to remember that the Emancipation Proclamation was essentially the fruit of many who demanded radical social change in the form of abolitionism. For if the slavery question was left solely to Lincoln to answer, it is probable, albeit ironic, the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t have been issued at all. The African-Americans the measure freed “hail[ed] him as a messiah” (Carnes & Garraty, p.404). How, then, did President Lincoln come to issue it and become known as “The Great Emancipator” (Martin, 2006)?
The most probable answers to why the Emancipation Proclamation was conceived are quite honestly not widely taught, nor celebrated. The most important reasons for the conception of the Emancipation Proclamation include political pressures, strained economics, the civil war effort, and civil disobedience. Adding to the unlikelihood of the decree was Lincoln’s personal opinions and feelings on the subject of slavery, colonization and blacks in general.
The political pressures President Lincoln was under were quite taxing. The already formidable tasks of presidential office would have been enough to exasperate the highest and most distinguished of officeholders. The pressures of his office were arduous and specifically included the civil war, slavery, sectionalism and expansionism. Loyalties within the political system itself were strained. In their “urging general emancipation,…radicals made statements harshly critical of Lincoln” (Carnes & Garraty, 383). “Pressures to act against the south’s “peculiar institutions” mounted steadily” (Carnes & Garraty, 383). Particularly under the provisions of the Radical Republicans, the movement towards abolition was violent and swift. These “radicals” were actually a large part of Lincoln’s supporters that made up the Republican Party. Lincoln’s inwardness about his sentiments toward slavery left many in his own political circle question his loyalties on this most important subject. If he was to gain the confidence of the “republican-dominated congress” (Carnes & Garraty, 377) in totality, he would need to do so on the issue of slavery.
The Civil War effort was one of dwindling hopes for the Union. After the Confederacy won the battle of Antietam, the north had difficulty with military persistence and fortitude. Because the proclamation was aimed at freeing the slaves, Lincoln’s efforts could do nothing but damage the level of control the south had gained in their territory. Originally, neither side enlisted African-Americans, because to these armies, it often “seemed foolish and futile [to think of] “hand[ing] them rifles and guns” (Beaver, Reily, & Snyer). In spite of this, “in the north…some wealthy recruits brought slave servants with them to care for their needs in camp” (Carnes & Garraty, 376). “Abolitionists…had no love for blacks-they sought to free the slave only to injure the master” (Carnes & Garraty, 383). But in the long run, “northerners began enlisting blacks to assist them in the fight” (Beaver, Reily, & Snyer). With newly freed slaves essentially leaping at opportunities to fight for their freedom and causation, the Union was newly empowered by a force of swelling numbers. Little did abolitionists and the like know that freeing the slaves would have a domino-effect of positive results for the efforts of the union and the region of the north.
Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves not only offered the militaristic gain, but also chief economic gain as well. By fundamentally dismantling the south’s institution of slavery, the Union would further cripple any economic strongholds that the Confederates coveted as a means of usefulness in war or otherwise. Economically, the southern states were somewhat incompatible with that of the north, giving rise to a sentiment of “southern backwardness” (Bateman, 2002). Industrialization had swept much of the northeast into a flurry of unconventional economic achievement. Many northerners sought to eradicate the practice of slavery because it was viewed as inefficient in the shadow of industrialization, a fact that frustrated business in “northern ports such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia [who] depended heavily on southern trade” (Mackay). In addition to this, people from the north were largely in favor of abolishment because they did little to understand the deep connection between slavery and the economic prosperity of the entire United States.
Civil disobedience began to grow with sectionalism and chaos ensued around the institution of slavery. The Compromise of 1850 introduced the Fugitive Slave Act, making it illegal to harbor or aid fugitive slaves in further escaping their masters. Being that the vast majority of slaves were from the south and escaping to the northern states, a great number of northerners chose to purposefully evade the law to protect the individuals from being regained. These abolitionists were rarely punished for their infractions, which did much to further southern disdain for northern anti-slavery martyrs. It became increasingly difficult for authorities to enforce laws that so few accepted. Perhaps the easier answer to this dilemma was to simply perform a legislative 180 degree turn, barring slavery and thus, protecting those who disobeyed The Fugitive Slave Act and associated regulations.
Lincoln himself was in many ways a man of the times, in terms of slavery. Like other “white northerners…[he] did not surrender [his] comforting belief in black inferiority” (Carnes & Garraty, 385). He “resisted emancipation” (Carnes & Garraty, 383). His hunger for supremacy and resources was much like those that came before him. He sought primarily to save the Union, above all else, seemingly at any cost. He stated that “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it” (Carnes & Garraty, 373). Lincoln felt “the separation of whites and negroes…was essential to the welfare of both” (Klingaman, 2001). Ultimately, Lincoln ‘s best solution up to the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued was colonization of freed blacks. This plan to colonize part of the Carribean with ex-slaves was essentially only superceded by European and Spanish inquisition. “Lincoln was left with no feasible locations for colonization” (Pearlman, 1997). With what we now know about Lincoln’s feelings about African-Americans and the institution of slavery, it is sometimes hard to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation was ever under his pen.
Slavery was by far the most important social issue during the Civil War Era. Without a doubt, the United States was divided on many issues, but the matter of slavery evoked emotions rarely seen in the quarrels of sectionalism. The Emancipation Proclamation did not remove the shackles from the institution at once, but did a great deal to ensure the future protection of freed slaves and African-Americans. This ever-growing population has become an increasingly important part of American history and life. It’s important for students of American history to understand the complex nature of the Emancipation Proclamation and its institutions. Ultimately, there were a number of reasons for this monumental decree to be enacted. Human rights, of course, inspired the course of action necessary to inspire Lincoln’s write up. It was, however, the compassion and works of individuals largely unsung and unseen and perhaps more importantly, had little to gain economically, politically or otherwise. When determining the true reasons that decisive action was taken, one may be inclined to be melancholy. One hopes with great sincerity that students of American history will instead be able to remain steadfast and focused on the positive fruition that The Emancipation Proclamation has had on all people alike in freedom.
Bateman, F. (2002). A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.
Beaver, E., Reily, M., & Snyer, N. (n.d.). Blacks in the Civil War. Retrieved December 2011, from Colorado College EDU: http://www2.coloradocollege.edu/dept/hy/hy243ruiz/research/civilwar.html
Carnes, Mark C. & Garraty, J.A. The American Nation: A History of The United States Vol. 1 to 1877 — 14th edition. Upper Saddle River, New jersey: Prentice Hall.
Klingaman, W. K. (2001). Abraham Lincoln and the Road To Emancipation 1861-1865. New York, New York: Viking Penguin.
Mackay, K. (n.d.). Economics of Slavery. Retrieved December 2011, from Weber State University: http://faculty.weber.edu/kmackay/economics of slavery.asp
Martin, M. (2006). In The Emancipation Proclamation: Hope of Freedom For The Slaves (p. 7). Mankato, Minnesota: Capstone Press.
Pearlman, L. (1997, February).
Lincoln’s Colonization Efforts. Retrieved December 2011, from Illinois Periodicals Online at Northern Illinois University: http://www.lib.niu.edu/1997/ihy970228.html