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Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > Freedom for the Slaves

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Unsuccessful Generals The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Man Who was President

Chapter IX. Freedom for the Slaves

By no means the least of the evils of slavery was a dread which had haunted every southern household from the beginning of the government that the slaves might one day rise in revolt and take sudden vengeance upon their masters. This vague terror was greatly increased by the outbreak of the Civil War. It stands to the lasting credit of the negro race that the wrongs of their long bondage provoked them to no such crime, and that the war seems not to have suggested, much less started any such attempt. Indeed, even when urged to violence by white leaders, as the slaves of Maryland had been in 1859 during John Browns s raid at Harper's Ferry, they had refused to respond. Nevertheless it was plain from the first that slavery was to play an important part in the Civil War. Not only were the people of the South battling for the principle of slavery; their slaves were a great source of military strength. They were used by the Confederates in building forts, hauling supplies, and in a hundred ways that added to the effectiveness of their armies in the field. On the other hand the very first result of the war was to give adventurous or discontented slaves a chance to escape into Union camps, where, even against orders to the contrary, they found protection for the sake of the help they could give as cooks, servants, or teamsters, the information they brought about the movements of the enemy, or the great service they were able to render as guides. Practically therefore, at the very start, the war created a bond of mutual sympathy between the southern negro and the Union volunteer; and as fast as Union troops advanced and secession masters fled, a certain number found freedom in Union camps.

At some points this became a positive embarrassment to Union commanders. A few days after General Butler took command of the Union troops at Fortress Monroe in May, 1861, the agent of a rebel master came to insist on the return of three slaves, demanding them under the fugitive-slave law. Butler replied that since their master claimed Virginia to be a foreign country and no longer a part of the United States, he could not at the same time claim that the fugitive slave law was in force, and that his slaves would not be given up unless he returned and took the oath of allegiance to the United States. In reporting this, a newspaper pointed out that as the breastworks and batteries which had risen so rapidly for Confederate defense were built by slave labor, negroes were undoubtedly "contraband of war," like powder and shot, and other military supplies, and should no more be given back to the rebels than so many cannon or guns. The idea was so pertinent, and the justice of it so plain that the name "contraband" sprang at once into use. But while this happy explanation had more convincing effect on popular thought than a volume of discussion, it did not solve the whole question. By the end of July General Butler had on his hands 900 "contrabands," men, women and children of all ages, and he wrote to inquire what was their real condition. Were they slaves or free? Could they be considered fugitive slaves when their masters had run away and left them? How should they be disposed of? It was a knotty problem, and upon its solution might depend the loyalty or secession of the border slave States of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri, which, up to that time, had not decided whether to remain in the Union or to cast their fortunes with the South.

In dealing with this perplexing subject. Mr. Lincoln kept in mind one of his favorite stories: the one on the Methodist Presiding Elder who was riding about his circuit during the spring freshets. A young and anxious companion asked how they should ever be able to cross the swollen waters of Fox River, which they were approaching, and the elder quieted him by saying that he made it the rule of his life never to cross Fox River until he came to it. The President, following this rule, did not immediately decide the question, but left it to be treated at the discretion of each commander. Under this theory some commanders admitted black people to their camps, while others refused to receive them. The curt formula of General Orders: "We are neither negro stealers nor negro catchers," was easily read to justify either course. Congress greatly advanced the problem, shortly after the battle of Bull Run, by passing a law which took away a master's right to his slave, when, with his consent, such slave was employed in service or labor hostile to the United States.

On the general question of slavery, the President's mind was fully made up. He felt that he had no right to interfere with slavery where slavery was lawful, just because he himself did not happen to like it; for he had sworn to do all in his power to "preserve, protect and defend" the government and its laws, and slavery was lawful in the southern States. When freeing the slaves should become necessary in order to preserve the Government, then it would be his duty to free them; until that time came, it was equally his duty to let them alone.

Twice during the early part of the war military commanders issued orders freeing slaves in the districts over which they had control, and twice he refused to allow these orders to stand. "No commanding general should do such a thing upon his responsibility, without consulting him," he said; and he added that whether he, as Commander-in-Chief, had the power to free slaves, and whether at any time the use of such power should become necessary, were questions which he reserved to himself. He did not feel justified in leaving such decisions to commanders in the field. He even refused at that time to allow Secretary Cameron to make a public announcement that the government might find it necessary to arm slaves and employ them as soldiers. He would not cross Fox River until he came to it. He would not take any measure until he felt it to be absolutely necessary.

