One hundred fifty years ago tomorrow, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It has come to symbolize the end of slavery in this nation, but at the time it served a more practical purpose. It fomented unrest in the South.
It did not free any slaves anywhere. In fact, slaves in states that did not secede remained slaves, as did those in captured territories.
Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley in 1862:
If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with
them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
The proclamation did prompt slaves to flee the South. By the end of the war 200,000 were soldiers or sailors for the North and hundreds of thousands more were laborers for the Army and its supply lines.
The proclamation may have also swayed England and France to not join the cotton rich South in the war.
In fact, David Von Drehle writes in a recent Wall Street Journal article:
Lincoln harbored scant hope that whites and blacks could live happily in an integrated society.
“You and we are different races,” he told a group of Washington’s black leaders during a meeting on Aug. 14, 1862. This difference, he asserted, was the cause of the Civil War: “But for your race among us, there could not be war.” With that introduction, he proposed that his guests lead a mass exodus of freed blacks to distant colonies, leaving America to the whites.
It was not until the passage of the 13th Amendment that slavery was truly and legally ended.
Available at The Great Courses under the title: A Skeptic’s Guide to American History.