The Emancipation Proclamation Didn’t Free Any Slaves

Today is an important anniversary in our nation’s history. It was on this day, 155 years ago that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln is known as the “Great Emancipator” and is regarded is one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. Along our journey across America, we have learned time and time again that many of the narratives we embrace as historical fact have been incomplete at best and often downright wrong. Let’s look at the Emancipation Proclamation, for example.

How many slaves did the Emancipation Proclamation free? Experts say that there were around four million slaves in the U.S. in the 1860’s. So maybe it freed half of them? Not close. The Emancipation Proclamation actually freed ZERO slaves.

I am no historian, but after a good deal of reading President Lincoln’s own words on slavery and the issue of race in America, I think the Emancipation Proclamation was more about preserving the Union and winning the war than it was a heartfelt desire for justice and racial equality in America. Here are some of the “Great Emancipator’s” own words.

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates for Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln stated his view of white supremacy: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. (Source)

At the time of Lincoln’s inauguration to the Presidency on March 4, 1861, the United States was being torn apart. Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the President of the Confederate States of America just two weeks earlier in Montgomery, Alabama. In Lincoln’s inaugural address, he spoke to many in the newly formed Confederate States saying, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” (Source)

In August 1862, 16 months into the Civil War, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley published an editorial calling on President Abraham Lincoln to declare emancipation for all slaves in Union-held territories. With a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation having already been presented to his cabinet, Lincoln wrote to Mr. Greeley, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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 the Union.” (Source)

I have come to the conclusion that the Emancipation Proclamation was a shrewd wartime move by a President whose purpose was to preserve the Union above all. The “Great Emancipator” was more of a great messenger and used the proclamation to define the war as a conflict over slavery and made emancipation an official part of the North’s military strategy.

Why would this help the cause of the Union in the war? First, there was concern that some European nations would support the Confederacy. Lincoln believed that if he owned the moral authority on the war, countries like England and France, where slavery had already been abolished, would be hesitant to support the Confederacy because it would be synonymous with supporting slavery. It was clear that most in the South were seceding to support the institution of slavery, but that was not Lincoln’s primary reason for conflict with the South.

Secondly, Lincoln believed that the proclamation was a wartime measure intended to cripple the Confederacy by removing the free labor the South depended upon, and encouraging blacks in the South to come North and join the Union Army. This would add to the ranks of the Union Army and further the moral tone of the war.

So how did the Emancipation Proclamation free zero enslaved people? Lincoln applied the Emancipation Proclamation only to the Southern states in rebellion. Since those states had already seceded and war was underway, the federal government had no power or ability to enforce the provisions. In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to enslaved people in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland, which practiced slavery but had not seceded. Lincoln didn’t want to propel them into joining the Confederacy and result in Washington D.C. being surrounded by Confederate states on all sides. Lincoln did not free any enslaved people where he had the power to free them.

This proves to me that the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated no one. It was a tool to win a war, and nevertheless was a major step leading to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that formally abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. More on what that exemption in a previous blog post:

Over time, abolition became a central characteristic of Lincoln’s moral drive, but I have never seen evidence that true racial equality was part of his belief system. President Lincoln struggled between order and justice as I have through much of my life and I believe he chose order in the end.

Leading abolitionists and African-Americans were much larger agents in their own liberty than the “Great Emancipator” ever was. Lincoln was a man of his times and time has shown me that on this issue, the facts offer a different narrative than the one I was taught.


Leave a Reply to Susan Neibel Cancel reply