The Battle of Antietam is now regarded as the turning point of the American Civil War, as a pose to the traditionally heralded Battle of Gettysburg . It marked the end of Southern expansion into Union territory, and, more importantly, allowed for Lincoln an appropriate moment to issue the Emancipation Proclamation . Although Lincoln had written the piece long before this date, Lincoln chose to wait until a Union victory in order to not exude a sign of Union weakness .
Many have contested the true motivation of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It has been argued that the motive behind the piece of work was purely political rather than humanitarian . While examining a letter that Lincoln wrote to the editor of the New York Times, Horace Greeley, it is easy to believe this:
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 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.
In addition, Lincoln’s Proclamation has a very legalistic tone of language upon first inspection, giving an air of indifference in this very passionate topic. When given in the broader context of Lincoln’s actions prior to this, the true meaning of this letter becomes apparent.
In part, the tone of language is formal because it was, for all intensive purposes, a legal document. To call the Proclamation dull is unfair regarding the context of its introduction. For example, Lincoln said that slaves “are, and henceforward shall be free,” a tone suggesting irreversibility. In fact, Lincoln states that “the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons,” implying that through this executive action, the federal government has the responsibility to protect the freedom of all men in the Union. He later declares “upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” Lincoln elevates the act to several levels, starting with the necessity to uphold the Constitution, the necessity to preserve the Union, to the duty of humanity to enact justice, and finally the expectation of God himself . Within the parameters of a legal document issuing the dismantlement of an established system of slavery during a war, this document is steeped with a sense of justice and duty from the president.
In the global political sphere, it was paramount to dissuade European Powers from recognizing and aiding the Confederacy. Lincoln understood the need to create a link between the Confederacy and slavery overtly; in short, if you support the Confederacy, you are supporting slavery. This directly contradicts the transatlantic movement for general advance of freedom in the eighteenth an nineteenth centuries, namely Great Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia . With Lincoln declaring the abolition of slavery a direct goal of the Civil War, these powers could no longer recognize the Confederacy as independent without directly supporting their aim to continue the establishment of slavery.
Internally, the citizens of the Union overwhelmingly supported the war effort in order to maintain the integrity of the nation. However, the majority of Americans did not support the call for universal abolition, a stance only taken by the radical Republicans or abolitionists. In fact, it had been speculated by John Quincy Adams that the only way to abolish slavery through the federal government was to evoke wartime powers . Lincoln made abolition of slavery into a wartime necessity by allowing the enlistment of black soldiers, as well as the ability to ruin the “engine” of the Confederate army (i.e. menial black slave labor). Through this, he could unite the Union to join the cause for a war of integrity by abolition, finally combining the two causes.
The main issue with looking at the Emancipation Proclamation is the distanciation between us and the event, diminishing emotional intensity and context. At the time, both the North and the South largely opposed the dismantlement of the institution of slavery. Lincoln’s conflicted convictions between his duty and his desires as president largely decided his ability to act upon this issue. His duty was to preserve the Union, first and foremost, but his convictions held him opposed to slavery throughout his life. His ability to combine the national war effort with the abolishment of slavery is discounted today, because of the lack of context we have. Although the Proclamation did satisfy several needs of the war, it is important to remember that the issue was not supported without sufficient reason to do so . Wartime was the ideal place to issue the Emancipation Proclamation because it could be declared a wartime necessity, thus allowing the presidential powers to override the states’ . Without the convoluted political reasoning, emancipation would have been pushed back even further. In the wake of the Civil War, Antietam provided the perfect scenario to finally push Lincoln’s Proclamation.
“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong … And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling … I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Lincoln’s Letter to A. G. Hodges, April 4, 1864.
Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862”. In Miller, Marion Mills. Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln, Abraham. “The Emancipation Proclamation”. National Archives and Records Administration.
1) Lucas E. Morel. “Lincoln’s Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered (review).” Civil War History 57.2 (2011): 188-190.
2) Martha S. Jones. and Kate Masur. and Louis Masur. and James Oakes. and Manisha Sinha. “Historians’ Forum: The Emancipation Proclamation.” Civil War History 59.1 (2013): 7-31.
3) Stanley Harrold. “Dramatic Turning Point or Points? Teaching Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation” OAH Magazine of History (2013): 11-16.