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The Day Lincoln Decided for Emancipation

By John A. O'Brien

Denver, Colorado

Friday, July 22, 2022

The Emancipation Proclamation is still thought of as “the most revolutionary pronouncement ever signed by an American president.” Abolitionist-leaning Salmon Chase almost missed it. When the president disclosed his intention at the end of the July 22, 1862, cabinet meeting, Chase was unimpressed. He thought it was too splashy and would be less effective than if local military commanders were allowed to order emancipation in their districts. He was focused on recruiting Black soldiers, something Lincoln was not yet willing to consider. William Seward had received a “head’s up” a week earlier when Lincoln ran the idea by him and Gideon Welles as they rode to the funeral of Edwin Stanton’s infant son. Seward declined immediate comment because he wanted time to consider the “vast consequences” emancipation would unleash. Today, we readily accept that Lincoln could make such an extraordinary edict simply because he was commander-in-chief. That was not so apparent 160 years ago.

The goal of the war from the outset was to restore the Union as it was, under the Constitution, with slavery intact. The law determined that slavery was a state institution that could not be touched by the federal government. Lincoln had tried to convince the slaveholding loyal border states to abandon the "peculiar institution" on their own initiative. He argued that this would so discourage the rebels that the war would undoubtedly be shortened. Most Americans knew that slavery was the underlying cause of the war and an asset to the rebel cause. When the border states shunned Lincoln’s offer of compensation, the president considered other methods for damaging slavery. He created a new goal that combined the principles of Union and freedom as equally important to making the Union worth saving.

Historians continue to argue the basis for Lincoln’s change of strategy. Allen Guelzo wrote that the decision was the triumph of Lincoln’s Enlightenment ethical motives over political self-interest. Edna Medford considered it a practical response to the great problems besetting the war effort that summer. Harvard’s Noah Feldman argued that the Proclamation was the necessary step for Lincoln to dissolve the old “compromise” Constitution with its fatal flaw of inequality. Many still puzzle over the Proclamation’s prosaic language that camouflages one of the greatest moral acts in history. But Lincoln himself modestly described the event as utilitarian. He told artist Francis B. Carpenter that things had gotten so bad in mid-1862 that he was out of options and that he had to “change tactics or lose the whole game.”

Carpenter conceived his stately painting, “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet,”as a tribute to the event he considered second only to the Declaration of Independence for its importance in U.S history. He wanted his masterpiece to capture the drama of “an act unparalleled for moral grandeur.” Carpenter’s rendering of Lincoln meeting with his cabinet on July 22, 1862, is shown above and is permanently displayed in the U.S. Capitol.


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