The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

Today was the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  An interesting essay on this by historian Richard Striner is here.  Historian Donald Shaffer points us to views by other historians regarding emancipation here.

“President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom,” by David Gilmour Blythe.

I like to stress it as the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation because a lot of people don’t realize there were two separate documents.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued September 22, 1862, was issued as a warning, or, if you prefer, a threat to the rebellious states that if they failed to lay down their arms and return their allegiance to the Union by January 1, 1863, then their slaves would be legally freed.  You can read the text of it here.  Reading it will surprise many folks.  The Final Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, is the document that actually freed the slaves in the areas still considered under rebellion.  You can read the text of that document here.  Few things are so misunderstood as the emancipation of the slaves.

The Preliminary EP starts with Lincoln affirming that the cause of the Federals is Union:  “… hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the States, and the people thereof, in which States that relation is, or may be, suspended or disturbed.”  This echoes Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley dated August 22, 1862.  That letter is used [actually, misused is probably a more accurate term] by many folks who Professor Robertson labels as “Professional Southerners” to claim that Lincoln really didn’t care about slavery.  In that letter, Lincoln writes:

“As to the policy I ‘seem to be pursuing’ as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

“I would save the Union.  I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution.  The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’  If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them.  If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.  My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.  What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.  I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.  I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

“I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”  [Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, in Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, pp. 388-389]

I say they misuse it because the vast majority of the time they leave out the last sentence and try to make it appear as though Lincoln really didn’t want to emancipate anyone.  However, as we can see, while Lincoln does want to see the slaves freed, his number one purpose in the Civil War is saving the Union.  He would use emancipation as a tool to save the Union or he would not use it as a tool to save the Union, depending on his reading of the situation and his view of what was needed.  That doesn’t mean he didn’t care about the slaves.  He did.  But it means that if he could not save the Union, none of the rest of it would be worth anything.

Next, in the Preliminary EP, Lincoln again offers compensated emancipation and colonization to the slave states not in rebellion, and asks Congress to provide financial aid for those states who adopt gradual emancipation:

“That it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of Congress to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure tendering pecuniary aid to the free acceptance or rejection of all slave States, so called, the people whereof may not then be in rebellion against the United States and which States may then have voluntarily adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, immediate or gradual abolishment of slavery within their respective limits; and that the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the Governments existing there, will be continued.”

Lincoln’s support of colonization of the freed slaves is also used [or rather misused] to make a point that he was not interested in any good for African Americans.  We have to recall that Lincoln believed it wasn’t possible for African Americans to find social and political equality in the United States due to his belief they would always be looked down on by white Americans.  He felt this could ultimately result in racial violence, and to prevent that from happening he supported the voluntary colonization of African Americans outside the United States.  He wasn’t seeking to forcibly deport African Americans; it would be voluntary only.  Lincoln eventually saw the error in his thinking and by the summer of 1864 he dropped the idea of colonization.  Here in the fall of 1862, though, he is still supporting that idea, and he is supporting the idea of the Federal government providing financial incentive to help the slave states emancipate their slaves.

Lincoln next comes to his threat to the states in rebellion:  “That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

If the rebellious states wish to keep their slaves, though, they need to no longer be in rebellion against the United States as of January 1, 1863.  He then identifies how to determine conclusively if a state is not in rebellion against the United States:

“That the executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States, and part of States, if any, in which the people thereof respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof shall, on that day be, in good faith represented in the Congress of the United States, by members chosen thereto, at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

He next calls attention to various acts of Congress dealing with the military not returning fugitive slaves, and the slaves of those who are participating in the rebellion being freed.  He then promises compensation for loyal citizens:

“And the executive will in due time recommend that all citizens of the United States who shall have remained loyal thereto throughout the rebellion, shall (upon the restoration of the constitutional relation between the United States, and their respective States, and people, if that relation shall have been suspended or disturbed) be compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves.”  As we know, this compensation would not materialize.

Many criticize Lincoln for freeing slaves in areas that were not under his control, or as these critics claim, where he didn’t have the power to free slaves, and not freeing slaves in areas that were  under his control, or as these critics claim, where he had the power to free them.  These critics are completely wrong.  The prevailing constitutional interpretation of the time held that slavery was a state issue, not a federal issue, and the President had no authority to free slaves in the states.  However, Lincoln interpreted his war powers as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military as giving him the authority to do so in the rebellious states.  The reason for this is the slave labor was being used to support the rebellion, and taking away that labor would be a war measure to weaken the rebellion.

What’s your view of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation?  Do you have any criticisms of Lincoln regarding this document?


  1. […] Proclamation less than two months before the November 1862 midterm elections. (Tip of the hat to Albert Mackey for bringing this piece to my […]

  2. Emancipation would mark the largest redistribution of wealth in American history.

    1. That’s a very good point, Pat, but I would modify it a bit. To me, it’s more of an outright loss of wealth, since emancipation meant nobody owned the slaves outside the slaves themselves. A redistribution implies that someone else owned that wealth. I suppose we could say it was redistributed to the slaves. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Everybody over here in England thinks the Civil war was a simple cut and dried, black and white (!) issue of a Lincoln-led Northern crusade fighting to free the slaves. I have known differently for a long time as a student of the conflict, but I will be interested to see what steven Speilberg’s slant on it is when I go and see ‘Lincoln’ tomorrow night.
    From what I’ve heard so far it may indeed be painted along those lines.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kerry. Over the years I’ve had internet conversations with Brits who are quite sympathetic to the confederates and believe as Charles Dickens did that it was nothing more than a war of economic conquest. I think we all tend to try to simplify issues, even complex issues. It seems to be part of human nature. Even the English Civil War wasn’t so cut and dried, was it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: