Over the next few days I’m going to finally finish this up. For those who haven’t been reading this blog (and I’m pleased and surprised to note that over 600 folks apparently have been), I’ve done three prior posts on the subject of what I consider historical myths of the Civil War era, intending to conclude with some observations about the generally unknown negative consequences of this era on our national character. The title of the series is taken from an R.E.M album, which I highly recommend, by the way.
Should anyone want to catch up, here are links to parts 1-3:
The point of this series is not to rehash the generations-old debate over the justness and righteousness of the respective sides in the Civil War. Rather, I hope to show that the consequences of the War were not so much victories of Union over disunion, and freedom over slavery, but rather, industrialism over agrarianism, and commercialism and exploitative capitalism over traditional American Jeffersonian virtue. A tall order, to be sure. And I continue to ask y’all to please bear with me till the end. I don’t want to make anybody mad, I just want to suggest some other ways of looking at things, and to challenge folks to consider critically some of the oversimplifed and often false ways the history of this era is treated. So here we go….
Myth: With the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln freed the slaves
The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American history. It is also almost certainly the most widely misunderstood.
The Proclamation is a succint document, and nowhere near as radical as conventional history would have us believe. On September 22, 1862, a few days after the Battle of Sharpsburg, President Lincoln issued what has become know as the preliminary emancipation proclamation. It is a brief document, easily read if you choose: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals_iv/sections/transcript_preliminary_emancipation.html
Essentially the proclamation declared that the all slaves within areas in rebellion against the United States as of January 1, 1863 would be thereafter free. Those areas affected were to be identified in a subsequent proclamation. Should the rebellious states surrender, or be conquered, in the one hundred days that followed the preliminary proclamation, then no slaves would be freed. And all slaves held within nonseceeding states, or in those portions of seceeding states that had been occupied by the federal army, would remain enslaved.
In truth there wasn’t anything particularly radical about this. Congress had already passed a law in July, 1862 freeing the slaves of rebellious citizens as a punishment for their rebellion. This so-called Confiscation Act had already been signed into law by Mr. Lincoln, and it was specifically referenced in the preliminary proclamation as the foundation for it. At best, the preliminary proclamation merely evidenced the President’s intention to use his status as commander in chief to implement the war measure–while offering the slaveholders an opportunity to keep their slaves, by laying down their arms.
The preliminary proclamation also made very clear Mr. Lincoln’s own intentions and desires on the subject: that non-seceeding states be urged to voluntarily adopt compensated emancipation and that Congress proceed with his “colonization” plan:
That it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of Congress to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure tendering pecuniary aid to the free acceptance or rejection of all slave States, so called, the people whereof may not then be in rebellion against the United States and which States may then have voluntarily adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, immediate or gradual abolishment of slavery within their respective limits; and that the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the Governments existing there, will be continued.
On January 1, 1863, as promised, the second and final Emancipation Proclamation was issued. It identified those areas “in rebellion” as of that date, and declared all slaves within those areas to be free. To get the benefit of this “freedom” a slave had to be at that moment beyond the reach of the authority supposedly delivering the freedom. For those slaves who were safely inside Union lines, they remained slaves.
The only slaves “freed” by the Emanipation Proclamation were those in: “Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.” The full text of the Proclamation, for those interested, is here: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html
Excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation were 450,000 slaves in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, 275,000 in Union-occupied Tennessee, and tens of thousands in Louisiana and Virginia. As for these slaves, whose freedom could easily have been granted and delivered, they remained slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a punitive war measure. The preliminary proclamation was a threat, intended to induce the Southern states to give up their fight. It freed no one, and left open the possibility that no one would ever be freed. The second follow-up proclamation was careful to only pronounce freedom for those slaves over whom the federal government had no control. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, in the United States of America slavery remained legal and protected by law. The President of the U.S.A had only purported to terminate slavery within certain areas of the C.S.A, and formidable armies stood between Washington DC and the slaves supposedly freed. That simple fact alone reveals this famous emancipation for what it really was.
Next up, the slave power conspiracy…
Grace and Peace