By Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg College

Although the abolition of slavery emerged as one of two dominant objectives of the Union war effort, most Northerners embraced abolition as a practical measure rather than a moral cause.  The war resolved in a legal and constitutional sense the single most important moral question that afflicted the nascent republic, an issue that prevented the country from coalescing around a shared vision of freedom, equality, morality, and nationhood.

"If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.  I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." Abraham Lincoln

Painting of a Union soldier reading the Emancipation Proclamation to a group of slaves
Painting of a Union soldier reading the Emancipation Proclamation to a group of slaves

Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln always insisted that he was an enemy of slavery. "I am naturally anti slavery," Lincoln wrote in 1864. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." But to be `anti-slavery' did not always mean the same thing to every American. Opposition to slavery ran across a spectrum, from abolitionists (who wanted the immediate and unconditional outlawing of slavery) to free-soilers (who opposed the legalization of slavery in the federal territories as a way of preventing the further spread of slavery westwards) to colonizationists (who favored emancipating slaves only if emancipation was followed by deporting the freed slaves) to those who simply opposed slavery in the abstract but who were never prepared actually to do anything about it.

Lincoln was certainly not an abolitionist As early as 1837, while still a member of the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln declared that "the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but...the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils." On the other hand, Lincoln was convinced that the original policy of the Founders, who had inherited slave labor from America's colonial past, was to ease slavery out of America's new republican house. "The theory of our government is Universal Freedom," Lincoln said in 1854, and slavery was nothing if not a contradiction of that freedom. It violated the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed were inalienable to every human being. And so, "the fathers of the Government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end" and "intended that it should be in the course of ultimate extinction."

Lincoln was less sure what should be done with the freed slaves once "ultimate extinction" was achieved. American slavery had begun by fastening its shackles only on black Africans, and theories of race in Lincoln's time ruled that blacks were an inferior race, lacking the intelligence or moral capacity of white Americans. The Declaration of Independence taught Lincoln that all men are created equal; but, he conceded, "it did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity." Blacks and whites alike possessed the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but he did not embrace the notion that blacks were also entitled to equal civil rights - "making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people."
In the 1850s, though, the immediate challenge was the "extinction" of slavery itself. Slavery was protected by state law in the fifteen Southern states of the Union, and no federal law under the Constitution could reach across the wall that separated federal and state governments to lay a finger on slavery. But the western territories were under the direct oversight of the federal government, and there, Congress could ban the introduction of slavery and limit any further spread of the institution. This, argued Lincoln, would be the inevitable doom of slavery, since slavery required constant expansion to survive economically. "Whenever the effort to spread slavery into the new territories, by whatever means...shall be fairly headed off," he predicted, "the institution will then be in course of ultimate extinction."

Abolitionists dismissed this strategy as spineless, and the most impatient of them, John Brown, tried instead to topple slavery by inciting an uprising among slaves in Virginia in 1859. Lincoln warned that this was taking the wrong path to the right goal; and by taking the wrong path, the abolitionists would guarantee that the right goal would never be reached. But a year later, in 1860, it was the turn of Southern slaveholders to attempt their own uprising in favor of slavery by breaking up the Union. That November, Lincoln was elected as the first avowedly anti-slavery president of the United States, and Southerners convinced themselves that he intended, like Brown, to abolish slavery by force. Eleven of the fifteen slave-holding states announced their secession from the Union to form a new slave republic, the Confederate States of America, and civil war between the rebels and the federal government broke out.

Abolitionists begged Lincoln to use the war as a pretext for declaring the South's slaves free. But Lincoln understood that, even as president of the United States, he had no constitutional authority to undo state laws about slavery, and if he tried, his decree would surely end up in the federal courts, where it was clear that any action he took against slavery would be struck down as unconstitutional. And much as public opinion in the North wanted the rebels defeated, there was no corresponding outcry for emancipation. Lincoln had repeatedly to remind his abolitionist critics that "I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery." Instead, his obligation "in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery" - leaving unsaid, of course, that restoring the Union was itself the first step toward the end of slavery.

This did not discourage two of Lincoln's abolition-minded generals, John Charles Fremont and David Hunter, from trying to free slaves by martial law decrees in their military districts. Nor did it discourage Congress from passing two pieces of legislation, the First and Second Confiscation Acts (the first in August, 1861, and the second in July, 1862) which announced the "confiscation" of slaves being used for military purposes or slaves owned by Confederate officers. Above all, it did nothing to restrain the slaves themselves from running away and seeking refuge with the federal armies. But Lincoln cancelled the military emancipation decrees - there was simply no legal precedent for martial-law property seizures - and did little to enforce the Confiscation Acts, because they, too, rested on the same shaky constitutional ground. And the fugitive slaves remained, legally, slaves, even if they had managed to elude their masters. If the war ended with some form of negotiated settlement between the Union and the Confederacy, the Confederates would be sure to demand the return of those fugitives as part of the agreement.

