The Emancipation Proclamation Didn’t Free Any Slaves

The recommended book of the month this August is Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln. In this book, DiLorenzo swiftly attacks the politically correct notion of Lincoln as a slave-freeing, Union-saving leader. In truth, DiLorenzo argues, Lincoln did more to move us further from the Constitution than any president before (and perhaps since). The Lincoln era marks the definitive point when the national government finally realized Alexander Hamilton’s dream of overpowering the states. (I write about Lincoln’s unconstitutional dictatorship here.)

DiLorenzo has his work cut out for him. So much of what Lincoln did is now sacrosanct in American lore. It is assumed that Lincoln was right to force the South, at gunpoint as it were, to remain in the Union. It is assumed that Lincoln stood for liberty and freedom. It is also assumed that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation demonstrated his passion to free the slaves. The truth, however, is a different story.

If you read the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, you’ll notice that it only “frees” slaves in certain territories:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

These territories, incidentally, were the ones which belonged to the Confederate States. As far as the South was concerned, Lincoln had no authority to make any law or proclamation about those territories. And as far as Lincoln was concerned, slaves in those territories weren’t his immediate responsibility. For Lincoln, the Proclamation was merely political and strategic. Political in that it feigned Union support for ending slavery as a main reason for the war. Strategic in that it attempted to incite slave rebellions in Confederate controlled lands. Sarah Pruitt notes:

In practice, then, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t immediately free a single slave, as the only places it applied were places where the federal government had no control—the Southern states currently fighting against the Union.

If Lincoln desired to free slaves with the Proclamation, he could have made the decree effective in territories the Union actually controlled. Instead, he issued a decree that was powerless. As far as efficacy, it would be like the Allied powers announcing all Jews in concentration camps in German controlled territories were free. Nice thought, but it doesn’t actually free anyone. Lincoln probably knew that freeing the slaves with an executive order was actually unconstitutional. Therefore, he didn’t want to try it in those states still loyal to the Union, fearing they would disapprove of such an action.

Furthermore, Lincoln’s track record shows that he was not really wholeheartedly committed to freeing the slaves. Prior to the war, Lincoln could have worked to end slavery via various means. While he gave lip service to the idea of sending slaves back to Africa (a problematic idea in itself), he did little to work towards ending slavery. Clearly, Lincoln was no abolitionist. On one occasion, he said:

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality. I . . . am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”

To be fair, on other occasions Lincoln made statements that seemed closer to abolitionist ideas. However, it seems he was the consummate politician, able to change his position on a dime. The Emancipation Proclamation may very well have been co-opted by abolitionists and others to work towards full emancipation. However, it seems clear that Lincoln’s immediate intention was political and military. He was pulling out all the stops in a last ditch effort to win a war that was dragging on far longer than he had intended. In fact, many Union soldiers were actually angered by the Proclamation, as the war had not been presented to them as a war to end slavery. They, just like Lincoln, were not that concerned about the fate of slaves.

All of this isn’t to demonize Lincoln. In many ways, Lincoln was a product of his time and his political party. As Eric Black notes, in the late 1850’s “abolitionism was still a radical movement and the idea of full equality for blacks was a fringe idea.” DiLorenzo estimates that less than 3% of Northerners were actually abolitionists. The rest may have opposed slavery on economic, but not moral, grounds. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and not simply assume that what has been presented in the history books is the truth.

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