History’s Emancipator: Did Abraham Lincoln Have “a Drop of Anti-Slavery Blood in His Veins”?

How reluctantly did Lincoln come to the idea of emancipation?How reluctantly did Lincoln come to the idea of emancipation? (Photo: Mathew Brady / LoC)

Abraham Lincoln originally viewed the Civil War as “a white man’s war,” but runaway slaves and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison insisted otherwise. In the following lightly edited excerpt from Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi chronicles how reluctantly President Lincoln came to the idea of emancipation.

On December 24, 1860, South Carolina legislators alluded to the Declaration of Independence when stating their reasons for secession. Abolitionists were “inciting” contented captives to “servile insurrection,” and “elevating to citizenships” Blacks who constitutionally were “incapable of becoming citizens.” South Carolina’s secession from the United States did not just mean the loss of a state, and soon a region, but the loss of the region’s land and wealth. The South had millions of acres of land that were worth more in purely economic terms than the almost 4 million enslaved human beings who were toiling on its plantations in 1860. With their financial investments in the institution of slavery and their dependence on its productivity, northern lenders and manufacturers were crucial sponsors of slavery. And so, they pushed their congressmen onto their compromising knees to restore the Union.

William Lloyd Garrison called all the “Union-saving efforts” of December 1860 and January 1861 “simply idiotic.” Whether smart or idiotic, they failed. The rest of the Deep South seceded in January and February 1861. Florida’s secessionists issued a Declaration of Causes maintaining that Blacks must be enslaved because everywhere “their natural tendency” was toward “idleness, vagrancy and crime.”

Thousands of runaways fled to Union forces in the summer of 1861. But Union soldiers enforced the Fugitive Slave Act.

In February 1861, Jefferson Davis took the presidential oath of the new Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama. In his Inaugural Address in March, Lincoln did not object to the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which would make slavery untouchable and potentially reunite the union. But Lincoln did swear that he would never allow the extension of slavery. On March 21, the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, responded to Lincoln’s pledge in an extemporaneous speech. The Confederate government, he declared, rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” This “great . . . truth,” Stephens said, was the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy. The speech became known as his “Cornerstone Speech.”

Three weeks after Alexander Stephens laid the cornerstone, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. On April 15, 1861, Lincoln raised the Union Army to put down the “insurrection,” which, by the end of May, included Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. No matter what Lincoln did not say about slavery, and no matter what blame the Democrats put on abolitionists, to Black people and to abolitionists the Civil War was over slavery and enslavers were to blame. On the Fourth of July at the annual abolitionist picnic in Framingham, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison repudiated “colorphobia” for holding back northerners from supporting a war of emancipation. “Let us see, in every slave, Jesus himself,” Garrison cried out.

The Weekly Anglo-African forecasted that the millions of enslaved Africans would not be “impassive observers.” Lincoln might deem it “a white man’s war,” but enslaved Africans had “a clear and decided idea of what they want — Liberty.”

The Weekly Anglo-African was right. First dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of runaways fled to Union forces in the summer of 1861. But Union soldiers enforced the Fugitive Slave Act with such an iron fist that, according to one Maryland newspaper, more runaways were returned in three months of the war “than during the whole of Mr. Buchanan’s presidential term.” Northerners listened uneasily to these reports of returning runaways side by side with reports of southern Blacks being thrust into work for the Confederate military.

Lincoln reluctantly signed a bill which said that slaveholders forfeited their ownership of any property, including enslaved Africans, used by the Confederate military.

After the Confederates humiliated Union soldiers in the First Battle of Bull Run in northern Virginia on July 21, 1861, proposals about enslaved Africans’ potential war utility besieged Congress and the Lincoln administration. Initially, Congress passed a resolution emphatically declaring that the war was not “for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights and or established institutions of these states.” But war demands soon changed their calculations. In early August, the Republican-dominated Congress was forced to pass the Confiscation Act over the objections of Democrats and border-state Unionists. Lincoln reluctantly signed the bill, which said that slaveholders forfeited their ownership of any property, including enslaved Africans, used by the Confederate military. The Union could confiscate such people as “contraband.” Legally, they were no longer enslaved; nor were they freed. They could, however, work for the Union Army for wages and live in the abysmal conditions of the contraband camps. One out of every four of the 1.1 million men, women, and children in the contraband camps died in one of the worst public health disasters in US history. Only 138 physicians were assigned to care for them. Some physicians called contrabands “animals” and blamed their mass deaths on inherent Black debilities, not the extreme inadequacies of sanitation, food, and medical care.

Despite the horrendous conditions, the number of Black contrabands increased every month. Slaves were running from the abysmal conditions of the plantations, particularly after Union soldiers moved into the more densely populated Deep South. The New York Times reported at the end of 1861 that enslaved Africans were “earnestly desirous of liberty.” The growing number of runaways proved that Confederate reports of contented captives was mere propaganda. This form of Black resistance — not persuasion — finally started to eradicate the racist idea of the docile Black person in northern minds. President Lincoln did not encourage the runaways in his December 1861 Message to Congress. But he did request funding for colonizing* runaways and compensating Unionist emancipators to ensure that the war did not “degenerate” into a “remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Furious, Garrison shrieked in a letter that Lincoln did not have “a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins.”

William Lloyd Garrison shrieked in a letter that Lincoln did not have “a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins.”

