Henry A. Rhodes
There are two major objectives I wish to accomplish with my curriculum unit. First, I would like to examine the motivating factors that prompted Lincoln to draft the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. To accomplish this objective, I will focus on several related topics. The first part of my discussion will be devoted to an account of Lincoln’s personality, life, and the environment in which he was raised. This is more easily said than done due to the different pictures of Lincoln historians have drawn. I shall attempt to use only information that can be substantiated by several sources. My greatest concern will be to examine Lincoln’s social and political beliefs, particularly as they pertained to slavery and race in the United States.
The second major objective of my unit will be to show the role played by the Radical Republicans during the Lincoln presidency and the emancipation decision. These Radicals continue to receive very little credit from the American public for the part they played in emancipating the American slave. When students finish this unit they will realize that the Great Emancipator, Lincoln, was not alone in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States. Certain white Americans were in favor of emancipation for military reasons because they believed that the war would be shortened by emancipating the slave in the rebelling states and using them as soldiers. The abolitionists on the other hand were motivated by humanitarian reasons.
LINCOLN IN CONTEXT
Before students begin studying the role Lincoln played in the emancipation of the American slave, they should become acquainted with Lincoln the “man”. Most students are pretty well familiar with the story of how Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky and worked his way into one of the most respected and powerful positions in American society, the presidency. However, students often fail to appreciate the harshness of the environment into which Lincoln was born. Edgar Lee Masters in his book,
Lincoln the Man,
describes Lincoln’s log cabin as a one-room abode where most of the daily functions of the family life on the frontier occurred. For example, it wasn’t uncommon to find animal skins on the walls undergoing the final stages of tanning. From the rafters hung tobacco, bacon, or ham if the family happened to have any. The log cabins were usually cold, dark, dirty and infested with rats and other animals. There was very little privacy. Men and women dressed in front of one another and their children. Children were undoubtedly aware of their parents’ sexual relations because they were carried on within a few feet from where the children slept. Guests and hired hands also slept in this one room.1 This was the home environment in which Lincoln was raised. It leads one to wonder about the type of person that would evolve under such circumstances. I would suggest that teachers using this unit have their students address this point. People tend to look at people (such as Lincoln) who have attained national prominence through rose-colored glasses. But it would be interesting to see if students felt that Lincoln was able to transcend the brutality which Edgar Lee Masters thought inherent
in the pioneer’s lif
e of the mid-West. Masters states that
There was a callousness and dumbness about some of the pioneer people of the Middle West, which persist to this day, and have become the nourishment of a sort of semi-barbarism, sometimes becoming cruel bigotry, at others a sort of savage indifference to the refined interests of life; and of this quality, in some particulars, was Abraham Lincoln.2
According to Stephen B. Oates, Lincoln once declared that he was not and never had been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of allowing them to intermarry with white people. There was, he once said, “a physical difference” between black and white races that would probably prevent them from living together in perfect equality. And Lincoln wanted the white race to have the superior position so long as there had to be a difference.3 It is obvious that Lincoln’s environment bred some of the same prejudices against blacks that were common in the region of the United States into which he had been born and raised. These Lincoln comments should make the basis for a lively class discussion on Lincoln’s racial attitude. Three important points should be made before this discussion. First, during these debates in which these comments were made, Lincoln never once agreed with Stephen Douglas’s position that the Negro should not be a citizen. Second, though Lincoln never disavowed these statements, even while President, his actions (i.e. accepting prominent Negroes at the White House, drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, endorsing the Confiscation Acts) suggest that a change occurred in his attitude toward the American Negro after 1850. Third, students should be made aware that it wasn’t politically feasible for any candidate at this time in American history to be a staunch supporter of Negro equality and have realistic aspirations of obtaining a political office.
In addition to the influence of environment there is also the difficult question of Lincoln’s personality. Our nation at this point in history needed a strong leader. There were many different factions in the United States, with conflicting opinions on how to deal with the issues of the Civil War. Northerners needed and found in Lincoln a president who would not lose sight of the major object of the war, to reunite the union, and who at the same time chose to rid the United States of slavery. There has been an abundance of biographical work done on Lincoln, with varying results. However, all biographers seem to agree that Lincoln was throughout his whole life a very moody person. There were times when Lincoln would revert to story telling. He had a great sense of humor. At other times he would sink into such serious depressions that he would worry his friends. (Refer to ‘Teacher’s Bibliography’ for a book containing pictures depicting Lincoln’s various moods as well as the ravaging impact of the war itself.) You can just imagine the mood the Civil War placed Lincoln in most of the time from constantly hearing about heavy casualties. No historian has been able to satisfactorily account for his drastic change in moods. Edgar Lee Masters describes Lincoln as a cold man. Masters based this on several incidents which occurred in Lincoln’s life, one being Lincoln’s refusal to acknowledge his father’s dying request for a last visit. Sometime later Lincoln explained that his wife was ill and that a business situation made it impossible for him to visit his father. Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, attributes the bad blood between Lincoln and his father to the harsh beatings Lincoln received as a child. Another example that illustrates Lincoln’s emotional distance from others was his habit of referring to everyone by their last name, except for his law partner, William Herndon. He even referred to his wife as Mrs. Lincoln. In spite of this moodiness, once Lincoln made a political decision he stuck to it.
