January 7, 2013, 1:40 pm
By JAMES OAKES
Two weeks after the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, S.C., surrendered to the Confederates, the New York World predicted that if Republicans persisted in their fanatical campaign against slavery, they would provoke “wide-spread negro insurrections” that would spread “horror” across the South. The World was a Democratic newspaper, and like most Northern Democrats its editors believed that slavery had no place in a war whose sole purpose was the restoration of the Union. Democrats were demanding that Republicans answer the question, “What is the object of the war?” But Republicans turned the tables and demanded that Democrats answer a very different question. “Shall the American Republic be destroyed or shall Slavery perish?” asked Horace Greeley, the most powerful Republican editor in the country. If you asked Northerners that question, he declared, their overwhelming response would be, “‘The Republic must live, even though Slavery should have to die!’”
When I first discovered Republicans saying such things, I was surprised. It’s common wisdom among historians that in the early phases of the war, Northerners, including most Republicans, disavowed any intent to interfere with slavery. Yet there were all those Republican editors and politicians, one after another, right as the war began, spelling out in broad terms the policies they expected to implement to emancipate slaves and abolish slavery. Did we, as a profession, have our timing wrong?
I was already familiar with Republican Party ideology; I recognized the arguments Republicans used to criticize slavery. Early on, Abraham Lincoln talked vaguely about putting slavery on “the course of ultimate extinction.” But what did he mean by that? Answering that question has forced me to rethink many of the things I always assumed about the way slavery was destroyed in the United States.
Like most historians, I long believed that over the course of the struggle between North and South, the “object” of the war shifted from Union to emancipation. Having initially resisted attacking slavery itself, the federal government supposedly moved slowly, hesitantly, toward grudging acceptance of emancipation. Not until the last years of the war, we were taught, did Northerners come belatedly to accept the need for slavery’s complete destruction. This is a familiar story among historians, arguably the closest thing to orthodoxy in Civil War studies. There’s even an established series of items that we check off when teaching survey courses, like groceries on a shopping list, showing that when the war began the North had no interest in freeing the slaves.
Somewhere along the way, however, the familiar story of a shift “from Union to emancipation” began to collapse beneath the weight of my research. During the secession crisis, for example, Republicans offered the South a constitutional amendment forever banning the government from abolishing slavery in the states. It turns out that nearly everybody — including most abolitionists — believed that the Constitution already prohibited the government from abolishing slavery in the states.
What about the supposedly pointless Confiscation Act, which Congress passed in early August 1861, a few months after the war began? If it freed no slaves, I wondered, why had Congress bothered to pass it? The answer to that question turned out to be a revelation. In the Congressional debates during the first summer of the war, Republicans made it clear that they intended to pass a law freeing slaves. Two days after Lincoln signed the bill his secretary of war issued the instructions for implementing the first Confiscation Act, immediately freeing hundreds of slaves, and ultimately tens of thousands.
Pretty soon nothing looked the same. Familiar events took on entirely new meanings. The Crittenden-Johnson resolution is a good example. Passed in the summer of 1861, it put Congress on record declaring that the purpose of the war was the restoration of the Union. This resolution is widely read as evidence that the North was initially unwilling to attack slavery. In fact, all the Crittenden-Johnson resolution did was to reaffirm the standard Republican position: the Constitution did not allow the government to prosecute a war for any “purpose” other than the restoration of the Union. Republicans justified their early attacks on slavery because they hated slavery and because slavery had caused the war. But the purpose of the war, at least officially, was always the restoration of the Union. This was just as true in 1865 as in 1861.
If Lincoln and the Republicans did in fact begin freeing slaves in August 1861, the president’s famous order to Gen. John C. Frémont the following month, in which he told him to rescind an order to free slaves in Missouri, can no longer stand up as evidence of Lincoln’s reluctance to emancipate. In fact, Lincoln did not prohibit the general from freeing slaves in Missouri; he merely told Frémont to rewrite his order to conform to the Confiscation Act. But that law was supposed to emancipate slaves.
And what of Lincoln’s subsequent revocation of Gen. David Hunter’s abolition order of spring 1862, applying to slaves on the South Carolina coast? Actually, Hunter issued two orders. The first emancipated slaves in the area under his control, and Lincoln let that order stand. The second abolished slavery in several states. Here was the problem: everyone agreed that the federal government had no constitutional power to abolish slavery in the states, and even if it did, generals didn’t make policy. Hunter’s first order conformed to the law as Congress passed it and as the Lincoln administration implemented it. The second order was illegal, regardless of the president’s views on slavery itself.
So it went: Lincoln’s promise not to interfere with slavery in the states, the Crittenden resolution, the first confiscation act, the orders to Frémont and Hunter — one by one, each of these famous incidents failed to demonstrate that the North was “reluctant” to attack slavery when the war began. The familiar narrative arc taking the Civil War from Union to emancipation no longer made any sense.
If emancipation did in fact begin long before Jan. 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, what changed on that day? It’s hard to say, because the significance of that document has always been obscured by both myth and cynicism — either it freed all the slaves, or it didn’t free a single one — so much so that 150 years after it was issued we still cannot answer the simplest but most important question: what did the Emancipation Proclamation actually do?
It immediately transformed Union antislavery policy in two crucial ways. First, it lifted the ban on enticement of slaves from farms and plantations in the rebel states. Ever since the Confiscation Act of August 1861, Union soldiers were authorized to emancipate all slaves who “come within your lines” in the seceded states. But the Army was not to “entice” with slaves on peacefully functioning farms and plantations in the Union-occupied areas of the South. The Emancipation Proclamation lifted the ban on enticement. Thereafter, Northern soldiers went onto those farms, announced to the slaves that they had been emancipated and actively encouraged able-bodied men to enlist in the Union Army.
Black enlistment was the second major policy change initiated by the Emancipation Proclamation. It was justified as an “emancipation” policy, because by then everyone understood that for slavery to be abolished the North had to win the war. Eventually, Lincoln and his generals concluded that the 180,000 African-Americans who served in the Union Army were “indispensable” to Northern victory, and therefore indispensable to emancipation.
By late 1863, however, Lincoln and the Republicans realized that military emancipation would not be enough to destroy slavery completely. Contrary to their initial assumptions, slavery proved to be deeply entrenched, and slaveholders deeply committed to protecting it a
gainst all enemies. The Republicans began to worry that the war might end without slavery’s having been abolished. To prevent that from happening, the Constitution itself would have to be amended.
The Emancipation Proclamation was also crucial in a way that went beyond the specific shifts in policy. It helped create the political will that made the 13th Amendment possible. Lincoln seems to have understood that Northern voters, having accepted the Emancipation Proclamation, would have less trouble supporting an abolition amendment. The proclamation created the expectation among Northerners that when the war ended, slavery — the thing that had caused the war — would be ended as well.