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Lincoln And Emancipation

He comes to us in the mists of legend as a kind of homespun Socrates,
brimming with prarie wit and folk wisdom. There is a counterlegend of Lincoln,
one shared ironically enough by many white Southerners and certain black
Americans of our time. Neither of these views, of course, reveals much about the
man who really lived–legend and political interpretations seldom do. As a man,
Lincoln was complex, many-sided, and richly human. He was an intense, brooding
person, he was plagued with chronic depression most of his life. At the time he
even doubted his ability to please or even care about his wife. Lincoln remained
a moody, melancholy man, given to long introspection about things like death and
mortality. Preoccupied with death, he was also afraid to insanity. Lincoln was a
teetotaler because liquor left him “flabby and undone”, blurring his mind
and threatening his self-control. One side of Lincoln was always Supremely
logical and analytical, he was intrigued by the clarity of mathematics. As a
self-made man, Lincoln felt embarrassed about his log-cabin origins and never
liked to talk about them. By the 1850s, Lincoln was one of the most sought after
attorney in Illinois, with a reputation as a lawyer’s lawyer. Though a man of
status and influence, Lincoln was as honest in real life as in legend.

Politically, Lincoln was always a nationalist in outlook , an outlook that began
when he was an Indiana farm boy tilling his farther mundane wheat field. Lincoln
always maintained that he had always hated human bondage, as much as any
abolitionist. He realized how wrong it was that slavery should exist at all in a
self-proclaimed free Republic. He opposed slavery, too, because he had witnessed
some of it’s evils firsthand. What could be done? So went Lincoln’s argument
before 1854. To solve the ensuing problem of racial adjustment, Lincoln insisted
that the federal government should colonize all blacks in Africa, an idea he got
from his political idol, Whig national leader Henry Clay. Then came 1854 and the
momentous Kansas-Nebraska Act , brainchild of Lincoln’s archrival Stephen A.

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Douglas. At once a storm of free-soil protest broke across the North, and scores
of political leaders branded the Kansas-Nebraska Act as part of a sinister
Southern plot to extend slavery and augment Southern political power in
Washington. The train of ominous events from Kansas-Nebraska to Dred Scott shook
Lincoln to his foundations. Lincoln waded into the middle of the antiextension
fight. By 1858, Lincoln, like a lot of other Republicans, began to see a grim
proslavery conspiracy at work in the United States. The next step in the
conspiracy would be to nationalize slavery: the Taney Court, Lincoln feared,
would hand down another decision, one declaring that states could not prohibit
slavery. For Lincoln and his Republican colleagues, it was imperative that the
conspiracy be blocked in its initial stage – the expansion of slavery into the
West. Douglas fighting for his political life in free-soil Illinois, lashed back
at Lincoln with unadulterated racebaiting. Forced to take a stand against
Douglas ruin him with his allegations, Lincoln conceded that he was not for
Negro political or social equality. Exasperated with Douglas and white
Negrophobia in general, Lincoln begged American whites “to discard all this
quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the
other race as being inferior. Lincoln lost the 1857 Senate contest to Douglas.

Yet for the benefit of the Southerners, he repeated that he and his party would
nor hurt slavery in the South. But Southerns refused to believe anything Lincoln
said. At the outset of the war, Lincoln strove to be consistent with all that he
and his party had said about slavery: his purpose in the struggle was strictly
to save the Union. There were other reasons for Lincoln’s hands-off policy
about slavery. He was also waging a bipartisan war effort, with Northern
Democrats and Republicans alike enlisting in his armies to save the Union. But
the pressures and problems of civil war caused Lincoln to change his mind and
abandon his hands policy about slavery and hurl an executive fist at slavery in
the rebel states. Sumner, Lincoln’s personal friend was especially persistent
in advocating the freeing of the slaves. Sumner, as a major Lincoln adviser on
foreign affairs, also linked emancipation to foreign policy. Black and White
abolitionists belabored that point too. The pressure on Lincoln to strike at
slavery was unrelenting. On that score slaves themselves were contributing to
the pressures on Lincoln to emancipate them. Lincoln however stubbornly rejected
a presidential move against slavery. Nevertheless he was sympathetic to the
entire rage of arguments Sumner and his associates rehearsed for him. In March
1862, he proposed a plan to Congress he thought might work: a gradual,
compensated emancipation program to commence in the loyal border states. At the
same time, the federal government would sponsor a colonization program, which
was to be entirely voluntary. If his gradual state-guided plan were adopted,
Lincoln contended that a presidential decree—federally enforced
emancipation—would never be necessary. The plan failed. Most of the border men
turned him down. He had given this a lot of grave and painful thought, he said,
and had concluded that a presidential declaration of emancipation was the
alternative, that is was ?a military necessity absolutely essential to the
preservation of the Union.’ On July 22, 1862, Lincoln summoned his cabinet
members and read them a draft of a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Contrary to what many historians have said Lincoln’s projected Proclamation
went further than anything Congress had done. But Seward and other cabinet
secretaries dissuaded him from issuing his Proclamation in July. Lincoln finally
agreed to wait, but he was not happy about it: the way George B. McClellan and
his other generals had been fighting in the Eastern theater, Lincoln had no idea
that he would have a victory. One of the great ironies of the war was that
McClellan presented Lincoln with the triumph he needed. As in turned out, the
preliminary Proclamation ignited racial discontent in much of the lower North,
escpecially the Midwest. Republican analysists, Lincoln included, conceded that
the preliminary Proclamation was a major factor in the Republican losses. In the
final Proclamation Lincoln temporarily exempted occupied Tennessee and certain
occupied places in Louisiana and Virginia. Out the Proclamation went to an
anxious and dissident nation. Lincoln’s Proclamation was the most
revolutionary measure ever to come from an American president up to that time.

Moreover, word of the Proclamation hummed across the slave grapevine in the
Confederacy; and as Union armies grew near, more slaves than ever ran away. The
Proclamation also opened the army to the black volunteers, and the Northern free
Negros and Southern ex-slaves now enlisted as Union soldiers. Unhappily, the
blacks fought in segregated units and until late in the war received less pay
than whites. After the Proclamation Lincoln had to confront the problem of race
adjustment, of what to do with all the blacks liberated in the South. As a
consequence, Lincoln had just about concluded that whites and liberated blacks
must somehow learn to live together in this country. Even so, emancipation
remained the most explosive and unpopular act of Lincoln’ s presidency. When
he won the election of 1864, Lincoln interpreted it as a popular mandate for him
and his emancipation policy. As it happened , the Senate in May 1864 had already
passed an emancipation amendment – the present 13th amendment – but the House
failed to approve it. Lincoln pronounced the amendment ” a great moral
victory” and “a King’s cure” for the evils of slavery. Lincoln concede
that he had not controlled the events of the war, but that the events of the war
controlled him instead, that God controlled him. In the past paragraph of his
address, Lincoln said he would bind the nation’s wounds “with malice toward
none” and “charity for all”. Moreover, in a cabinet meeting on Good
Friday, 1865, Lincoln and all his Secretaries endorsed the military approach to
the reconstruction and conceded that an army of occupation would be necessary to
control the rebellious white majority in the conquered South. He had come a long
distance from the young Lincoln who entered politics, quiet on slavery lest he
be branded an abolitionist, opposed to Negro political rights lest his political
career be jeopardized, convinced that only the future could remove slavery in
America. But perhaps it was Lincoln himself who summed up his journey to the
emancipation – his own as well as that of the slaves. “Fellow-citizens, we
cannot escape history…The fiery trail through which we pass, will light us
down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”


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