Lincoln, the Great Emancipator?
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Although Lincoln personally believed slavery to be an unfair and immoral institution, he claimed that he “was not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of white and black races,” because he believed that keeping the Union together was more important than his personal beliefs. However, as the Civil War progressed, Lincoln was forced to re-evaluate his position on slavery and was enabled him to put forth what he had always personally wished for in the Emancipation Proclamation.
Before entering presidency, Lincoln had established in his presidential debates with Douglass that he was not advocating the abolishment of slavery, but merely trying to restrict it to the areas that currently practice the institution. He wished to prevent its expansion, but had no intention of touching slavery where it existed. Although in his opinion, Slavery was a much less effective institution for getting work done in comparison to free labor. In a free society, not only was the need for overseers and violence reduced, but also the individual was self-motivated. This meant that free labor would be more productive than slavery for many reasons. Therefore, by preventing the expansion of slavery and promoting free labor, slavery would gradually become extinct. In addition to denouncing slavery to be a wasteful institution, Lincoln also asserted that slavery was fundamentally wrong and contradicting to the intentions of the founding fathers, but it must be emphasized that he never advocated the end of it.
So if Lincoln denounced slavery, why did he explicitly assure it’s continuation? The reasons for denying the end to slavery are deeply rooted in political grounds. Lincoln was more intent on keeping the union together than freeing blacks. Even during the Civil War, his main goal was to save the union, with or without freeing any slaves. (Although he added later that he personally felt “all men should be free”) Therefore, it was important for him to appeal to both the Northern and Southern States. Even during the Civil War, Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation mostly due to political motives. He had to appease both the abolitionists who were growing more and more in favor with the populous, but also the Border States who were still a part of the Union.
So even though the Emancipation Proclamation freed the black race, its effects were actually very minimal. It declared all slaves in rebellious states to be free, but not slaves in states still part of the union. As Secretary of State William Henry Seward stated, “we show our sympathy with the slaves by emancipating the slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” But aside from the uselessness of the Emancipation Proclamation, it was a turning point in the Civil War, because it admitted that the War was one of abolition, and would provide the hope for freedom for many slaves.
The Civil War allowed Lincoln the excuse to make the Emancipation Proclamation under the cover of “military necessity”. The shortage of soldiers meant that every volunteer would be useful. The Militia Act of 1862 allowed free blacks to enlist with the army, and over one million blacks would serve in the Union Army before the end of the Civil War. This demonstrates that pretense of military necessity was not unjustified–the overwhelming numbers of the Union Army in comparison to the Confederate Army was a crucial factor in the defeat of the south.
The Emancipation Proclamation was important in bringing former slaves to the Union, encouraging thousands of slaves to run away to freedom. Many would enlist in “the Army of Liberation,” which the Union Army would become known as. The Emancipation Proclamation was not met without discontent. Many Union soldiers complained that they were not fighting to free “some niggers,” but to save the Union. Despite the criticism, Lincoln stood by his Proclamation. The Proclamation came to represent, not only the emancipation of slaves, but also a cause to fight for. The Civil War became to the north, not only a war for union, but a war of moral and human rights.
However, as Lincoln stated before, he was not in favor of bringing about social and political equality of whites and blacks, only equal opportunity. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation freed the black race; it would not bring them equality within society nor within the army. Black soldiers in the army were often sent to the most dangerous fronts, where the death tolls were highest, or forced to do drudge work like cooking. This discrimination would also persist in World War I, where German POW’s were treated better than black American soldiers. In addition, former slaves were not better off in freedom than in slavery. During the Reconstruction, a new form of virtual slavery would be established, under the name of sharecropping, in which white landowners would keep their black tenants under so much debt they were no better than slaves.
Although Lincoln abolishes slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation, he does not bring about the social or political equality of African Americans. Even though he seemed to have strong personal opinions on the matter, he did not let them get in the way of his political motives. He freed the slaves only when it suited his purposes, but in the long run, preserving the union was always Lincoln’s primary goal.