LINCOLN AND SLAVERY
The “peculiar institution”, as slavery was often called, posed one of the greatest political problems of Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln disliked the institution of slavery. He felt that slavery undermined the democratic principles upon which our country was based. As a Congressman from Illinois, Lincoln had introduced legislation that would have compensated slave owners for freeing their slaves. Even though this legislation failed, Lincoln did not abandon this idea of compensation until the latter part of the Civil War.
Lincoln also wondered what to do with the emancipated slave. He toyed with the idea of establishing a colony for freed blacks in Central or South America or even as far away as Africa. Some black leaders, however, argued that the American Negroes had contributed more than their fair share in the building of the United States and deserved to share in the fruits of their labor here rather than elsewhere. Moreover, the Negro of the 1860s was a different person from the slave who was brought to the United States in the 1600s. So many social and cultural changes had occurred that it would have been a traumatic experience for many slaves to have had to adapt to the ancient African ways of life. Given the objections to this plan from American Negroes themselves, Lincoln quickly abandoned the idea.
Lincoln was faced with a dilemma as President. Even though he wanted to rid the United States of slavery, Lincoln felt that the Constitution did not give him or Congress the authority to infringe on an individual state’s right to allow slavery. Only the Civil War could serve as the vehicle by which he could give the “peculiar institution” its fatal blow. A moving argument that Lincoln could have used to justify emancipation and citizenship of the slave would have been to allow blacks to serve in the Civil War as soldiers. (This argument had been used to grant freedom to slaves who had served in the American Revolutionary War.) Lincoln was reluctant to use the slave as soldiers, however, because he feared the border states’ reaction to this policy and the racial conflict that might erupt in the northern communities. Lincoln decided to use the slaves as soldiers only when he became convinced that their use would weaken the South and shorten the war. This was coupled with the fact that there was a shortage of Union soldiers caused by heavy casualties and conscription problems.
It must be noted that, had the southern states not seceded, Lincoln would have been content to allow slavery in the South and merely restrict it from spreading into the new territories. But such was not the case. Two major events of the war give an insight into how Lincoln wanted to handle the slavery issue. The first event involved the reconstruction of Louisiana while the Civil War was still in progress and part of Louisiana was still in the control of the Confederate army. Lincoln was a staunch advocate of states’ rights. He felt that the federal government could not require a state to abolish slavery. In fact, on two separate occasions when Major Generals Fremont and Hunter took it upon themselves to emancipate slaves in Union-occupied territories, Lincoln countermanded their orders, insisting that they did not have the authority to make such decisions.
There were two major aspects of Lincoln’s Louisiana Reconstruction Plan. The first aspect of his plan was to make sure that the southerners in Louisiana who supported the Confederacy would not be allowed to participate in the reconstructed government. Those that were allowed to participate had to take a loyalty oath. Once ten percent of the population had taken this oath, Louisiana would be allowed to draft a state constitution and apply for re-admission. The other aspect which Lincoln wanted incorporated into the newly created Louisiana government was a commitment to end slavery. Unfortunately Louisiana reconstruction ended in failure due to Congress’ (the Radical Republicans) refusal to recognize the Representatives and Senators from Louisiana. Despite the failure of Lincoln’s plan, it showed that Lincoln felt that only states and not the federal government had the authority to rid themselves of slavery.
Of course, the major event in which Lincoln dealt with the slavery issue during the Civil War was the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a common misconception that Lincoln issued this proclamation based entirely on humanitarian reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lincoln knew that if the Emancipation Proclamation was perceived solely as a humanitarian gesture, the border states might secede and there might have been serious racial backlash in the northern industrial cities. The draft riot in New York City in July of 1863 was proof that Lincoln’s worries about white reaction to emancipation were real. (It should be noted that this riot also had an economic motive. The Irish, who were the main participants in this riot, were angered over the fact that they were to be drafted to help free the American slave who would then later compete with them for the industrial jobs in the North. The fact that the affluent could pay three hundred dollars or hire someone to serve in their place just added more fuel to the fire.) Lincoln was able to appease the border states and the northern industrial workers by asserting that the Emancipation Proclamation was part of the war strategy to weaken the South.
