The Truth About the Emancipation Proclamation

by Kirkpatrick Sale

In all the hullabaloo about the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln January 1, 1863, and the ensuing worship of St. Abe for freeing the slaves, it is a sure thing that the truth about the document will be lost.

To begin with, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. It applied only to slaves in the states "in rebellion" – the Confederacy – where the Union had no power or authority, thus having about as much real effect as the famous (putative) papal bull against Halley’s comet. And it did not apply to the Border states where there still was slavery (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri). In other words, as Secretary of State William Seward remarked ironically at the time, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

But then, it was not really intended to liberate anybody. It was, as Lincoln took care to spell out, a "military measure," issued under the President’s authority as commander-in-chief, and its real purpose was to undermine the Confederate Army. This would be accomplished, Lincoln hoped, first by encouraging slaves to take over the plantations so that they would no longer be supplying foodstuffs for the soldiers, and second by causing plantation owners serving in the army to desert and rush home to protect their wives and children from the presumably dangerous freedmen.   

Another possible effect, not spelled out and never specifically endorsed by Lincoln, was, as Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase put it at one Cabinet meeting on the Proclamation, that "universal emancipation" would set off "depredation and massacre" across the South. Such an uprising would surely be condemned by the greatest part of the North’s population and public opinion abroad, and Lincoln sought to guard against this by saying in the document that "I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence." But the fact that he had to make such an injunction meant that such an outcome was surely held to be a possibility, one that would not be unwelcome to the Union.

The Proclamation had other glaring deficiencies as well that are best indicated by looking at another of Lincoln’s documents, this being a proposal he had sent to Congress just a month earlier for a new 13th Amendment. It would abolish slavery, but it had three other provisions that would allow for a more peaceful transformation than the Proclamation did.

First, it would authorize gradual emancipation by the slave states "at any point before 1900," as "way to spare both races from the evils of sudden derangement" and to spare freed blacks "from the vagrant destitution that must largely attend immediate emancipation." Second, it would provide that "any state, wherein slavery now exists…shall receive compensation" for the freed slaves financed by the Federal government for several generations; emancipation was, after all, as historian R.R. Palmer would later say, "an annihilation of individual property rights without parallel in the history of the modern world," and without it the South would, predictably, be impoverished and the plantation economy in ruins. (As Lincoln knew, compensation had been used in emancipation throughout South America and in the British, French, and Danish colonies – and even in Washington itself which freed its slaves in 1862.) Third, it would authorize Congress to appropriate money "for colonizing free colored persons… at any place or places outside of the United States."   

Lacking such provisions, the Proclamation was a certain recipe for chaos and misery in the South – but of course this may have been in fact what the North had in mind. Some have argued, Edgar Lee Masters in 1931 most persuasively, that the failure of the Proclamation (and the subsequent government) to address the issue of the economic future of the South and the freedmen’s place in it was not an oversight but a deliberate strategy on behalf of the corporate and industrial interests in the Republican Party, in the heat of its Hamiltonianism, that intended to "plunder the South" after it was defeated. "Piety and plunder in the person of the new capitalist," Masters argued, "by the use of sectional hatred took over the control of Congress" and eventually used that power to send treasury agents into the South "looking for property to confiscate," particularly for Northern railroads, and, making "common cause with local thieves and stole everything they could find in the way of cotton, tobacco and corn." Certainly that seems to be what was in Lincoln’s mind early on; as he told an Interior Department official in 1862, in the next year "the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation….The South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and new ideas." And so it happened.

But however satisfying that may have been to Northern interests, it obviously bode as poorly for the black population as the white. The rosy reputation given to the Proclamation, 150 years ago and with increasing ardor down to this day, is therefore hardly deserved: the truth is that it did not ever have the ultimate well-being of the blacks in mind and certainly did not achieve it. Quite the contrary.

Copyright © 2013 Kirkpatrick Sale           

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By |2013-01-09T21:04:50+00:00January 9th, 2013|News|Comments Off on News 2799