But if Lincoln had no direct strategy for dealing with slavery, he did have an indirect one, and that was to offer the four slave-holding states which had remained loyal to the Union (the so-called "border states" of Delaware, Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky) a federally-financed buy-out, with government bonds paid to state legislatures, and the legislatures using the sale of the bonds to buy up their states' slaves and emancipate them on a gradual timetable. If they accepted the buy-out, it would "produce less confusion, and destitution" than simple abolition. It would also effectively destroy Confederate hopes of adding those key states to the rebel republic, and it would set a pattern, once the war was over, for eliminating slavery throughout the rest of the South. This would be expensive, Lincoln admitted, but not as expensive as civil war. "In the mere financial, or pecuniary view, any member of Congress, with the census tables and Treasury reports before him, can readily see for himself how very soon the current expenditures of this war would purchase, at fair valuation, all the slaves in any named State."

But the buy-out plan he crafted for Delaware in November of 1861 was thrown back in his face by the Delaware legislature. And in March, 1862, the other border states declined to participate as well. That left Lincoln only one alternative, and it was the most risky of all - a proclamation of emancipation, freeing the slaves; and issued, not in his civilian authority as president, but in his military capacity as commander-in-chief, using the presidential war powers. No president had ever before attempted to use these `war powers' in a national conflict; no one, in fact, had ever tested the meaning of the Constitution's words about the president being the commander-in-chief in time of war. But, by the summer of 1862, the war was going badly. The time and the opportunity to act against slavery were slipping away, and Lincoln "had about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential to the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued." On July 22, 1862, he informed a special meeting of the Cabinet that he "had resolved...upon the adoption of the emancipation policy." He read to them the first draft of an emancipation proclamation, mandating that "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."

The only objection came from the Secretary of State, William Seward, who asked Lincoln to wait on issuing the Proclamation until the Union armies had won a victory on the battlefield, so that Lincoln could appear to be dealing from strength, not desperation. This made sense to Lincoln, who laid the document aside. But in September, a Confederate army under Robert E. Lee actually crossed the Potomac river and threatened Washington. Lincoln now had no other recourse: "When Lee came over the river, I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back...I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves."

And then the victory came, at Antietam, in western Maryland, on September 17, 1862. He convened the Cabinet on Monday, September 22, 1862, telling them that so long as the Confederate invasion was under way, "I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself, and to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.... God had decided this question in favor of the slaves." The rebels would have one hundred days to consider and submit; if they did not, on January 1st, the Emancipation Proclamation would become an official edict. The first of January, 1863, came without any sign of rebel repentance, and that afternoon, Lincoln signed the state copy of the Proclamation, slowly and (as he so rarely did) with his full name, and added, "I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper."

Nevertheless, the Proclamation has several puzzling features: it speaks of emancipation as a matter of "military necessity" and only once as "an act of justice." It exempted the slaves of the border states and the occupied military districts of the South, and its language is tepid and legalistic. But the puzzles are more apparent than real. Lincoln, ever the careful lawyer, knew that his presidential `war powers' only ran as far as actual warfare ran, and neither the border states nor the occupied districts were at war with federal authority on January 1, 1863. Making the proclamation legally challenge-proof forced him to restrain "my oft expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free," as well as muting any flights of eloquence about justice. Still, the Proclamation not only provided the legal title to freedom that slaves could claim once the Union armies arrived, it also opened the gates to the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. And once in the uniform of the Union, Lincoln could no longer keep up the pretense of denying blacks equal civil rights. "As I live," Lincoln promised a crowd of jubilant blacks in Richmond in April, 1865, "no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic."

There was always the possibility that, after the war, the courts might still undo emancipation. For that reason Lincoln kept pushing for a more permanent solution in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which, more than just freeing slaves, abolished the entire institution of slavery. But whatever the result, Lincoln was determined to rise or fall by the Proclamation. "I know very well that the name which is connected with this act will never be forgotten," he said. "It is my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war. It is, in fact, the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century."

This essay is taken from The Civil War Remembered, published by the National Park Service and Eastern National. This richly illustrated handbook is available in many national park bookstores or may be purchased online from Eastern at

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