Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Emancipation Begun

When the war began, the absorbing issue at the North was the maintenance of the Union. The supreme, uniting purpose was the restoration of the national authority. Slavery had fallen into the background. But it soon began to come again to the front. Two tendencies existed at the North; one, to seek the restoration of the old state of things unchanged; the other, to seize the opportunity of war to put an end to slavery.

The pressure of events raised special questions which must be met. As soon as Northern armies were on Southern soil, slaves began to take refuge in the camps, and their masters, loyal in fact or in profession, followed with a demand for their return. Law seemed on the master's side; but the use of the army, engaged in such a war, to send slaves back to bondage, was most repugnant. At first some commanders took one course, some another. General Butler, a volunteer from Massachusetts, hit on a happy solution; he declared that slaves, being available to the enemy for hostile purposes, were like arms, gunpowder, etc., "contraband of war," and could not be reclaimed. The stroke was welcomed with cheers and laughter; and "contraband" became a catchword. Congress, in March, 1862, forbade the army and navy to return fugitives.

General Fremont was in command in Missouri. He was ardent and uncompromising, and in August, 1861, he issued a drastic proclamation, declaring the State under martial law, threatening death to all taken with arms in their hands, and giving freedom to the slaves of all rebels. The President remonstrated by letter against this too heroic surgery, and when Fremont declined to modify his order, used his authority to cancel it. The public reception of the incident marked and heightened the growing division of sentiment; the conservatives and especially the border State men, were alarmed and indignant at Fremont's action, while he became at once a favorite of the strong anti-slavery men.

This divergence among his own supporters added another to the complications which beset Lincoln and taxed him to the utmost. He had extraordinary tact and shrewdness in managing men, and in dealing with tangled situations. He showed this power toward his Cabinet officers, who included the most various material,—Seward, accomplished, resourceful, somewhat superficial, but thoroughly loyal to his chief after he knew him, managing the foreign relations with admirable skill, and somewhat conservative in his views; Chase, very able as a financier and jurist, but intensely ambitious of the Presidency, regarded as a radical as to slavery; Stanton, a great war minister but of harsh and intractable temper. These men and their colleagues Lincoln handled so skilfully as to get the best each had to contribute, and keep them and the political elements they represented in working harmony. No less successfully did he deal with Congress, guiding it to a great extent, but acquiescing in occasional defeats and disappointments so patiently that he disarmed hostility. He kept in closest touch with the common people; he was accessible to every one, listened to each man's grievance, remonstrance, or advice; and acquired an instinctive knowledge of what was in the hearts and minds of the millions.

In his own conduct, his guiding principle was fidelity to his official duty as he read it in the Constitution and the laws. He felt the specific, supreme task laid upon him to be the restoration and maintenance of the Union. And to succeed in that, he knew he must rightly interpret and enforce the general sentiment and desire of the loyal people. If he let them become so divided as to no longer act together, the cause was lost. And to follow any personal opinion or conviction of his own, in disregard of his official duty, or in defiance of the popular will, was to betray his trust.

It was under these conditions that Lincoln dealt with slavery. No man more than he detested the institution, or desired its removal. But he felt that he had no right to touch it, except as empowered by the Constitution and the laws, or as guided by the supreme necessity of saving the nation's life. Beyond that he had no authority. Beyond that, his position toward slavery must be like that of a President toward, for example, a system of religion which he believed to be false and injurious. Be he intensely orthodox, believing infidelity to be the road to hell,—yet he must not as President, put a straw across the path of the free-thinker. Be he as heretical as Thomas Jefferson, he must not as President, any more than did Jefferson, lay a finger on the churches. Just so did Lincoln feel himself restricted as to slavery,—he could not touch it, except as the civil laws brought it within his province, or unless as supreme military commander the laws and necessities of war brought it within his authority.

Congress soon proceeded to discuss questions about slavery. Sumner, the foremost leader of the radicals, proposed resolutions, in February, 1862, declaring that the seceded States had by their acts extinguished their State organizations and relapsed into a territorial condition, subject only to Congress; and that slavery within them, existing only by a local authority now defunct, was thus abolished. Congress would take no such ground as that. But, as within its proper sphere, it abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, in April, 1862, giving compensation to owners at a maximum rate of $300 for each slave. And in the following June, it abolished slavery in all the national territories,—thus giving full force to the cardinal doctrine of the Republican party up to the war. But the war had inevitably brought a more radical issue to the front,—the question of slavery in the States.

