© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Op-Ed: Emancipation Proclamation A 'Huge' Risk


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

This past weekend marked 150 years since Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He'd actually written it months earlier but kept it in a drawer while he waited for a victory on the battlefield. It would look like an act of desperation if it came out after a loss, and losses came one after the other in the summer of 1862. Finally, when Robert E. Lee retreated across the Potomac after the Battle of Antietam, the president warned the confederate states that if they did not surrender, their slaves shall be then, thenceforward and forever free. The Emancipation Proclamation took effect on New Year's Day, 1863.

In a piece for The New York Times' Disunion blog, history professor Richard Striner notes that the proclamation came less than two months before critical midterm elections, which Lincoln's Republicans stood a good chance of losing. The truth is that Lincoln's proclamation was an exercise in risk, Professor Striner wrote, a huge gamble by a leader who sought to be and who became America's great liberator.

If you have questions about the politics of the Emancipation Proclamation, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Richard Striner teaches history at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland and joins us from a studio there. Nice to have you with us.

RICHARD STRINER: Very nice to be here.

CONAN: And we often hear the Civil War was fought, in Lincoln's mind, to preserve the Union. This was the moment when that changed.

STRINER: Not exactly. Lincoln was, first and foremost, an anti-slavery leader. He said several times in the 1850s that if the divided House united the wrong way with slavery triumphing, he would rather leave the country than to preserve a Union like that. The only reason the Union split, the only reason secession started is because Lincoln and his party won the election of 1860. One secession convention after another said so. The Republican Party meant to stop the admission of any more slave states.

And if they were to prevail, that would mean the existing bloc of slave states would be a permanent minority. And when the majority of free states got big enough to ratify a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, slavery would end. And the secessionists did not intend to wait and let that happen. So there would have been no break in the Union in the first place if it hadn't been for the Republican anti-slavery admission.

CONAN: Yet what about the famous letter that he wrote to the Herald Tribune and Horace Greeley: 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 it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

STRINER: Technically true within constitutional law but politically very deceptive and clever and misleading because the Union, as I say, would never have broken in the first place if it hadn't been for the Republican anti-slavery platform. Lincoln secretly shot down a compromise to save the Union in December 1860, a compromise that would have let slavery expand some more. Lincoln said absolutely not. There were lots of other things that the president could do to save the Union, and a lot of Democrats wanted to open peace talks with the Confederacy. And Lincoln refused to do that.

So it was a clever ploy, this letter he sent to Horace Greeley. What he was trying to do was to put his anti-slavery proclamation on a high, patriotic ground to convince undecided voters in the North where white supremacy was quite strong, that if he did free some slaves, it was only for the highest patriotic reasons. He was trying to protect himself from a white supremacist backlash in November of 1862.

CONAN: So a pre-spin, then.

STRINER: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: And the stakes in that election in 1862 were very high.

STRINER: Oh, enormous, enormous. Lincoln was not at all certain that he and the other leaders of the anti-slavery movement would prevail. During the Civil War, the Confederacy came close to winning several times. There was a strong possibility that Lincoln might be thrown out of office in 1864, the next presidential election, if he had not achieved victory by then. And when 1864 rolled around, it looked until almost the last minute like that was going to happen. It was very, very dangerous, very hard to predict. But Lincoln decided he had to keep pressing forward.

CONAN: Until the fall of Atlanta, then that sort of changed things. But...

STRINER: Eventually, in September 1864. That's correct.

CONAN: But getting back to 1862, why would he take that political risk, then, just less than two months before Election Day?

STRINER: There are many reasons. Some of them we know, some of them have to remain conjectural. Lincoln himself had hoped to be able to get rid of slavery through a gradual, compensated, voluntary, peaceful process. In March 1862, he got the Republican-controlled Congress to put through unprecedented legislation, offering payment to the owners of slaves if they would voluntarily to free their slaves.

And between March and July, Lincoln invited delegations from the border slave states - that is, the slave states that had not fallen under the control of secessionists. He begged. He pleaded. Nobody would do anything about it. The leaders of the loyal slave states would not lift one finger to make it happen. And I and others have conclude that in mid-summer 1862, Lincoln decided that this whole strategy that he'd been pursuing was not gong to work, at least in the short term.