When to issue the Proclamation was Lincoln’s next major concern. Lincoln realized that with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation the South’s chances of receiving financial support from England or France for its cause would be greatly reduced if not completely eliminated. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln called a meeting of his cabinet in order to read to them the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Even though there were varying opinions about this document, Lincoln could not be swayed to abandon it; he had made up his mind. Secretary of State William H. Seward’s suggestion that Lincoln postpone issuing the Proclamation until after a major Union victory was the only suggestion that Lincoln found acceptable. Lincoln did not want the Proclamation to appear as a desperate move of a nation on the brink of defeat. General McClellan’s victory at Antietam on September 17, 1862 was to provide Lincoln with the proper occasion on which to make his announcement.
So, on September 22, 1862 the Preliminary Emancipation was issued. That proclamation only freed slaves in the rebelling states and territories, however. This led many abolitionists to believe that this document was worthless because it freed the slaves in territories that the Union did not control and did nothing about slavery in the northern and border states. I disagree with this point of view. Negroes in both the North and South saw the Proclamation as a document announcing their freedom, and they reacted accordingly. The actual areas affected by this document were to be stated on January 1, 1863. Lincoln saw the time between the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the Final Emancipation Proclamation as the South’s last chance to rejoin the Union and to keep its “peculiar institution”.
THE RADICAL REPUBLICANS
There are two critical points that should be made concerning the Emancipation Proclamation. First, the Proclamation was not just the brainchild of Lincoln; he was aided by the abolitionists and the Radical Republicans in arriving at this decision. Secondly, Lincoln in issuing the Proclamation hoped to stop European nations, especially France and England, from recognizing the Confederacy.
Two questions must be addressed before discussing the role the Radical Republicans played in the emancipation of the American black. They are, ‘What do we mean by Radical Republicans?’ and ‘What was the difference between the Radical Republicans and the abolitionists?’. Hans L. Trefousse (author of
The Radical Republicans; Lincoln’s Vanguard for Racial Justice)
describes the Radicals as “men who were dedicated to the restriction and eventual abolition of the peculiar institution by legal means”.4 Trefousse suggests that the major difference between abolitionists and the Radical Republicans centers around the means by which emancipation was to be achieved. The Republicans were interested in using legal means to achieve emancipation, whereas abolitionists wanted to secure emancipation by any means available. (i.e. Underground Railroad)
It must be noted that the Radical Republicans were just one faction within the Republican Party at this time, one that was adamant about preventing the spread of slavery and was unwilling to make any concession to the South. Another group, which could be called the moderates, of which Lincoln was a part, agreed with the aims of the Radicals but were willing to compromise. A third group was made up of Republicans who were willing to make compromises and seemed to be more interested in economic concerns (i.e. free soil policy, tariffs) than emancipation.5 Republicans of the time were not permanently confined to one particular wing of the party. They seemed to change from one wing to another when it suited their needs. Trefousse says this pattern continued up until the Civil War broke out. Upon further examination of the Radical Republicans, there is evidence that suggests that even though they shared a common goal—opposition to slavery—they differed on other political issues. (i.e. financial issues, women’s rights, tariffs)
Lincoln was somewhat of a moderate in comparison to the Radicals. He sided with them when it suited his purposes in his strategy for emancipation for the American Negro. This is evident from his endorsements of the two Confiscation Acts and the bill which prohibited slavery in the District of Columbia that were pushed through Congress by the Radical Republicans.
The first Confiscation Act (Aug. 6, 1861) freed slaves that were employed in the war against the Union. The second Confiscation Act (July 17, 1862) provided for the confiscation of property of disloyal citizens and the emancipation of their slaves. More importantly, this act gave Lincoln the authority to use Negroes as soldiers in the fighting of the Civil War. As noted earlier, Lincoln was only in favor of using blacks as soldiers to help replace the shortage of Union soldiers and because he felt that this policy would shorten the War.
