Common Myths about the Civil War. Part 6 of a Series

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mike Scruggs

The most common misconception about the Civil War, and perhaps all of American history, is that President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Several years ago, when I was Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school comprising school grades K through 12, one of the fourth grade classes voted Abraham Lincoln their favorite U.S. president. The reason for their favor was because they had been taught that Lincoln had freed the slaves. Lincoln was against slavery, and he did sign the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but this did not free any slaves in Union, Southern or Border States under U.S. military control. Lincoln did not free a single slave in Union held territory. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in territory over which he had no control. In effect, he really did not free any slaves.

Although Lincoln was against slavery, he did not believe that most blacks were compatible with American society and hoped they could be voluntarily resettled in Africa or Central America. Late in the war, he believed that some, especially those who had served in the Union Army, could stay.

On August 30, 1861, Union Major General John C. Fremont (the 1856 Republican presidential candidate) placed the State of Missouri under martial law and decreed that the slaves of Missouri Confederates were to be freed. Lincoln ordered the general’s emancipation of Missouri slaves rescinded on September 11. Lincoln then removed Fremont from command of the Department of the West on October 22.

The Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until January 1, 1863, nearly two years after most Southern States had seceded and over 20 months after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to invade the South and put down “the rebellion.”

Lincoln had promised in his inauguration speech on March 4, 1861 that he had no intent of interfering with slavery in the Southern States:

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern states that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.”

He then quoted from a former speech that:

“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

Then Lincoln read from the 1860 Republican platform:

“Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.”

He also promised that he would “cheerfully” abide the fugitive slave laws (and thus slavery) imbedded in the Constitution:

“There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:

‘No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

Also in his inaugural address, Lincoln endorsed an amendment to the Constitution—the Corwin Amendment, sometimes now referred to as the First 13th Amendment—which would have forever prohibited any future Constitutional amendment interfering with slavery. It would have guaranteed slavery as Constitutional forever and without remedy! The war effectively mooted the process ratification by the states. .

Lincoln’s inaugural address was conciliatory on the issue of slavery—pointing out that the “only substantial dispute” was over the extension of slavery to new states. In previous articles, I have shown by Lincoln’s own words and the laws of several Northern states including Illinois that this difference rarely touched upon the moral implications of slavery. Several Midwestern and Western legislatures passed laws that treated all blacks as undesirable immigrants.

While conciliatory on slavery, Lincoln’s inaugural was hard as nails on collecting tariff revenues from Southern States, most of which had resisted the painful burden of what they believed to be unjust taxation and economic exploitation for nearly 40 years. His other hard line was on Union, which if analyzed, would frighten most Constitutional conservatives. He also makes a statement that contradicts Anglo-American traditions on contract law: “One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak—but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?” The Anglo-American tradition is that if one party to a contract breaks it, the other is not required to meet its terms.

Why did Lincoln sign an Emancipation Proclamation that contradicted his inaugural statements and in reality did not free any slaves? He had been under pressure from the Radical Republicans and (radical) abolitionists—largely the same people—to do so. To his credit, he abhorred the ideology of both, but he needed their support to maintain a working majority in Congress and in the 1864 elections. He also wanted to make it politically difficult for anti-slavery Britain to openly ally itself with the Confederate States. However, Lincoln admitted that it was primarily a war measure. By freeing slaves behind Confederate lines, Lincoln hoped that slave revolts would cause Confederate troops to be diverted from the front lines and cause the Confederacy to collapse. The vast majority of Southern slaves, however, remained loyal to their Southern masters. Contrary to another popular myth, most Southern slaves were well treated, and strong bonds of mutual affection between master and slave resulted in loyalties that baffled most Northern abolitionists.

Slavery was not officially ended until a new 13th Amendment was ratified after the war. Only then did Union General-in-Chief U. S. Grant give up his personal slaves.
Common Myths about the Civil War
Posted by Brock Townsend

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