The Slaves Freed


But Lincoln still did not agree. “I think Sumner and the rest of you would upset our applecart altogether if you had your way,” he told some advanced Republicans one day. “We didn’t go into the war to put down slavery, but to put the flag back; and to act differently at this moment would, I have no doubt, not only weaken our cause, but smack of bad faith.…This thunderbolt will keep.” And in his message to Congress in December of 1861, the President declared that he did not want the war degenerating into “a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” He was striving, he said, “to keep the integrity of the Union prominent as the primary object of the contest.”

Advanced Republicans were deeply aggrieved. Fessenden thought the President had lost all hold on Congress, and Wade complained that not even a galvanic battery could inspire Lincoln to “courage, decision and enterprise.” “He means well,” wrote Trumbull, “and in ordinary times would have made one of the best of Presidents, but he lacks confidence in himself and the will necessary in this great emergency.”



By year’s end, though, Lincoln’s mind had begun to change. He spoke with Sumner about emancipation and assured the senator that “the only difference between you and me on this subject is a difference of a month or six weeks in time.” And he now felt, he said, that the war “was a great movement by God to end Slavery and that the man would be a fool who should stand in the way.” But out of deference to the loyal border states, Lincoln still shied away from a sweeping executive decree and searched about for an alternative. On March 6, 1862, he proposed a plan to Congress he thought would make federal emanicipation unnecessary—a gradual, compensated abolition program to begin along the loyal border and then be extended into the rebel states as they were conquered. According to Lincoln’s plan, the border states would gradually remove slavery over the next thirty years, and the national government would compensate slaveholders for their loss. The whole program was to be voluntary; the states would adopt their own emancipation laws without federal coercion. At the same time (as he had earlier told Congress), Lincoln favored a voluntary colonization program, to be sponsored by the federal government, that would resettle liberated blacks outside the country.

On Capitol Hill Stevens derided Lincoln’s scheme as “diluted milkand-water-gruel.” But other advanced Republicans, noting that Lincoln’s was the first emancipation proposal ever offered by an American President, acclaimed it as an excellent step. On April 10 the Republican-controlled Congress endorsed Lincoln’s emancipation plan. But the border-state representatives, for whom it was intended, rejected the scheme emphatically. “I utterly spit at it and despise it,” said one Kentucky congressman. “Emancipation in the cotton States is simply an absurdity.…There is not enough power in the world to compel it to be done.”

As Lincoln promoted his gradual, compensated scheme, advanced Republicans on Capitol Hill launched a furious antislavery attack of their own. They sponsored a tough new confiscation bill, championed legislation that weakened the fugitive-slave law and assailed human bondage in the national capital as well as the territories. What was more, they won over many Republican moderates to forge a new congressional majority so far as slavery was concerned. As the war ground into its second year, moderate Republicans came to agree with their advanced colleagues that it was senseless to pretend the Union could be restored without removing the cause of the rebellion.

So, over strong Democratic opposition, the Republican Congress approved a bill that forbade the return of fugitive slaves to the rebels, and on March 13, 1862, Lincoln signed it into law. Congress also adopted legislation which abolished slavery in Washington, D.C., compensated owners for their loss, and set aside funds for the voluntary colonization of blacks in Haiti and Liberia, and Lincoln signed this as well. Democrats howled. One castigated the bill as an entering wedge for wholesale abolition, another predicted that liberated Negroes would crowd white ladies out of congressional galleries. Washingtonians accused the “abolitionists” in Congress of converting the capital into “a hell on earth for the white man.” Republicans brushed aside all such criticism, “if there be a place upon the face of the earth,” asserted a Minnesota Republican, “where human slavery should be prohibited, and where every man should be protected in the rights which God and Nature have given him, that place is the capital of this great Republic.”