Under the name of a confiscation act, Congress passed a law, July 17, 1862, which declared freedom to all slaves of convicted rebels; to slaves of rebels escaping within the army lines, or captured, or deserted by their masters; and to all slaves of rebels found in places captured and occupied by the Union army. This came near to making the abolition of slavery follow exactly the progress of the Union arms. But, leaving untouched the slave property of loyalists, it spared the institution as a system.

Lincoln, in many ways a man of the people by his convictions and sympathies, in other aspects towered in solitude. He was almost unique in that he could fight—fight if need were to the death,—with no spark of hatred in his heart. In the midst of war he was a devoted peace-lover. To an old friend, though a political opponent, Congressman D. W. Voorhees, of Indiana, who called on him at the White House, he said with a pathetic look of anxious pain: "Voorhees, doesn't it seem strange that I should be here—I, a man who couldn't cut a chicken's head off,—with blood running all around me?" While he was overseeing campaigns, selecting and rejecting generals, learning the business of a commander, keeping touch with all the great matters of administration, besieged by office-seekers, importuned by people in all manner of private troubles,—he found intervals in which to devise ways out of the horrid business of war, ways that might lead both to peace and freedom.

The key of the situation he thought lay largely with the border States,—Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky,—all of them formally in the Union, but their population divided, sending recruits to both armies, and with hopes in the Confederacy that they might be entirely won over. If they could be bound faster to the Union, if at the same time they could be helped to make themselves free States,—then might the Union cause be mightily helped, and at the same time the work of emancipation be begun. Aiming at this result, Lincoln sent a message to Congress, March 6, 1862, proposing this resolution: "That the United States ought to co-operate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system." He urged this with special reference to its application in the border States; and, inviting the Congressional members of these States in a body to the White House, he pleaded with them earnestly to support the resolution, and apply the plan. They listened, but were non-committal. Congress received the plan coolly. The Radicals were little in the humor of compensating slaveholders, and the Conservatives apprehended a progressive attack on slavery. But the President's influence triumphed; the resolution passed in mid-April; and the nation pledged itself to assist compensated emancipation in any State that would adopt it.

Nothing came of it. The border States did not move. Three months later, July 12, their delegations were again invited to the White House. The situation was at the gravest; McClellan's army had been baffled in the desperate seven-days' fight; factions at the North were growing hot. Lincoln pleaded reasonably, movingly, that they would bring decisive help to the national cause, by committing their States to emancipation, with help from the nation, gradually if they pleased, with colonization if they desired—peace, union, freedom, all lay that way! Two days they took to make answer, and then of the twenty-nine members only nine were favorable; the rest with one accord began to make excuse,—and that hope failed.

Events were forcing on the question of slavery. In the previous May, General David Hunter, in South Carolina, finding himself with 10,000 fugitives in his camps, whom the laws forbade him to return to their masters and did not permit him to hold as slaves, met the difficulty by a proclamation, declaring that the martial law of the United States was incompatible with slavery, and the slaves in his military district—South Carolina, Georgia and Florida,—were set free. Again the President overruled his subordinate, but in the proclamation he distinctly said that the question of emancipation as a military necessity belonged to himself as commander-in-chief. It was a note of warning. Twenty years before, John Quincy Adams had written,—and the words came from a conservative statesman of the highest standing: "I say that the military authority takes for the time the place of all municipal institutions, and slavery among the rest"; and had elaborated and reiterated the doctrine that in case of war slavery might be abolished by the commander. These statements had lately been recalled; the action of Fremont and Hunter had given life to the idea; and Lincoln now intimated that he might yet assume this authority.

Party divisions had soon reappeared at the North. The Democrats were not harmonious; a part called themselves "War Democrats," and a part were ready to let the South go, or went as near that as they prudently could; now one and now the other faction controlled the party according to time and locality. The Republicans were more united, yet among them was a cleavage between conservatives and radicals; the one taking for their watchword, "the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was"; the other eager to see the war turned against slavery; and both claiming the President, and jealously watching any leaning on his part toward their rivals.