The gist of it is you can't even pay them to do the right thing. You can't even buy them out. And so Lincoln decided he had to execute what we might call a midcourse correction in his long-term, anti-slavery strategy. Instead of phasing slavery out peacefully in the border slave states, he decided to turn to the rebellious slave states and start the process there. And instead of offering compensation, there would be no compensation. And he would use the pretext to saving the Union as the constitutional justification for it.

CONAN: And it did transform the nature of the conflict.

STRINER: Oh, absolutely. It absolutely transformed the nature of the conflict. You can see it, for example, in the reactions of Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, former slave who was a keen critic of Lincoln's. Right through September 18, 22nd - and even on September 22nd, the day the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was read to Lincoln's Cabinet and then issued, Frederick Douglass took the position that, really, Lincoln was lukewarm. He was too slow. He didn't really get it.

But then on January 1st, 1863, when that proclamation was issued definitively, Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, recorded that he was suddenly stunned by the magnitude of this. Lincoln was absolutely going ahead, and when and if Union armies prevail, they would start to free slaves. And all at once, Frederick Douglass said, in his memoirs, I could really begin to understand the way this man operated.

CONAN: And how did it work as a political tactic? Lincoln's party suffered at the polls in November.

STRINER: Lincoln's party did suffer in the polls. The worst didn't happen. The Democrats did not take control of Congress. There were very significant Democratic gains, though, in the House of Representatives, and the Democrats took several Northern governorships in 1862 and got control of several Northern state legislatures. There was no way to tell. I mean, there were public opinion polls.

Lincoln knew perfectly well that white supremacy was very strong in the free states. How strong? Well, that was the question. It was a tremendous gamble, and some Republicans thought he'd gone too far and made a mistake. His postmaster, General Montgomery Blair, said it's a mistake. We're going to be very sorry. It's going to set us back.

CONAN: Two years later, ironically, they would think he wasn't going far enough and nominate somebody else. But that's another story.

STRINER: Well, many Republicans throughout the war, right down to the end, thought that Lincoln wasn't doing enough. The problem was that it was a very high-risk situation, and Lincoln was constantly weighing the best-case and worst-case contingencies. The question at that time - and really the question in hindsight - is if Lincoln didn't handle it the right way, what were the risks, you know, trying an approach that was based on more radical tactics, different timing? What if history is a very compelling proposition? And...

CONAN: Yeah.

STRINER: ...Lincoln was taking a huge risk.

CONAN: But by putting the war on a moral basis and taking that high ground, as you say, he accomplished a number of things, one of which, it made it extremely unlikely that Great Britain would join the war on the Confederate side and get access to the cotton its textile mills needed. But it also meant...

STRINER: That's true.

CONAN: ...that it also meant that it would be total war. It would not be a negotiated compromise.

STRINER: That's basically correct. And your point about Great Britain is quite interesting, because though the Emancipation Proclamation was very risky at home, it was very smart politics abroad, and especially in Great Britain, because there was a lot of pro-Confederate sentiment in parliament. And the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, tended to tilt in the Confederate direction.

On the other hand, Britain had abolished slavery in its empire in the 1830s. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were ardent abolitionists. And by making the war far more clearly an anti-slavery war, Lincoln was strengthening the position of the Union in Great Britain. That's very true.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We're talking with Richard Striner, history professor at Washington College, the author of several books on Abraham Lincoln, the most recent of which is "Lincoln on Race." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Jason's on the line with us from Howard City in Michigan.

JASON: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

JASON: Abraham Lincoln is my absolute least president - or least-favorite president. And I think he really did an awful thing with the Emancipation Proclamation. All of a sudden, you have a huge group of people who are uneducated, have - cannot, you know, can't read - and this is going to sound very racist, but it is true - were basically bred for size and, you know, low intelligence for years and years and years. And what it did is created all the problems we have now: the poverty in the inner cities, the, you know, the lack of education.

CONAN: Jason, it not only sounds racist, it is. I am astonished that anybody would make such a claim in 2012.

JASON: I understand that. But I - that's what I said, it would sound very racist. But what I'm saying is it should have been a gradual process, not immediate. It was just a war tactic basically, nothing else.

CONAN: Again, that's...

JASON: That's what I believe. I know it sounds horribly racist, and I'm not a racist person, but, I mean...

