The Moment Of Decision


When the war began, both Lincoln and the Congress said explicitly that its only object was to bring the seceding states back into the Union. The “domestic institutions” of these states (meaning slavery) were not to be touched. The federal government was fighting solely to keep the country all in one piece; Lincoln believed that it lacked the authority to interfere with slavery within the states, and in 1861 he did not think such interference advisable anyway. Several times during the first year of the war he overruled and rebuked abolitionist-minded officers who tried to turn the struggle into a war against slavery.

The trouble with this was that the war was not being won; indeed, by late summer of 1862 it seemed quite possible that it would soon be lost. Union armies were stalled in the West, the attempt to open the Mississippi was making no progress, and a strong Confederate army was beginning a counteroffensive into Kentucky. In the East things were in worse shape. The great drive to capture Richmond had ended in defeat, there had been another defeat in the second Battle of Bull Run, and Robert E. Lee was crossing the Potomac to invade the North. England and France seemed just about ready to recognize the Confederacy, and this would very likely insure its independence.

In manpower, in money, and in manufacturing resources the North had an immense advantage, but the advantage was not being used effectively. The hard, driving spirit that would lead to victory seemed to be gone; the strong, innocent, patriotic enthusiasm so visible in the early months was no longer in evidence.

Facing this situation, Lincoln recognized two facts.

First, the strongest and most determined sentiment in favor of going on to victory at any cost was that of the antislavery people—not just the dedicated abolitionists, but the larger group that disliked slavery and believed that it was the basic cause of secession. Second, such powers as England and France—distressed by the cotton blockade, and not very fond of the United States anyway—could intervene in a war that meant nothing more than an attempt by certain states to win their independence; but they could not intervene if that meant supporting a fight to continue slavery and opposing a fight to make the slaves free.

Facing these facts, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. He showed it to his Cabinet, remarking that his mind was made up but that he would like to hear their comments. “I know very well,” he told them, “that many others might, in this matter as in others, do better than I can. … But … I am here. I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.” So saying, he published the proclamation as soon as Lee’s northern invasion was turned back in the Battle of Antietam, announcing that it would go into effect on January i unless the seceding states first came back into the Union.

It was a strange sort of paper, in a way. Its legal basis was nothing more than Lincoln’s belief that the President, as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, could adopt virtually any military measure that was needed to win the war—and the proclamation was offered as a military measure pure and simple. In addition, it left slavery untouched in areas controlled by the federal government, and announced its abolition only in those places where federal authority had neither acceptance nor the power to enforce its decrees. In a sense it was one of the weakest state papers any President ever issued; yet in the long run it proved to be one of the strongest.

For the proclamation changed the Whole meaning of the war, which now became a war to save the Union and to destroy slavery as well. A moral issue had been injected into the fight and it had a profound effect. The driving force of the antislavery people was fully enlisted, the chance for a compromise settlement was destroyed, and from then on the Union would fight a hard, all-out war, making full use of its resources. In addition, European intervention ceased to be a serious threat: the Confederacy was on its own. The true turning point of the war came when the President issued his proclamation.

“That can’t be done”

Not all of the great moments of decision have come to Presidents facing war or the threat of war. Sometimes a President has to recognize a purely domestic problem and meet it according to the best lights he has. The important quality seems to be to see the crisis and to handle it with boldness, and by taking firm action to do what Lincoln did with his proclamation: change the national attitude. Such a moment came to President Theodore Roosevelt early in 1902.