Does Lincoln Get Too Much Credit for Freeing the Slaves—or Not Enough?

Then, again.
Nov. 8 2012 4:14 PM

How Great an Emancipator?

Does Lincoln get too much credit for freeing the slaves—or not enough?

Abraham Lincoln, 1863.
Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

In Hollywood, at least, Lincoln’s reputation as the Great Emancipator is safe and sound. Earlier this year, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter presented a man who “fought a war for the soul of the country” against the “demon of slavery.” Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a tireless warrior pushing for passage of the 13th Amendment, which would forever abolish slavery in the United States. In a high-pitched drawl that captures the sound of Lincoln’s voice as described by contemporaries, Daniel Day-Lewis declares, “Abolishing slavery settles the fate for millions now in bondage and unborn millions to come.”

But if Hollywood’s Lincoln is on the side of the angels, in historical circles his reputation has fared less well. The flashpoint for debate is not the 13th Amendment, but the Emancipation Proclamation, which was unprecedented in its assault on slavery, but did not abolish the institution. Though Democrats shrieked that the proclamation went too far, many of Lincoln’s Republican supporters believed it did not go far enough—and there have been historians ever since who have agreed. There were sound reasons, however, for why the document emerged as it did, and indeed it was Lincoln’s recognition of its limitations that led him to seek a more definitive measure. His efforts to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, the central drama of Lincoln, cannot be understood without the backstory of his gradual move toward emancipation.      

Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. The decree announced that on Jan. 1, 1863, three months away, he would free the slaves in Confederate areas still in rebellion. The loyal slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky would not be affected, nor would designated rebel areas under Union control.


In 2011, at the unveiling of a rare signed copy of the proclamation, President Obama imagined how today’s cynical political commentators might headline a story announcing the proclamation: “Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’ ” Indeed, some said as much in 1862: “The president can do nothing for freedom in a direct manner, but only by circumlocution and delay,” howled the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

The criticisms have continued ever since. In his classic work The American Political Tradition (1948), historian Richard Hofstadter condemned the document as having “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” During the civil rights era, dismayed by the lack of progress for blacks, writers such as Ebony executive editor Lerone Bennett denounced Lincoln as a racist who never made the slaves’ interests paramount and instead envisioned a white America cleansed of blacks.

Lincoln’s reputation slipped farther in the 1990s as scholars such as Ira Berlin and his colleagues at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project re-examined the question “who freed the slaves?” They argued that, in fleeing to Union lines, the slaves altered military policy by compelling generals to make a decision about what to do with runaways. In effect, they forced themselves onto Lincoln’s agenda; the enslaved freed themselves.

More recently, libertarians, reviving a strain of criticism that dates to the Civil War, have denounced Lincoln as a dictator whose paramount goal was to centralize power. The economist Thomas DiLorenzo, for example, has labeled the Emancipation Proclamation “little more than a political gimmick.” For libertarians, Lincoln took every opportunity to exercise executive power and create a centralized, bureaucratic state. According to this view, he did not care about emancipation but merely used the decree to stabilize his Republican base and bash his opponents.

Under this barrage of condemnation on several fronts, Lincoln the Emancipator has shrunk in some circles to Lincoln the Equivocator; and the Emancipation Proclamation itself, is seldom read and often misunderstood. This is shameful. Lincoln’s actions against slavery constituted the most heroic undertaken by any president to eradicate a social evil. That he did so methodically and deliberately, without flourishes or grand but empty gestures, at a time when a misstep might have cost the life of the nation itself, makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

Still, it is worth asking what took Lincoln so long to act. There is no doubt that he opposed slavery: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think and feel. And yet I have never understood that the presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.” he wrote in 1864. But he also understood what every leader must acknowledge: Ideals are one matter, politics another.

Because he subscribed to the widespread view that slavery in the states was constitutionally protected, Lincoln knew he could not move against the institution without violating his oath of office. Even if this obstacle hadn’t existed, a direct assault on slavery early in the Civil War would have had disastrous consequences for the war effort by deeply dividing the North, where opposition to emancipation was strong in some quarters (as Lincoln does a good of portraying), and by provoking the border slave states to secede. (“To lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” he said nearly a year to the day before issuing the preliminary proclamation.) Before he could act, he would have to develop a constitutional rationale for emancipation, to ensure that northern public opinion was prepared to sustain him and that the border states could be held in the Union.