Preservation of the Union

Preservation of theUnion

By Tom White


During this, Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday year, it seems fitting to revisit the controversy that engulfed so much of theUnited States concerning the topic of slavery. While many viewLincoln as being the Great Emancipator, the circumstances that led to this auspicious act were not as clear cut as many have believed. While many of the population, particularly in the north, viewed slavery as morally reprehensible, others, particularly in the south, viewed slavery as an economic necessity. Caught in the middle of this epic struggle of freedom versus the economic necessity and protection of property rights was the ever pragmatic Abraham Lincoln.Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an evolutionary process that would not even had occurred if somehowLincoln could have managed to preserve the union of theseUnited States of America and avoid war between the North and South. Abraham Lincoln initially did not promote slave emancipation as the moral necessity as he would later proclaim, but more as the culmination of economic reprisals that could be used as leverage inflicted upon the confederate states. It was an economic ultimatum, not an altruistic aspiration cause that created the Emancipation Proclamation

In the northern states individuals such as the abolitionist Theodore Tilton greeted the eventual emancipation wholeheartedly as proclaimed in this letter to Lincoln  “God bless you for a good deed!”[1], other northern supporting sentiments are reflected in comments like these of Eliza P. Gurney, an antislavery and antiwar Quaker “ …I believe the prayer of many thousands whose hearts thou hast gladdened by thy praiseworthy and successful effort to ‘burst the hands of wickedness, and let the oppressed go free’”[2]. While many Americans cheered the final Emancipation Proclamation, there were still Americans in the northern ranks who felt that Lincoln could have acted sooner and taken more decisive action to support freedom, as this letter from Horace Greeley so aptly states ” …We complain that the Confiscation Act which you approved is habitually disregarded by your Generals, and that no word of rebuke for them from you has yet reached the public ear, Fremont’s Proclamation and Hunter’s Order favoring Emancipation were promptly annulled by you…We complain that a large proportion of our regular Army Officers, with many Volunteers, evince far more solicitude to uphold slavery than to put down the Rebellion”[3]. Lincoln responded to Greeley’s points regarding his silence and annulment of his General’s support of emancipation by telling Greeley that “…My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or 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 do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union…”[4] The purpose of this sampling of letters shows not only the public sentiment that we today remember concerning race, but the evolutionary process that ultimately led to the freedom of millions.

Lincolnhad the remarkable ability to separate personal belief from presidential obligation, probably more so than any other president. In one of the darkest periods of America’s history when public sentiments were so strongly positioned along the lines of race, Lincoln took those calculated steps that would eventually lead to emancipation, but did so only when all other options that were available to him failed. Even 11 days prior to the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln still followed a pragmatic path of calculated public relations that was intended to sooth the sentiments of the proslavery south.  In correspondence with Ambrose W. Thompson, Lincolnhad approved of a plan that would begin with colonization of 433 freed slaves to Panama, “There is an absolute necessity that colonization…should be commenced without further delay”[5] according to Thompson. Although this plan was eventually scrapped under Lincoln it is still testament to the process that led to emancipation. As the topic of colonization would arise again, as in this correspondence from Peter Page to Lincoln concerning colonization to Africa of freed slaves “…I think eminently qualified to conduct an enterprise of Colonization of the free colored people of the Country”[6], by this timeLincoln no longer viewed colonization as a viable option.Lincoln now saw freed slaves as a greater benefit as soldiers serving in the Union ranks, plus colonization allowedLincoln to exhaust yet another attempt at appeasement to his critics.

Throughout history Lincolnhas forever been associated with the Emancipation Proclamation, what is often overlooked is the evolutionary process that led to emancipation. Lincolnfollowed a path that involved colonization and the Confiscation Act before ever arriving at the Emancipation Proclamation. As Lincoln himself said in his correspondence to Horace Greeley “If I could save the Unionwithout freeing any slave, I would do it… What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union…”[7]Lincoln saw slavery emancipation as economic leverage that could be wielded against the confederacy in order for them to give up succession and return to the union. When all other options for reconciliation failed, thenLincoln implemented the Emancipation Proclamation. Although most people believe thatLincoln was guided by moral principles, his own words indicate that his motivation was more politically based. 






[1] Theodore Tilton, pg. 124

[2] Eliza P. Gurney, pg. 131

[3] Horace Greeley, pg. 159

[4] Abraham Lincoln, pg. 162

[5] A.W. Thompson, pg. 255

[6] Peter Page, pg. 56

[7] Horace Greeley, pg. 159

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