Every week in the spring of 1862, thousands of fugitives were cutting through forests, reaching the southern Union lines, and leaving behind paralyzed plantations and an increasingly divided Confederacy. Some soldiers deserted the Confederate Army. Some of the Confederate deserters joined enslaved Africans to wage revolts against their common enemies: wealthy planters. And some upcountry non-slaveholding Whites had already become disillusioned fighting this slaveholders’ war. Alexander H. Jones of eastern North Carolina helped organize the 10,000-man Heroes of America, which laid an “underground railroad” for White Unionists in Confederate territories to escape. “The fact is,” Jones wrote in a secret antiracist circular, referring to the rich planters, that “these bombastic, highfalutin aristocratic fools have been in the habit of driving negroes and poor helpless white people until they think . . . that they themselves are superior; [and] hate, deride and suspicion the poor.”

Up north, Radical Republicans pushed through a horde of anti-slavery measures that southerners and their northern defenders had opposed for years. By the summer of 1862, slavery was prohibited in the territories, the ongoing transatlantic slave trade had been suppressed, the United States recognized Haiti and Liberia, abolition had arrived in Washington, DC, and the Union Army was forbidden from returning fugitives to the South. The Fugitive Slave Act had been effectively repealed. And then came the kicker: the Second Confiscation Act, passed and sent to Lincoln on July 17. The bill declared all Confederate-owned Africans who escaped to Union lines or who resided in territories occupied by the Union to be “forever free of their servitude.” The Springfield Republican realized the bill’s power, stating that enslaved Africans would become free “as fast as the armies penetrate the South section.” But they were not penetrating the South fast enough, and Union casualties were piling up. Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson appeared to be headed for sparsely defended Washington, DC, scaring Lincoln to death.

Lincoln finally opened up to the idea of proclaiming emancipation because it would save the Union (not because it would save Black people).

The Second Confiscation Act was a turning point, setting Union policy on the road leading to emancipation. The war and the failure to convince border states about the benefits of a gradual, compensated emancipation had sapped Lincoln’s patience and the patience of Congress. Lincoln had finally opened up to the idea of proclaiming emancipation because it would save the Union (not because it would save Black people). Cries of Unionist planters to salvage slavery amid the war increasingly rankled him. “Broken eggs cannot be mended,” he snapped to a Louisiana planter.

On July 22, 1862, five days after signing the Second Confiscation Act, Lincoln submitted to his cabinet a new draft order, effective January 1, 1863. “All persons held as slaves within any state [under rebel control] shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Lincoln’s staff was stunned and became quickly divided over the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The cabinet made no immediate decision, but word got out. Not many Americans took the proclamation seriously.

The nation’s most powerful editor, Horace Greeley, inserted an open letter to the president in his leading New York Tribune on August 20, 1862. Greeley had been as responsible for Lincoln’s election as anyone. He urged Lincoln to enforce the “emancipation provisions” of the Second Confiscation Act.

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” Lincoln replied in Greeley’s rival paper, Washington’s National Intelligencer. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” In the New York Tribune, rising abolitionist Wendell Phillips hammered Lincoln’s remarks as “the most disgraceful document that ever came from the head of a free people.”

With the war looking like a never-ending highway, the midterm elections approaching, and runaways crippling Confederates faster than Union bullets, Lincoln gathered his cabinet on September 22, 1862. After laying his poker face on Americans for months, he finally showed his cards — cards William Lloyd Garrison never believed he had. Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. For slaveholding Union states and any rebel state wishing to return, Lincoln once again offered gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization. For those states remaining in rebellion on January 1, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed that “all persons held as slaves … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

“Thank God!” blared the Pittsburgh Gazette. “We shall cease to be hypocrites and pretenders,” proclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson. William Lloyd Garrison enjoyed the sound of “forever free,” but little else. Lincoln, he fumed in private, could “do nothing for freedom in a direct manner, but only by circumlocution and delay.”

In his Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln laid out a more detailed plan for gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization. Any slave state could remain or return to the Union if it pledged loyalty and a willingness to abolish slavery at any time before January 1, 1900. The US government would compensate such states for freeing their human property, but if they decided to reintroduce or tolerate enslavement, they would have to repay the emancipation compensation. “Timely adoption” of gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization “would bring restoration,” Lincoln pleaded. The Confederate leaders largely rejected Lincoln’s proposals, emboldened by their stunning war victories in mid-December.

Abraham Lincoln retired to his office on the afternoon of January 1, 1863. He read over the Emancipation Proclamation, “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion,” as he termed it, that emancipated “all persons held as slaves” and allowed Black men to join the Union Army. As Lincoln read the final statement, his abolitionist treasury secretary, Salmon B. Chase, suggested that he add some morality. Lincoln acquiesced, adding, “Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

In the next two years, Lincoln made himself available to writers, artists, photographers, and sculptors who memorialized him for the historical record as the Great Emancipator. With his proclamation, Lincoln emancipated about 50,000 Black people in the Union-occupied Confederate areas that January. He kept enslaved the nearly half-million African people in border states, in order to maintain their owners’ loyalty. He also kept enslaved the roughly 300,000 African people in the newly exempted formerly Confederate areas, in order to establish their owners’ loyalty. More than 2 million African people on Confederate plantations remained enslaved because Lincoln had no power to free them. Democrats mocked Lincoln for “purposefully” making “the proclamation inoperative in all places where … the slaves [were] accessible,” and operative “only where he has notoriously no power to execute it,” as the New York World put it.

But enslaved Africans now had the power to emancipate themselves. By the end of 1863, 400,000 Black people had escaped their plantations and found Union lines, running toward the freedom guaranteed by the proclamation.

*The terms “colonization” and “colonizing” in this excerpt refers to the proposal to send former slaves to Africa in order both to rid the United States of its Black population and, supposedly, to bring “civilization” to Africa — one of many racist ideas that Stamped from the Beginning deals with in depth elsewhere.

Copyright (2017), Ibram X. Kendi. Not to be reposted without permission of Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.