The Motives Behind the Emancipation Proclamation: Military
or Humanitarian?

By Emily Hylton

Americans are always heralding Abraham Lincoln as a Great Emancipator,
and the Emancipation Proclamation as a document of immeasurable
humanitarian significance. Yes, this document is critical in United
States history and signifies the universal freedom of black slaves,
but to what extent was the Emancipation Proclamation really intended
for humanitarian purposes? To Lincoln, the military advantages for
the Union Army in the Civil War far outweighed the humanitarian
benefits. These military benefits are what spurred him to issue
the controversial proclamation.

Lincoln considered his first priority to be the preservation
of the Union. In his mind, slavery was a secondary issue. Lincoln
expressed this in a letter to the Tribune on August 22, 1862 in
response to criticism for not announcing that the Civil War was
a war on slavery. “My paramount object in this struggle
is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.
If I could save the Union without freeing any of the slaves I
would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves,
I would do it.” Lincoln considered it his job to be a preserver,
not a humanitarian. According to this belief, he would not have
issued the Emancipation Proclamation if it would not help to save
the Union. Likewise, Lincoln’s primary reason in issuing
the proclamation was that it would help him militarily to preserve
the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation could only be legally justified
as a military tool. Lincoln used this argument to justify his
exemption of slaves from border slaves in the proclamation, saying
that the proclamation had “no constitutional or legal justification,
except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because
the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities.”
Since it could be justified militarily, clearly the proclamation
had to have military uses. The Emancipation Proclamation could
not be justified during a time of peace, therefore it could not
have been a purely humanitarian document.

The fact that the Emancipation Proclamation omitted the border
states discredits the idea that it was issued for humanitarian
reasons. If the purpose of the proclamation was to free slaves,
all slaves would have been given their freedom. Furthermore, Lincoln
actually had the authority to free slaves being held within the
Union, but those slaves were precisely the ones left out of the
proclamation. Lincoln ‘freed’ the slaves in southern
states because the freedom of those slaves would most benefit
the Union cause. Clearly again, Lincoln used the Emancipation
Proclamation more to benefit the Union Army than the slaves as
a whole.

Freedom of the slaves presented numerous benefits to the Union
Cause. The enlistment rates were down, and the Union Army needed
a cause to rally behind. Since anti-slavery sentiments were high,
a war of liberation seemed a brilliant idea. Not only would more
northerners be willing to enlist in a moral war, Lincoln hoped
that freed southern slaves would travel north to fight for their
own freedom.

In addition, European intervention was imminent. Many European
countries had direct ties to the South through cotton trade, and
reports said that Europe was not far from formally recognizing
the confederate states. European countries could not, however,
afford to meddle in a war opposing slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation
seemed a quick and effective solution to the situation.

To summarize, the achievement that Lincoln worked hardest to
bring about was that of preserving the United States of America
and preventing a Confederacy. Incidentally, he accomplished this
by freeing the slaves. This brings up some interesting questions.
What were the beliefs of Lincoln and American society during the
time of the Civil War that the preservation of a country was valued
more highly than liberty for all of the citizens of that country?
Have values changed in modern America? It is questions like these
that make it necessary and worthwhile to consider historical documents
such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the motives behind them.