Even as late as 1827, antislavery societies in the south outnumbered those in the north. Virginia had even considered a gradual emancipation plan in 1830s, though it was ultimately rejected. But as the nineteenth century progressed, such liberal sentiment began to ebb, with slavery becoming an increasingly integral part of the southern economy. In the presence of a constantly industrializing North, the South began to focus its resources more and more on agricultural staple crops, and especially on cotton. The intensive labor required of such an effort led to exponential growth in the slave population. By the brink of the Civil War, southern whites numbered 5.5 million, while the slave population was estimated at 3.5 million.
While slavery was integral to the southern fortunes, it was not pervasive among the broader society. Only about five percent of southern whites were actually slaveholders, and a sizeable proportion of southern slaves was held by the 38,000 who owned twenty slaves or more. Nevertheless, with a mounting tide of abolitionism and anti-southern sentiment against it, the newly-organized Confederates were able to win considerable support from many poor whites who had perhaps less of a stake in the slavery question, but were equally affected by Union control of tariff rates and general issues of state sovereignty.
For his part, as a candidate Lincoln had repeatedly stressed a policy of containing slavery without eliminating it. In the early days of the war, Lincoln had even gone so far as to revoke several hasty emancipation proclamations made by zealous Union generals. This, however, was more with an eye to politics than to the integrity of property. Lincoln's persistent personal wish was to gradually and completely eliminate the institution of slavery, and as the war dragged on, steps toward such action began to emerge as real possibilities.
Lincoln had first proposed gradual, compensated emancipation of slaves in the border states in spring of 1862. But wary of losing support in these key locations, his cabinet demurred, and Lincoln elected to focus his slavery strategy in more decided Union strongholds. Using his executive influence, Lincoln helped to push through the abolishment of slavery in the District of Columbia on April 16. Three months later slavery was abolished in United States territories, nullifying popular sovereignty and overriding the Dred Scott decision.
While such instances appear to the contemporary eye as policies driven by moral principles, they were in fact, far less idealistically, strategic aims to practical war ends. By rallying Union support around the cause of abolition, Lincoln hoped to spur on flagging confidence in a demoralized and severely weakened military force. Thus, in midsummer, Lincoln cautiously floated a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. With rumors swirling around Washington, Lincoln steadfastly asserted his position to New York newspaperman and politician Horace Greeley in late August. As Lincoln wrote, "my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery." If possible, he explained, he would "save the Union without freeing any slave." However, Lincoln insisted that his political strategy be disassociated from his personal views, writing that he "intend[ed] no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."
While his idealistic wish to separate his personal motives from his professional decisions may have been realized in some degree, it is certain that Lincoln's individual views came increasingly to encroach upon his policy decisions as the strain of war grew heavier. Gradually, the distinction between the preservation of Union and the destruction of slavery began to blur in Lincoln's mind, as he recognized the latter as an potentially effective means of accomplishing the former.
As Lincoln would later explain, "the moment came when I felt that slavery must die that the nation might live." With the moral weight of a righteous cause behind the Union, the threat of foreign intervention on behalf of the Confederacy would dwindle to insignificance, and better still, Northerners of all stripes would begin to throw additional support behind a war with a more concrete purpose.
On the advice of Seward, Lincoln decided to wait for a major Union military victory before releasing a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, in order to give it a more substantial cast. But the Battle of Antietam was as close as the Union would come to a "victory" in the late summer of 1862, and on the strength of this mixed result, Lincoln issued the preliminary version to Congress anyway on September 22.
The final draft, which was officially released and put into effect on January 1, 1863, provided for the emancipation of all slaves in rebel territory. Such a decree was, by any honest analysis, patently impracticable, as the Union forces were lagging severely, and powerless to enforce such legislation. Further, the proclamation did not apply to border states (where insurgents had lost the right to hold slaves, while loyalists retained the right!), or even to the Union-held western portions of the Confederacy.
Thus, in paradoxical fashion, but nevertheless to his eventual success, Lincoln refused to act in the areas where he had jurisdiction, and made a sweeping pronouncement that applied to an area where he had no authority at all! Ultimately, it was only the power of war that would see the Proclamation through. But in early 1863, such power was by no means conclusive. On the very day that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, a bloody, wasteful battle was fought at Mumfreesboro, Tennessee. After 20,000 casualties, no clear winner emerged. With the tactics of the two sides as confused as ever, Lincoln's strong words were somewhat undermined by yet another failure in the field.
In addition to being potentially unfeasible, the Emancipation Proclamation was of doubtful legality, standing as a striking extension of the president's war powers. Lincoln himself was unsure of its legality, and privately wondered if it would function simply as a war measure to be repealed later. Opposition to the policy was certainly strong. Several regiments in Illinois and Indiana came close to mutiny. Many of Lincoln's contemporaries criticized him heavily for his presumption and usurpation of power.
Radical abolitionists, on the other hand, chose to decry him for his refusal to initiate a more concerted emancipation policy in the border states. In the event, Lincoln had merely opted for a plan by which a state referendum in support of repeal would be rewarded by federal compensation. None of the border states took the bait.
Although Lincoln is viewed today as "the Great Emancipator," it is a title he wears uncomfortably in view of the relevant facts. His Emancipation Proclamation ultimately freed a miniscule proportion of slaves, and federal legislation beyond this decree did not go into effect until after Lincoln's death. While he was instrumental in paving the way for the abolition of slavery, Lincoln's role as an emancipator was not without ambiguity or reservation.
Against the better advice of many Union strategists and Congress themselves, Lincoln vetoed the use of black soldiers in the field in 1862. In fact, he did not authorize blacks to serve as soldiers in Union army until after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Even then, blacks fought strictly in separate regiments with white commanding officers. But to be fair, despite lower numbers and a more desperate position, the Confederacy did not authorize blacks for combat until March of 1865, mere weeks before their surrender.
As for Lincoln, his hesitancy over the armament of blacks was closely related to his doubts over their capacity to integrate fully into the political and social life of the United States. Thus, for much of his Presidency, Lincoln remained a strong supporter of the controversial colonization policy. Originally proposed by Henry Clay, colonization was a plan for the federal government to finance the return of freed slaves to majority black areas such as Haiti and Liberia. For all intents and purposes, the scheme was tantamount to subsidized deportation, and today it smacks of blatant racism.
Though the contemporary reader may be inclined to dismiss Lincoln as a hypocritical bigot, one must remember that even the greatest men are the products of their times. Lincoln's logic in supporting colonization was grounded in the fundamental reality of racial discord, which persists strongly even today. As he explained to an audience of freed blacks in August 1862, "your race suffers greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side...if this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated."
Over time, Lincoln began to have second thoughts about colonization. Perhaps convinced by his own rhetoric in the swell of events, he eventually revised his position. In the spring of 1864, Lincoln ordered Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to return those black colonists removed to the Caribbean who would prefer to be back in the United States. Later, Lincoln would run for re- election on the platform of a universal emancipation amendment, but while he would live to see it through Congress, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in his memory and not by his signature. Nevertheless, and with substantial justification, this final emancipation is today viewed as a cornerstone of the Lincoln legacy.