Historical mythology treats it as one of America’s shining moments. Amid a searing civil war, the saintly president freed America’s slaves with the stroke of a pen, and a moving commitment to equality, which went into effect one hundred fifty years ago. In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, slated to go into effect January 1, 1863, is more prose than poetry, more a cautious state paper than a sweeping declaration. Historian Richard Hofstadter scoffed that it had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Indeed, this limited document only freed “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.” There is, however, a deeper lesson here. Much of Abraham Lincoln’s greatness -- and his effectiveness -- stemmed from such caution. The remaining slaves in the Union were freed eventually and -- thanks to Lincoln -- inevitably. But even during America’s great Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remained rooted in America’s centrist political culture, preferring an incremental pragmatism to zealous extremism.
A passionate nationalist, committed to America’s founding documents and defining ideals, Lincoln became a leader seeking balance at a time of turbulence, a man of measure tempering a politics of passion. Lincoln ably balanced his Western populism with an Eastern go-getterish ambition, his homespun frontier sensibility with more polished statesmanlike eloquence, a lawyerly commitment to constitutionalism with a progressive commitment to change, the fight for union with the crusade against slavery, the proslavery border states with the abolitionist New England states, the need to triumph with the hope to heal. Lincoln functioned as the great American gyroscope in a critical time, steadying his reeling nation. Yet rather than worshiping an outdated status quo, Lincoln propelled the nation forward, understanding that the revolutionary changes America needed were best implemented slowly, thoughtfully, deliberately -- or at least as deliberately as possible. His modest statement in 1864 captures it beautifully: "I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
The statement is wonderfully, constructively, disingenuous. If Lincoln had been as humble as he liked to sound, he never would have entered politics. Moreover, he would not have been so effective. A master yachtsman, Lincoln rode the winds roiling his country, sailing forward where he wished to go -- while attributing setbacks or slowdowns to natural forces beyond his control.
Abraham Lincoln’s story further suggests there may have been other, less bloody, ways to end slavery. Lincoln, the American leader who actually freed the slaves and saved the union, often clashed with the abolitionists and the radical Republicans. Both groups denounced him so fiercely he dismissed them as “fiends.” The story of Lincoln’s presidency and of the Emancipation Proclamation reaffirms the importance of presidential center-seeking, while acknowledging the constructive tension that can result from radical outsiders demanding change, especially when fighting a monstrous injustice such as slavery. Still, for this system to work, and for democracy to progress, the leader must channel the intense energies of the fanatics, transforming their high voltage vision into lower wattage practical policies suitable for domestic consumption.
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The Civil War proved much harder to win than Lincoln expected. In spring 1862, General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac failed to reach the Confederate capital of Richmond via the Virginia Peninsula. The defeat demoralized the Union.
Ironically, the Peninsula campaign setback liberated the president. The Confederate Army was using slaves on the battlefield to cook food, dig trenches, build fortifications, staff hospitals. This freed more Confederate soldiers to fight. Many slaves were running farms, helping the rebel homefront too. By defining the issue of freeing slaves as a “military necessity,” Lincoln could emancipate slaves in the rebellious territories by using presidential war powers. On July 13, 1862, Lincoln told Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that emancipation was "absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” On July 17, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, freeing the slaves of those rebelling against the government. This Act, which violated the Republican platform’s promise that Congress would not end slavery, further emboldened Lincoln. As a politician, he read the shifting political winds. As a lawyerly chief executive, he said the president should free the slaves as a war measure rather than having the Congress act precipitously, and, he feared, dishonorably.
Lincoln’s Cabinet members disagreed so strongly about when and how to emancipate the slaves that friendships had ruptured. Here, Lincoln demonstrated how he mastered his headstrong advisers. The president knew what he wanted to do. He had learned to lead not consult endlessly. Further debate would only intensify the rancor and add to the confusion.
On July 22, 1862, Lincoln read the draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to the Cabinet. He was informing his advisers, not soliciting their opinions. Lincoln wanted to read the announcement a few months before the New Year, to give Confederates until January 1 to end the rebellion, or watch the slaves go free. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair of Missouri warned Lincoln the Border States might bolt. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton rejoiced, however, hoping to mobilize three and half million freed slaves for the Northern effort -- or at least neutralize their contributions to the South.
