August 19, 1864: Lincoln Stays the Course on Emancipation

Having pondered the issue of emancipation and war aims for several days, Abraham Lincoln was ready to explain what he had decided and why. He shared his thinking with Wisconsin Alexander Randall and Judge Joseph T. Mills. Mills left the following entry in his diary describing what the president told them:

August 19, 1864
The President was free & animated in conversation. I was astonished at his elasticity of spirits. Says Gov Randall, why cant you Mr P. seek some place of retirement for a few weeks. You would be reinvigorated. Aye said the President, 3 weeks would do me no good—my thoughts my solicitude for this great country follow me where ever I go. I don’t think it is personal vanity, or ambition—but I cannot but feel that the weal or woe of this great nation will be decided in the approaching canvas. My own experience has proven to me, that there is no program intended by the democratic party but that will result in the dismemberment of the Union. But Genl McClellan is in favor of crushing out the rebellion, & he will probably be the Chicago candidate. The slightest acquaintance with arithmetic will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed with democratic strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the north to do it. There are now between 1 & 200 thousand black men now in the service of the Union. These men will be disbanded, returned to slavery & we will have to fight two nations instead of one. I have tried it. You cannot concilliate the South, when the mastery & control of millions of blacks makes them sure of ultimate success. You cannot concilliate the South, when you place yourself in such a position, that they see they can achieve their independence. The war democrat depends upon conciliation. He must confine himself to that policy entirely. If he fights at all in such a war as this he must economise life & use all the means which God & nature puts in his power. Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks. We have to hold territory. Where are the war democrats to do it. The field was open to them to have enlisted & put down this rebellion by force of arms, by concilliation, long before the present policy was inaugurated. There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will. My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200 000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has sub[t]racted from the strength of our enemies, & instead of alienating the south from us, there are evidences of a fraternal feeling growing up between our own & rebel soldiers. My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it. The President appeared to be not the pleasant joker I had expected to see, but a man of deep convictions & an unutterable yearning for the success of the Union cause. His voice was pleasant—his manner earnest & cordial. As I heard a vindication of his policy from his own lips, I could not but feel that his mind grew in stature like his body, & that I stood in the presence of the great guiding intellect of the age, & that those huge Atlantian shoulders were fit to bear the weight of mightiest monarchies. His transparent honesty, his republican simplicity, his gushing sympathy for those who offered their lives for their country, his utter forgetfulness of self in his concern for his country, could not but inspire me with confidence, that he was Heavens instrument to conduct his people thro this red sea of blood to a Canaan of peace & freedom. Comr. Dole then came in. We were about to retire, but he insisted on our remaining longer. Dismissing the present state of the country, he entertained us with reminiscences of the past—of the discussions between himself & Douglass. He said he was accused of of [sic] joking. In his later speeches, the seriousness of the theme prevented him from using anecdotes. Mr. Harris a democratic orator of Ill, once appealed to his audience in this way. If these republicans get into power, the darkies will be allowed to come to the polls & vote. Here comes forward a white man, & you ask him who will you vote for. I will vote for S A Douglass. Next comes up a sleek pampered negro. Well Sambo, who do you vote for. I vote for Massa Lincoln. Now asked the orator, what do you think of that. Some old farmer cried out, I think the darkey showd a damd sight of more sense than the white man. It is such social tete a tetes among his friends that enables Mr Lincoln to endure mental toils & application that would crush any other man. The President now in full flow of spirits, scattered his repartee in all directions. He took his seat on the sofa by my side. Said I Mr President I was in your reception room to day. It was dark. I suppose that clouds & darkness necessarily surround the secrets of state. There in a corner I saw a man quietly reading who possessed a remarkable physiognomy. I was rivetted to the spot. I stood & stared at him He raised his flashing eyes & caught me in the act. I was compelled to speak. Said I, Are you the President. No replied the stranger, I am Frederick Douglass. Now Mr P. are you in favor of miscegenation. That’s a democratic mode of producing good Union men, & I dont propose to infringe on the patent. We parted from his Excellency, with firmer purpose to sustain the government, at whose head there stands a man who combines in his person all that is valuable in progress in conservatism—all that is hopeful in progress.

Whether Lincoln ever wavered on the issue of emancipation remains an issue of debate for some people. There is nothing to suggest that he did anything other than try out the advice given him by several leading Republicans in one of the drafts of his letter to Democratic newspaper editor Charles Robinson. But it was now clear that he would stay the course, come what may.

5 thoughts on “August 19, 1864: Lincoln Stays the Course on Emancipation

  1. M.D. Blough August 19, 2014 / 6:37 am

    I think considering a proposition is not the same thing as wavering, but, what is clear is that, once he committed to emancipation, Lincoln felt that he was morally committed to not turning back by the service and the sacrifice of the black men who answered the call of a country they called their own despite the fact that it had done very little to ever help them and a great deal to harm them. He could have left things at the Emancipation Proclamation but Lincoln was an excellent lawyer. He knew the War Powers rationale would be unlikely to sustain these actions under legal attack once the war ended. He put his support behind what became the 13th Amendment to the Constitution BEFORE the hotly contested 1864 Presidential election and continued the push afterwards until it cleared Congress. He knew perfectly well that this was the only way of ending slavery in a way that could not be rescinded by subsequent administrations. It also freed ALL slaves immediately, without compensation or conditions or consideration of whether their masters were loyal or not.

  2. Stefan Jovanovich August 19, 2014 / 7:27 am

    If, by the word “Emancipation”, you mean full social and political equality, Lincoln ALWAYS wavered. He was hopelessly racial in his thinking. His “courage” in adopting the Emancipation Proclamation and sticking with it has always been exaggerated. Emancipation of the contraband slaves was happening regardless of anything proclaimed from Washington; wherever Union armies went, slaves came to meet them.

  3. Brad August 19, 2014 / 8:28 pm

    On more than one occasion, he said “and the promise being made, the promise must be kept. As far as I know, he stuck to his words.

  4. Stefan Jovanovich August 20, 2014 / 5:17 am

    It would be more accurate to say that Lincoln’s word stuck to him. He really had no political choice; he had gained the Republican nomination in 1860 by being a squish on abolition compared to Seward, and he had seen a succession of Democratic and Whig Presidents fail to gain renomination because they had failed to follow the basic rule of campaign to the left (right) and then sidestep back to the center. His problem in 1864 was that the center was already occupied by McClellan, who had promised to win the war. If Lincoln had even hinted at being less than positive about emancipation with a capital “E” (while always avoiding any specifics about what that would mean), he would not have been renominated by a majority of the Republicans.

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