CONAN: I think some listeners might question you on that point. I apologize for saying that, Jason. But I think that's right. The - well, let me ask Richard Striner. I mean, the idea that you would perpetuate...

JASON: Hello.

CONAN: ...such a travesty as this, as slavery, is just appalling.

STRINER: Well, our caller said that it should've been a gradual process. Lincoln tried to make it a gradual process, and the leaders of the slave states simply refused to listen. Eventually, they couldn't even be paid to try a gradual program as an experiment. They simply refused. And under those circumstances, given the military power of the Confederate states, the question is: How could slavery be ended at all, under any circumstances? Unless, when faced with this situation, Lincoln decided to use more force.

You can beg. You can plead. You can reason with people. But if they absolutely refuse, then you're left with a decision what to do. Lincoln made his decision, and I think he made the right decision.

CONAN: That - interesting, the question of reparations - not to the slaves, but to slave owners - was later used, not in the Confederate states, which were offered that deal, but in the border states you mentioned.

STRINER: Well, Great Britain had abolished slavery in the 1830s through a gradual process of compensated emancipation. It had worked. The process didn't take that long, about seven years, I believe. It was quite successful and quite bloodless. Of course, the magnitude of the problem, the magnitude of slavery in the United States, was much greater. Lincoln was prepared to have it take decades.

He was prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort that would've been largely deficit-financed, by the way, through federal bonds. And the leaders of the slave states wouldn't listen. Lincoln was prepared to do whatever non-violent things he could.

In fact, this is a bit of a digression, but in 1865, after Congress finally passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, it had to be ratified. And in February 1865, Lincoln actually flirted with the idea of paying all the slave states to ratify to the tune of $400 million - also deficit-financed. The Cabinet didn't like it, so he retracted that idea. Lincoln was absolutely willing to try every gradual, peaceful, reasonable thing. But when the leaders of the other side refused and all of these thousands of men were dying on the battlefield, Lincoln decided - well, I think he got quite justifiably angry. And he decided, all right, you're not going to get paid anything.

CONAN: Let's go...

STRINER: You're not going to be given more time.

CONAN: Let's go hear from Beth, and Beth is on line with us from Charleston.

BETH: Yes. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

BETH: As distasteful as I find the previous caller's comments, I - my question is along a little bit of the same lines. I was just curious if Lincoln was aware, or had he even pondered the possibility of the slaves that were emancipated, having no skills, to be able to take of themselves, and if after the fact that he was aware of their difficulties and if he ever commented on having regretted doing it.

CONAN: Richard Striner?

STRINER: He never regretted doing it. In fact, he said many times, if I go down in history for any one thing, I want it to be for this. As to the transition from slavery to freedom, as to teaching skills, during the Civil War, a number of experiments were undertaken with Lincoln's knowledge and approval to begin trying out different methods of educating the freed men sometimes on the plantations of their former masters, particularly in Mississippi, after the surrender of Vicksburg in July 4th, 1863.

In 1865, the Radical Republicans led the Republican Congress in creating the Freedmen's Bureau - a very important early social welfare agency - on a one-year experimental basis to offer educational, legal, medical assistance to former slaves. Congress passed it. Lincoln signed it. If Lincoln had lived, there are many signs that in fall of 1865, he would've worked with a new Republican Congress to take measure far more vigorous than that.

BETH: Neal, if I may just comment one more time, I was wondering: I'm not very up on my own history down here and I regret that, but I wondered if your guest could comment on once the Emancipation Proclamation was made known publicly to everyone, if the migration of the former slaves was pretty in mass, or if maybe some of them...

CONAN: I get your point, Beth, and we're running out of time, so I'll give Richard Striner a chance to answer.

BETH: Thank you very much. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead.

STRINER: The results were very uneven in different parts of the former slave states. Some slaves went to Southern cities right away. Some stayed on the plantation. Some left the South entirely. Some wandered around in confusion. Some crossed Union lines and began to work with agents of the Freedmen's Bureau. The results were very uneven. The situation was turbulent, especially before the end of the war, and in 1865, too.

CONAN: Richard Striner, thanks very much for your time today.

STRINER: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Richard Striner, a professor of history at Washington College, author of the book "Lincoln and Race." You can find a link to his piece for The New York Times' Disunion blog on our website at npr.org. He joined us from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about the experience of growing up in the shadow of a brother or sister with a cognitive disability. Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.