Secretary of State William Seward feared such a declaration following a defeat. Lincoln might look desperate. Wait “until the eagle of victory takes his flight” Seward advised, then “hang your proclamation about his neck.” Lincoln would tweak his plan not reformulate it. Followed Seward’s advice, he waited until the Union repulsed the Confederation invasion at Antietam on September 17. The 23,000 casualties made for the bloodiest one-day battle in American history -- but a major Northern victory.
Seward’s strategy worked. President Lincoln’s patience was rewarded. The proclamation, published September 23, was well-timed. The conversation within the North had progressed, the pressure had grown enough, so that Lincoln did not appear to be an extremist. Lincoln knew that the abolitionist governors in Massachusetts and elsewhere had grown restive, hesitating to send more troops. With the war now being fought for liberty and union, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces stopped in Maryland, Northern idealism and confidence surged.
Lincoln’s plodding path to Emancipation had nurtured Northern public opinion. The Chicago Tribune gushed, “From this proclamation begins the history of the Republic, as our Fathers designed to have it.” From England, the philosopher John Stuart Mill contrasted Lincoln’s initial reluctance with the growing public consensus that emancipation was necessary “for the effectual prosecution of the War.”
Even this partial Proclamation infuriated many Democrats, especially those in the still-slaveholding Border States. Democratic legal experts condemned the president’s “radical departure” from American respect for property and over seventy-five of pro-slavery jurisprudence. The Democratic Chicago Times charged that the Proclamation made the war “a contest of subjugation” -- exactly what “abolitionism has designed from the outset.” The opposition justified Lincoln’s rhetorical and constitutional caution. The Union was not strong enough, and Washington, D.C. remained too vulnerable, to risk losing any more states. Only the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 would abolish slavery throughout the United States.
In a nation torn between the politically untenable poles of perpetuating an evil institution and abolishing it immediately, Lincoln had done the seemingly impossible -- he had forged a middle path. Step by excruciating step, earning credibility along the way, even while frustrating some, Lincoln led the skeptical North from fighting a war just for union to fighting a war to end slavery too. The president demonstrated his pragmatism here, focusing on the fixable day-to-day realities rather than sweeping and daunting abstractions. Lincoln understood that radical surgery would have shocked the body politic and would not have held. “If he does not drive as fast as I would,” the abolitionist Owen Lovejoy observed in 1862, “he is on the right road, and it is only a question of time.” By improvising a path to emancipation, Lincoln assured slavery’s absolute abolition, even among the loyal Border States, once the Thirteenth Amendment finally passed.
At a time of deep national trauma, Americans needed a strong chief executive, grounded in righteousness but not self-righteous, a muscular moderate, able to lead but able to listen. As he grew confident in office, Lincoln grew more candid about his tactics. When ideologues clashed in Missouri in 1863, Lincoln refused to take sides in a “pestilent factional quarrel” that had long bewitched him. “I could wish both to agree with me in all things; for then they would agree with each other, and would be too strong for any foe from any quarter,” he said wistfully. Failing that, he added forcefully: “I hold whoever commands in Missouri, or elsewhere, responsible to me, and not to either Radicals or Conservatives. It is my duty to hear all; but at last I must … judge what to do and what to forbear.” “The conservative Republicans think him too much in the hands of the radicals;” one Harper’s columnist wrote admiringly in the summer of 1863, “while the radical Republicans think him too slow, yielding, and half-hearted.” In liberating the slaves, even while limited to the rebel territory, Lincoln had liberated himself as a leader.
Balanced, prudent, moderate, Abraham Lincoln was a great and good man whose genius, like George Washington’s, lay in that ineffable, unquantifiable quality called judgment. Harvard’s great romantic poet, James Russell Lowell, in 1864 praised Lincoln as eminently suitable to lead a democracy, where “a profound common-sense is the best genius for statesmanship.” Lincoln’s good judgment, his common sense, his democratic humility, pragmatism, and humanity, not only saved the Union in the nineteenth century, it offers a model of liberal nationalistic leadership we would do well to follow today.