There was developing at the North a profound sentiment for attacking slavery. The war was protracted beyond all early expectation; it was costly, bitter, woeful. What was to be at last the recompense for all this blood and tears? Was there, if victory came at last, to be with it no advance, nothing but the old Union, half slave and half free? For nothing better than this were sons, fathers, brothers, husbands to be sacrificed? Was the nation crossing a Red Sea of anguish only to emerge into the old bondage? Rather, let us fight at once for union and for liberty!

Those who voiced this cry could not always see the difficulties that beset the President. Many of them failed to realize that at heart he was as true to freedom as they. Even Lowell, in the later Biglow Papers, which pleaded with deeper pathos and power than before for freedom—even he could write of "hoisting your captain's heart up with a derrick." Wendell Phillips on one occasion, impatient of Lincoln's attitude toward the fugitive slave law, called him "the slave-hound from Illinois." Beecher,—who did great service, especially by his speeches in England,—wrote in the Independent a series of articles, to spur the President to more pronounced action. Some one gave the articles to Lincoln; he sat down and read them all, then rose to his feet exclaiming, "Am I a dog?"

All this time the conservatives were no less urgent that the President must make no move against slavery. Among their spokesmen was General McClellan. On him rested the chief hope of the North for military success during the year following the disaster of Bull Run. He was an admirable organizer and a good theoretical strategist; his care for his men won their affection; and sometimes in the field he struck heavy and effective blows. But he was always prone to overrate the enemy's resources and underrate his own; he was slow to follow up a success; and he lacked the bulldog grip by which Grant won. Right on the heels of his failure in the seven-days' fight in the Peninsula, he wrote a letter to the President, from Harrison's Landing, July 7, 1862, lecturing him severely as to the errors he must avoid. Nothing must be done or said looking to confiscation, forcible abolition, or territorial organization of the States. "Until the principles governing the future conduct of our struggle shall be made known and approved, the effort to obtain requisite forces will be almost hopeless. A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our armies." This letter was given to the public, and on this platform McClellan began to loom up as an opposition candidate for the Presidency.

So Lincoln was buffeted on the right hand and on the left. In this summer of 1862, Greeley wrote in the Tribune, August 20, an open letter to the President, upbraiding him for his slackness against slavery. Lincoln replied, August 22, in a letter which startled many of his friends, and to this day bewilders those who do not understand the man himself or the position in which he stood. He wrote: "I would save the Union, I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. . . . 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." In fact, the last was the course which he eventually took.

This letter stated with full sincerity Lincoln's basal principle. It was not necessary to add that the purpose was growing within him to save the Union by freeing the slaves in the seceded States. The very growth of that purpose made it necessary for him to freshly bind to himself the conservatives whose only care was for the Union and not for emancipation. Nothing could serve this purpose better than the declaration in this letter to Greeley. In Lincoln, sincerity and shrewdness were thoroughly blended.

At a later day he told the artist Frank Carpenter, when he was to paint "The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation": "It had got to be mid-summer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan 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." This proclamation—the first sketch—set forth that at the next meeting of Congress, four months later, the President designs to again recommend a practical measure for tendering pecuniary aid to any State then recognizing the authority of the United States, which should have adopted, or should thereafter adopt, gradual abolishment of slavery; that the object of this is to promote the restoration of constitutional relations between the general government and all the States; and finally, as commander-in-chief, the President declares that from the first of January next all slaves in States still rejecting the national authority shall then and forever be free.

The Cabinet were amazed—and divided. Only Stanton and Bates were for immediate promulgation. Chase thought it would be better to leave the matter to district commanders, but would support the proclamation as better than inaction. Blair opposed it as likely to be unpopular and lose the Fall election. All this Lincoln had weighed beforehand. But now came a suggestion from Seward, that the immediate time was inopportune, because just after military reverses (McClellan's Peninsula defeat) it would seem like a desperate cry for help,—"our last shriek on the retreat," as Lincoln phrased it. His judgment welcomed this as a wise suggestion, and he put the draft of the proclamation aside and waited for victory. Among the elements which entered into his decisions was a subtle instinct as to when and how far he could command the support of the various elements on whom success depended. His rare capacity as a listener, and his keen sagacity, enabled him to divine that the hour was at hand when a decisive move against slavery would attract more support than it would repel. Seward's suggestion gave the final shape to his purpose.

This happened July 22, 1862; and when the President made his calm reply to Greeley's onslaught a month later, the unsigned proclamation lay in his desk, and he was still waiting for a victory before he issued it.