Countdown to Emancipation

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.You can read it here.

Much will be written between today and New Year’s Day 1863 about the promise of emancipation.  Some people will correctly remind us of the limited nature of that promise, restricted as it was by geography and the military situation. A few folks will even remind us of Lincoln’s final plea for gradual and compensated emancipation followed by voluntary colonization of the freedpeople. Yet each of these themes explores emancipation looking forward.

In truth, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is as much a last look backward as it is a step forward. It represents Lincoln’s last attempt to preserve the Union more or less as it was without damaging the institution of slavery any more than had been already done by war and legislation. Properly understood, it is as much a document of reconstruction as it is of emancipation.  It details how white southerners could avoid the impact of emancipation by returning to the Union.

Once more, as at Fort Sumter, Lincoln left to white southerners the choice of what would happen next. It’s worth remembering that the president did so by defining the choices available. In April 1861 it was allowing the reprovisioning of Fort Sumter or war; in September 1862 it was an end to war and reunion with slavery or a continued war that would now target slavery in the Confederacy. In both cases Confederates did not hesitate to make their choice: war in 1861, war in 1862.

Much has been done on the debate in the North over the next hundred days.  It might be worthwhile to recall that the debate in the South was rather short, with Confederate patriots reminding everyone that from the beginning they had warned everyone that Lincoln’s ultimate goal was to destroy slavery. That realization served to strengthen Confederate morale and determination: it complicated the lives of those southern unionists who had tried to keep separate the issues of opposing secession while supporting slavery.

In short, we might do well not to anticipate January 1, 1863 as we reflect upon September 22, 1862. Much happened within the next one hundred days that deserves examination on its own merits, and without peeking ahead to what we now know happened.