Only a few months later he issued his first proclamation of emancipation; but he did not do so until convinced that he must do this in order to put down the rebellion. Long ago he had considered and in his own mind adopted a plan of dealing with the slavery question--the simple, easy plan which, while a member of Congress, he had proposed for the District of Columbia--that on condition of the slave-owners voluntarily giving up their slaves, they should be paid a fair price for them by the Federal government. Delaware was a slave State, and seemed an excellent place in which to try this experiment of "compensated emancipation," as it was called; for there were, all told, only 1798 slaves left in the State. Without any public announcement of his purpose he offered to the citizens of Delaware, through their representative in Congress, four hundred dollars for each of these slaves, the payment to be made, not all at once, but yearly, during a period of thirty-one years. He believed that if Delaware could be induced to accept this offer, Maryland might follow her example, and that afterward other States would allow themselves to be led along the same easy way. The Delaware House of Representatives voted in favor of the proposition, but five of the nine members of the Delaware senate scornfully repelled the "abolition bribe," as they chose to call it, and the project withered in the bud.

Mr. Lincoln did not stop at this failure, but, on March 6, 1862, sent a special message to the Senate and House of Representatives recommending that Congress adopt a joint resolution favoring and practically offering gradual compensated emancipation to any State that saw fit to accept it; pointing out at the same time that the Federal government claimed no right to interfere with slavery within the States, and that if the offer were accepted it must be done as a matter of free choice.

The Republican journals of the North devoted considerable space to discussing the President's plan, which, in the main, was favorably received; but it was thought that it must fail on the score of expense. The President answered this objection in a private letter to a Senator, proving that less than one-half day's cost of war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars each, and less than eighty-seven days' cost of war would pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky and Missouri. "Do you doubt," he asked, that taking such a step "on the part of those States and this District would shorten the war more than eighty-seven days, and thus be an actual saving of expense?"

Both houses of Congress favored the resolution, and also passed a bill immediately freeing the slaves in the District of Columbia on the payment to their loyal owners of three hundred dollars for each slave. This last bill was signed by the President and became a law on April 16, 1862. So, although he had been unable to bring it about when a member of Congress thirteen years before, it was he, after all, who finally swept away that scandal of the "negro livery-stable" in the shadow of the dome of the Capitol.

Congress as well as the President was thus pledged to compensated emancipation, and if any of the border slave States had shown a willingness to accept the generosity of the government, their people might have been spared the loss that overtook all slave-owners on the first of January, 1863. The President twice called the representatives and senators of these States to the White House, and urged his plan most eloquently, but nothing came of it. Meantime, the military situation continued most discouraging. The advance of the Army of the Potomac upon Richmond became a retreat; the commanders in the West could not get control of the Mississippi River; and worst of all, in spite of their cheering assurance that "We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong," the people of the country were saddened and filled with the most gloomy forebodings because of the President's call for so many new troops.

"It had got to be midsummer, 1862," Mr. Lincoln said, in telling an artist friend the history of his most famous official act. "Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game. I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy, and without consultation with, or the knowledge of the cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and after much anxious thought, called a cabinet meeting upon the subject. . . . I said to the cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them, suggestions as to which would be in order after they had heard it read."

It was on July 22 that the President read to his cabinet the draft of this first emancipation proclamation, which, after announcing that at the next meeting of Congress he would again offer compensated emancipation to such States as chose to accept it, went on to order as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, that the slaves in all States which should be in rebellion against the government on January 1, 1863, should "then, thenceforward and forever be free."

Mr. Lincoln had given a hint of this intended step to Mr. Seward and Mr. Welles, but to all the other members of the cabinet it came as a complete surprise. One thought it would cost the Republicans the fall elections. Another preferred that emancipation should be proclaimed by military commanders in their several military districts. Secretary Seward, while approving the measure, suggested that it would better be postponed until it could be given to the country after a victory, instead of issuing it, as would be the case then, upon the greatest disasters of the war. "The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force," Mr. Lincoln's recital continues. "It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was that I put the draft of the proclamation aside, as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory."

The secrets of the administration were well kept, and no hint came to the public that the President had proposed such a measure to his cabinet. As there was at the moment little in the way of war news to attract attention, newspapers and private individuals turned a sharp fire of criticism upon Mr. Lincoln. For this they seized upon the ever-useful text of the slavery question. Some of them protested indignantly that the President was going too fast; others clamored as loudly that he had been altogether too slow. His decision, as we know, was unalterably taken, although he was not yet ready to announce it. Therefore, while waiting for a victory he had to perform the difficult task of restraining the impatience of both sides. This he did in very positive language. To a man in Louisiana, who complained that Union feeling was being crushed out by the Army in that State, he wrote:

"I am a patient man, always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance, and also to give ample time for repentance. Still, I must save this government if possible. What I cannot do, of course I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed." Two days later he answered another Louisiana critic. "What would you do in my position? Would you drop the war where it is? Or would you prosecute it in future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rosewater? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones? Would you give up the contest leaving any available means unapplied? I am in no boastful mood. I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can, to save the government, which is my sworn duty, as well as my personal inclination. I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing."

