Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

Frederick Douglass

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Its limited scope, freeing slaves only in those states “in rebellion against the United States,” did not satisfy abolitionists but did infuriate many in the North who were pro-Union but not anti-slavery.

The Proclamation itself was like Mr. Lincoln throughout. It was framed with a view to the least harm and the most good possible in the circumstances, and with especial consideration of the latter. It was thoughtful, cautious, and well guarded at all points. While he hated slavery, and really desired its destruction, he always proceeded against it in a manner the least likely to shock or drive from him any who were truly in sympathy with the preservation of the Union, but who were not friendly to emancipation. For this he kept up the distinction between loyal and disloyal slaveholders, and discriminated in favour of the one, as against the other. In a word, in all that he did, or attempted, he made it manifest that the one great and all commanding object with him, was the peace and preservation of the Union, and that this was the motive and main spring of all his measures. (FROM CHAPTER XII.: HOPE FOR THE NATION) - Frederick Douglass

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, published a long editorial in the form of a letter to Lincoln on August 19, 1862, criticizing him for his failure to act effectively to end slavery. Three days later he responded with a statement of the policy he was pursuing. “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.” (Lincoln, Collected Works, V 388-389)

A month after this response, on September 22, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which contained the substance of the formal Proclamation issued later and was designed to be a warning to the Confederacy and balm to the opponents of slavery. What the Proclamation of January 1, 1863, added was a detailed list of the geographical areas to be covered.

Lincoln did not believe that he, as President, had the constitutional right to abolish slavery, despite his “oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free.” (response to Greeley) From Lincoln’s standpoint, the Civil War was not, at least not initially, a war to end slavery. Rather, it was a war to preserve the Union. On the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line, many would have disagreed with Lincoln’s assessment. From their perspective, the war was being fought to preserve slavery, and they would have agreed with an editorial published in The Charleston Mercury on November 3, 1860, three days before the election that put Abraham Lincoln in the White House: “The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery.”