The Truth About the Emancipation Proclamation
by Kirkpatrick Sale: The
Decline of the American Empire
In all the
hullabaloo about the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation
Proclamation, signed by Lincoln January 1, 1863, and the ensuing
worship of St. Abe for freeing the slaves, it is a sure thing that
the truth about the document will be lost.
with, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave.
It applied only to slaves in the states "in rebellion"
– the Confederacy – where the Union had no power or authority, thus
having about as much real effect as the famous (putative) papal
bull against Halley’s comet. And it did not apply to the Border
states where there still was slavery (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky,
Missouri). In other words, as Secretary of State William Seward
remarked ironically at the time, "We show our sympathy with slavery
by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them
in bondage where we can set them free."
But then, it was not really intended to liberate anybody. It was,
as Lincoln took care to spell out, a "military measure,"
issued under the President’s authority as commander-in-chief, and
its real purpose was to undermine the Confederate Army. This would
be accomplished, Lincoln hoped, first by encouraging slaves to take
over the plantations so that they would no longer be supplying foodstuffs
for the soldiers, and second by causing plantation owners serving
in the army to desert and rush home to protect their wives and children
from the presumably dangerous freedmen.
effect, not spelled out and never specifically endorsed by Lincoln,
was, as Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase put it at one Cabinet meeting
on the Proclamation, that "universal emancipation" would set off
"depredation and massacre" across the South. Such an uprising would
surely be condemned by the greatest part of the North’s population
and public opinion abroad, and Lincoln sought to guard against this
by saying in the document that "I hereby enjoin upon the people
so declared to be free to abstain from all violence." But the
fact that he had to make such an injunction meant that such an outcome
was surely held to be a possibility, one that would not be unwelcome
to the Union.
had other glaring deficiencies as well that are best indicated by
looking at another of Lincoln’s documents, this being a proposal
he had sent to Congress just a month earlier for a new 13th
Amendment. It would abolish slavery, but it had three other provisions
that would allow for a more peaceful transformation than the Proclamation
would authorize gradual emancipation by the slave states
"at any point before 1900," as "way to spare both
races from the evils of sudden derangement" and to spare freed
blacks "from the vagrant destitution that must largely attend
immediate emancipation." Second, it would provide that "any
state, wherein slavery now exists…shall receive compensation"
for the freed slaves financed by the Federal government for several
generations; emancipation was, after all, as historian R.R. Palmer
would later say, "an annihilation of individual property rights
without parallel in the history of the modern world," and without
it the South would, predictably, be impoverished and the plantation
economy in ruins. (As Lincoln knew, compensation had been used in
emancipation throughout South America and in the British, French,
and Danish colonies – and even in Washington itself which freed
its slaves in 1862.) Third, it would authorize Congress to appropriate
money "for colonizing free colored persons… at any place or
places outside of the United States."
provisions, the Proclamation was a certain recipe for chaos and
misery in the South – but of course this may have been in fact what
the North had in mind. Some have argued, Edgar Lee Masters in 1931
most persuasively, that the failure of the Proclamation (and the
subsequent government) to address the issue of the economic future
of the South and the freedmen’s place in it was not an oversight
but a deliberate strategy on behalf of the corporate and industrial
interests in the Republican Party, in the heat of its Hamiltonianism,
that intended to "plunder the South" after it was defeated.
"Piety and plunder in the person of the new capitalist,"
Masters argued, "by the use of sectional hatred took over the
control of Congress" and eventually used that power to send
treasury agents into the South "looking for property to confiscate,"
particularly for Northern railroads, and, making "common cause
with local thieves and stole everything they could find in the way
of cotton, tobacco and corn." Certainly that seems to be what
was in Lincoln’s mind early on; as he told an Interior Department
official in 1862, in the next year "the character of the war
will be changed. It will be one of subjugation….The South is to
be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and new ideas."
And so it happened.
however satisfying that may have been to Northern interests, it
obviously bode as poorly for the black population as the white.
The rosy reputation given to the Proclamation, 150 years ago and
with increasing ardor down to this day, is therefore hardly deserved:
the truth is that it did not ever have the ultimate well-being of
the blacks in mind and certainly did not achieve it. Quite the contrary.
Sale [send him mail] is
the author of a dozen books, including Human
Scale and Rebels
Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial
Revolution, and is the Director of the Middlebury Institute
for the study of separation, secession, and self-determination.
His most recent book is Emancipation
Hell: The Tragedy Wrought by the Emancipation Proclamation 150 Years
2013 Kirkpatrick Sale