It should be evident by now that Lincoln could not have achieved the monumental task of freeing the slaves if it had not been for the power base established by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Before ending my discussion of the Radical Republicans, I would like to list some of the prominent Radical Republicans. They would make excellent subjects for research projects related to this unit. They are:
Radical Republican Senators
Charles Sumner, Massachusetts
John P. Hale, New Hampshire
William H. Seward, New York
Salmon P. Chase, Ohio
Benjamin F. Wade, Ohio
Henry Wilson, Massachusetts
Lyman Trumbull, Illinois
Zachariah Chandler, Michigan
Jacob M. Howard, Michigan
Joshua R. Giddings, Ohio
George W. Julian, Indiana
Schuyler Colfax, Indiana
Henry Winter Davis, Maryland
Owen Lovejoy, Illinois
James M. Ashley, Ohio
John Covode, Pennsylvania
William D. Kelley, Pennsylvania
Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania
In researching this unit I wasn’t surprised to find that slave owners had racist attitudes but, it was somewhat shocking to find that some of the staunch supporters of emancipation also harbored racist attitudes. For example, Benjamin F. Wade, a Radical Republican senator from Ohio, complained in a letter (to his wife) that the food in Washington D.C. was horrible, all “cooked by Niggers until I can smell and taste the Nigger . . . all over”.6 Wade also stated in Congress that after colonizing the Negro, he hoped ‘‘to hear no more about Negro equality or any of that kind. Sir, we shall be as glad to rid ourselves of these people, if we can do it consistently with justice, as anybody else.”7 Wade’s racial attitude wasn’t unique, other Radical Republicans had similar beliefs about the American Negro.
RACISM AND HUMANITARIANISM
There were several major factors which worked against the emancipation of the American slave, one being racism. Racist attitudes and ideas were used to justify and maintain the African-American as a slave. Slavery was legal in states (especially southern states) where a majority of people with racist attitudes decided to put their beliefs into legal statutes. Once established, these laws seemed to be written in granite. ‘States’ rights’, which was another factor working against the emancipation of the American slave, protected these laws from Supreme Court review, Congressional measures, and Presidential actions up until the Civil War; at which point Lincoln’s use of his war powers superseded states’ rights. Of all the factors, the slave owners posed the greatest obstacle to the emancipation of the slave. The slave owner’s livelihood was dependent upon the slave working the land. The plight of the slave worsened with the advent of the cotton gin. The need for more slaves increased with the production of more cotton, which was a direct result of the cotton gin. The slave owners’ racist attitudes, coupled with the fact that they had invested a great deal of money in their slaves, made them adamant opponents of emancipation.
Fortunately for the slaves, there were several factors working in their favor. World-wide opinion was shifting against the “peculiar institution”. Nations, such as Great Britain and France had outlawed the slave trade and tended to look at other nations who continued this practice as being uncivilized. This did not sit too well with the American leaders who were trying to make United States’ mark on the world as one of the most democratic nations. Among the factors raising the consciences of Americans during the Civil War era was the proliferation of antislavery literature. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
(1852) in which she portrayed the harshness of slavery. Lincoln jokingly accused Stowe of causing the Civil War with the writing of her book. Another factor which raised the consciences of Americans were the narratives written by ex-slaves (See the unit in this volume written by Robert Gibson). Once consciences had been raised, action was necessary. Abraham Lincoln, the Radical Republicans and the abolitionists provided the needed action. They formulated plans and legislation that would eventually lead to the emancipation of the slave.
I think that comments made by Benjamin F. Wade bring to the forefront the question of how the same people who were fighting to abolish slavery could also display racist attitudes. I think some students might have trouble understanding this. Here, it might be helpful for students to draw a comparison between emancipation and the current busing controversy. In both instances a group of people (the Radical Republicans in one instance and northern liberals in another) felt very strongly about an issue they considered to be in violation of basic human rights. In both instances each group wanted justice to be done but not to the point where the Negro would achieve full equality and move into their schools and neighborhoods on an equal basis. I think the fears, myths, and misconceptions that have fostered these puzzling situations can only be resolved through direct contact between the groups involved and by historical knowledge in this unit. Only then can these misconceptions finally be put to rest.
Students should be made aware of the fact that since the inferiority of the slave was such a commonly held belief in the 1860s, some people had no problems opposing slavery while still maintaining racist attitudes. Lincoln was one of these people. Lincoln hated the institution of slavery, but never did he think the Negro was the equal of the white man. As a result, Lincoln was somewhat perplexed as to what to do with the slave upon emancipation. He contemplated a colonization plan which he later abandoned. In Union-occupied territory Lincoln attempted through the Freedman’s Bureau to have the Negro make contracts with their former owners. How Lincoln would have proceeded from this point is left to speculation due to Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It is clear, however, that the Lincoln who had played an integral part in emancipation was able to rise above some of the prejudices of his time. I hope that when students finish this unit, they will come to the conclusion that racist attitudes can be changed, but it is a slow and arduous process in which they can play an active role.