Focus: The virtue of prudence: Lincoln’s use of prudence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation



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Dawain M. Wheatley

AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction

Tuesday 3-6:30 MST
Focus: The virtue of prudence: Lincoln’s use of prudence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

A sailor of open seas leaves a home port for a desired destination, and along the way there are many maritime obstacles that must be faced: shoals, currents, pirates, headwinds, and more. Using the wind in the sails, a rudder and keel on the boat, and through the art of tacking, the captain makes tactical decisions to reach his destination. The journey is never a straight line. The captain must continue to make adjustments, but when the desired destination is reached, the captain and crew rejoice in the accomplishment. Abraham Lincoln’s prudent political tacking allowed the adjustments necessary to facilitate the issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The obstacles Lincoln had to navigate were, keeping border states loyal to the union where slavery was legal, appeasing abolitionists clamoring for the freeing of slaves, managing generals who won battles and freed slaves, and mediating the arguments in Congress between Democrats who were opposed to emancipation and Republicans who were split on the issue. These obstacles had to be addressed before emancipation was possible.

The founding fathers clearly understood prudence when declaring independence and establishing a new form of government. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”1 In arguing for more control of trade, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Did not prudence forbid the detail,”2 (Federalist #11) and James Madison wrote, “These inventions of prudence,”3 (Federalist #51) in dealing with rival interests. Abraham Lincoln like his predecessors used prudence to navigate the political obstacles of his day.

Abraham Lincoln believed the principle “that all men are created equal.”4 When he became president of the United States in 1861 he was faced with the monumental task of preserving the Union yet he had to follow his conscience regarding the equality of the African Americans. Early in his career he stated, “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.”5 Lincoln also knew that in the early part of the civil war he would have to put up with the necessary evil of slavery to preserve the union.

The border slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland) tenuously participated in the Union. Lincoln needed to keep their loyalty. Kentucky had mineral resources and was a major grain and livestock producing state. Missouri also was a major agricultural state. Kentucky was of strategic value because of its location by the Ohio River.6 General John C. Fremont, who had been appointed by President Lincoln to command Union forces in Missouri, declared martial law in August of 1861, resulting in the freeing of slaves. This action,

“intensified the sentiments of secessionist slaveholders while weakening the allegiance of many unionist slaveholders – this at a time when the fate of Kentucky had yet to be determined.”7


Lincoln was then forced to rescind Fremont’s actions. Although Lincoln repeatedly expressed the possibility of emancipating slaves through constitutional means, now was not the time to do it when preservation of the Union was at a critical juncture. Lincoln’s used prudence and political tacking when writing to Senator Browning of Illinois, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”8 The Border States had to remain in the Union before emancipation could truly be addressed.

In the spring of 1862, General David Hunter, an abolitionist, organized several black regiments from the thousands of black refugees that had poured in to union-held areas. Using martial law in May, he issued an emancipation proclamation for Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina and said that slavery and a free country are, “altogether incompatible.”9 Abraham Lincoln voided Hunter’s proclamation saying,

“neither General Hunter, nor any other commander, or person, has been authorized by the Government of the United States to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free.”10
He then encouraged states to “adopt a gradual abolishment of slavery,”11 with compensation from the federal government. He understood it was not the federal government’s responsibility to eradicate slavery where it legally existed in the nation. That was a state’s responsibility. Once again, Lincoln used his political tacking or prudence on the issue of slavery and did not issue a federal emancipation proclamation.

Horace Greely and other abolitionists were extremely disappointed with Lincoln and anxiously pushed him to issue an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln replied to Greeley expressing that the official duty of the president is to conduct a war, and that he will do more with the slavery issue when he is able to. Lincoln stated, “my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free,”12 which reinforced the idea to be consistent with his desire to do things constitutionally. Frederick Douglas was also very vocal and on July 4, 1862, took the opportunity to chastise Abraham Lincoln and the nation in regards to the fundamental belief of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Douglas gave a history lesson of the origin of the war, the nature of the rebellion, the conduct of war which seemed to be going nowhere, and then slammed President Lincoln saying, “An Administration without policy, is confessedly an administration without brains.”13 If Lincoln really believed in the ideals of the Declaration of the Independence he has “the constitutional and moral right to proclaim, complete emancipation to all the slaves of rebels who should make their way into the lines of our army.”14 Frederick Douglas emphasized the importance of emancipation as the priority of Lincoln’s administration and that real unity in the nation can only be done by eradicating slavery and winning the war.

Abraham Lincoln already prudently shared with his cabinet on July 22, 1862, a draft of a proclamation of emancipation. The draft included a section of Congress’s Second Confiscation Act, July 17, 1862, that said, “The president could authorize the seizure of secessionists’ property after a warning period of sixty days.”15 Lincoln replied to Horace Greeley’s criticism of not issuing a proclamation saying,

“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.”16


He knew there needed to be the perfect time to issue one. Lincoln had to keep competing interests from unraveling and endangering the union. It would come with the victory at Antietam.

President Lincoln knew that the many competing political interests of Northern War Democrats, radical abolitionist Republicans, and the other Republicans was a ticking time bomb ready to explode if an emancipation proclamation was issued too soon. The battle at Antietam on September 17, 1862, a setback to the Confederate cause, allowed for Lincoln to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22. With a victory in hand, President Lincoln reminded the nation that the war was still about restoring the Constitution of the United States. With congressional approval Lincoln wanted to allow for states in rebellion to come back with the stipulation that they, “voluntarily adopt, immediate, or gradual abolishment of slavery within their respective limits.”17 If the state came back in before January 1, 1863, President Lincoln would recommend that citizens that had remained loyal would be, “compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves.”18 Lincoln laid out the constitutionality of his actions as executive in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He stated the military protocol for escaped slaves and the protections of unionist slave owners. He navigated the waters of political differences of the Democrats and Republicans in preparation for the final Emancipation Proclamation.



The Final Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. Abraham Lincoln navigated legal slavery in Border States, generals and abolitionists, and Congress, while allowing slavery to legally exist in areas where citizens recognized the Constitution. However, in areas of rebellion against the United States, “all persons held as slaves. . .shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”19 This proclamation was a huge step in the promotion of equality of men. Abraham Lincoln would continue the fight for total emancipation, recognizing the importance of following his conscience and the Constitution, while being prudent.


1 Declaration of Independence – Constitution of the United States of America, (Ashland: John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, Ashland University), 3.

2 Jacob E. Cooke, The Federalist, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 66.

3 Jacob E. Cooke, The Federalist, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 349.

4 Declaration of Independence – Constitution of the United States of America, (Ashland: John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, Ashland University), 3.

5 Abraham Lincoln, “Speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 491.

6 David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant, 14th Edition, (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010), 464.

7 Brooks D. Simpson, America’s Civil War, (Chicago: Harlan Davidson, 1996), 42.

8 Abraham Lincoln, “To Lose Kentucky Is to Lose the Whole Game,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 208.

9 Abraham Lincoln, “Proclamation Revoking General Hunter’s Emancipation order,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 383.

10 Ibid, 384.

11 Ibid.

12 Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Horace Greeley,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 406.

13 Frederick Douglass, “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 399.

14 Ibid.

15Brooks D. Simpson, America’s Civil War, (Chicago: Harlan Davidson, 1996), 77.

16 Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Horace Greeley,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 406.

17 Abraham Lincoln, “Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 417.

18 Ibid, 419.

19 Abraham Lincoln, “Final Emancipation Proclamation,” in AHG 504 A: Civil War and Reconstruction Course Packet, ed. S. Tootle, (Ashland, Ashland University, 2012), 437.




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