The President could afford to overlook the abuse of hostile newspapers, but he also had to meet the criticisms of over-zealous Republicans. The prominent Republican editor, Horace Greeley, printed in his paper, the "New York Tribune," a long "Open Letter," ostentatiously addressed to Mr. Lincoln, full of unjust accusations, his general charge being that the President and many Army officers were neglecting their duty through a kindly feeling for slavery. The open letter which Mr. Lincoln wrote in reply is remarkable not alone for the skill with which he answered this attack, but also for its great dignity.

"As to the policy I 'seem to be pursuing,' as you say, I have not meant to leave anyone in doubt. . . . 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 everywhere could be free."

He was waiting for victory, but victory was slow to come. Instead the Union Army suffered another defeat at the second battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862. After this the pressure upon him to take some action upon slavery became stronger than ever. On September 13 he was visited by a company of ministers from the churches of Chicago, who came expressly to urge him to free the slaves at once. In the actual condition of things he could of course neither safely satisfy them nor deny them, and his reply, while perfectly courteous, had in it a tone of rebuke that showed the state of irritation and high sensitiveness under which he was living:

"I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. . . . I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me. . . . What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope's bull against the comet." "Do not misunderstand me. . . . I have not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves; but hold the matter under advisement. And I can assure you that the subject is on my mind by day and night more than any other. Whatever shall appear to be God's will, I will do."

Four days after this interview the battle of Antietam was fought, and when, after a few days of uncertainty it was found that it could be reasonably claimed as a Union victory, the President resolved to carry out his long-matured purpose. Secretary Chase in his diary recorded very fully what occurred on that ever-memorable September 22, 1862. After some playful talk upon other matters, Mr. Lincoln, taking a graver tone, said:

"Gentlemen: I have, as you are aware, thought a great deal about the relation of this war to slavery, and you all remember that several weeks ago I read to you an order I had prepared on this subject, which, on account of objections made by some of you, was not issued. Ever since then my mind has been much occupied with this subject, and I have thought, all along, that the time for acting on it might probably come. I think the time has come now. I wish it was a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the Army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked. But they have been driven out of Maryland, and Pennsylvania is no longer in danger of invasion. When the rebel Army was at Frederick I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a proclamation of emancipation, such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone, but I made the promise to myself, and--[hesitating a little]--to my Maker. The rebel Army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfil that promise. I have got you together to hear what I have written down. I do not wish your advice about the main matter, for that I have determined for myself. This I say, without intending anything but respect for any one of you. But I already know the views of each on this question. . . . I have considered them as thoroughly and carefully as I can. What I have written is that which my reflections have determined me to say. If there is anything in the expressions I use, or in any minor matter which any one of you thinks had best be changed, I shall be glad to receive the suggestions. One other observation I will make. I know very well that many others might, in this matter as in others, do better than I can; and if I was satisfied that the public confidence was more fully possessed by any one of them than by me, and knew of any constitutional way in which he could be put in my place, he should have it. I would gladly yield it to him. But, though I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some time since, I do not know that, all things considered, any other person has more; and however this may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here; I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take."

It was in this humble spirit, and with this firm sense of duty that the great proclamation was given to the world. One hundred days later he completed the act by issuing the final proclamation of emancipation.

It has been a long-established custom in Washington for the officials of the government to go on the first day of January to the Executive Mansion to pay their respects to the President and his wife. The judges of the courts go at one hour, the foreign diplomats at another, members of Congress and senators and officers of the Army and Navy at still another. One by one these various official bodies pass in rapid succession before the head of the nation, wishing him success and prosperity in the New Year. The occasion is made gay with music and flowers and bright uniforms, and has a social as well as an official character. Even in war times such customs were kept up, and in spite of his load of care, the President was expected to find time and heart for the greetings and questions and hand-shakings of this and other state ceremonies. Ordinarily it was not hard for him. He liked to meet people, and such occasions were a positive relief from the mental strain of his official work. It is to be questioned, however, whether, on this day, his mind did not leave the passing stream of people before him, to dwell on the proclamation he was so soon to sign.

At about three o'clock in the afternoon, after full three hours of such greetings and handshakings, when his own hand was so weary it could scarcely hold a pen, the President and perhaps a dozen friends, went up to the Executive Office, and there, without any pre-arranged ceremony, he signed his name to the greatest state paper of the century, which banished the curse of slavery from our land, and set almost four million people free.

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Unsuccessful Generals The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Man Who was President

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln


A President's Childhood

Captain Lincoln

Lawyer Lincoln

Congressman Lincoln

The Champion of Freedom

The New President

Lincoln and the War

Unsuccessful Generals

Freedom for the Slaves

The Man Who Was President

The Turning Point of the War

The Conqueror of a Great Rebellion

The Fourteenth of April

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