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Lincoln Frees the Slaves

by Lord Charwood



When the news of a second battle of Bull Run reached England it seemed at first to Lord John Russell that the failure of the North was certain, and he asked Palmerston and his colleagues to consider whether they must not soon recognise the Confederacy, and whether mediation in the interest of peace and humanity might not perhaps follow. But within two months all thoughts of recognising the Confederacy had been so completely put aside that even Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville caused no renewal of the suggestion, and an invitation from Louis Napoleon to joint action of this kind between England and France had once for all been rejected. The battle of Antietam had been fought in the meantime. This made men think that the South could no more win a speedy and decisive success than the North, and that victory must rest in the end with the side that could last. But that was not all; the battle of Antietam was followed within five days by an event which made it impossible for any Government of this country to take action unfriendly to the North.

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln set his hand to a Proclamation of which the principal words were these: “That, on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”

The policy and the true effect of this act cannot be understood without some examination. Still less so can the course of the man who will always be remembered as its author. First, in regard to the legal effect of the Proclamation; in normal times the President would of course not have had the power, which even the Legislature did not possess, to set free a single slave; the Proclamation was an act of war on his part, as Commander-in-Chief of the forces, by which slaves were to be taken from people at war with the United States, just as horses or carts might be taken, to subtract from their resources and add to those of the United States. In a curiously prophetic manner, ex-President John Quincy Adams had argued in Congress many years before that, if rebellion ever arose, this very thing might be done. Adams would probably have claimed that the command of the President became law in the States which took part in the rebellion. Lincoln only claimed legal force for his Proclamation in so far as it was an act of war based on sufficient necessity and plainly tending to help the Northern arms. If the legal question had ever been tried out, the Courts would no doubt have had to hold that at least those slaves who obtained actual freedom under the Proclamation became free in law; for it was certainly in good faith an act of war, and the military result justified it. A large amount of labour was withdrawn from the industry necessary to the South, and by the end of the war 180,000 coloured troops were in arms for the North, rendering services, especially in occupying conquered territory, that was unhealthy for white troops, without which, in Lincoln’s opinion, the war could never have been finished. The Proclamation had indeed an indirect effect more far-reaching than this; it committed the North to a course from which there could be no turning back, except by surrender; it made it a political certainty that by one means or another slavery would be ended if the North won. But in Lincoln’s view of his duty as President, this ulterior consequence was not to determine his action. The fateful step by which the end of slavery was precipitated would not have taken the form it did take if it had not come to commend itself to him as a military measure conducing to the suppression of rebellion.

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