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Lincolns Journey To Emancipation

Lincoln’s Journey to EmancipationHe 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.

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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. 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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