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Lincoln tells his cabinet about Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln tells his cabinet about Emancipation Proclamation

On July 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln informs his chief advisors and cabinet that he will issue a proclamation to free slaves, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement.

Attempting to stitch together a nation mired in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln made a last-ditch, but carefully calculated, executive decision regarding the institution of slavery in America. At the time of the meeting with his cabinet, things were not looking good for the Union. The Confederate Army had overcome Union troops in significant battles and Britain and France were set to officially recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.

WATCH: Emancipation Proclamation: How Lincoln Used War Powers Against Slavery

The issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation had less to do with ending slavery than saving the crumbling union. In an August 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln confessed “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” He hoped a strong statement declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South’s slaves into the ranks of the Union Army, thus depleting the Confederacy’s labor force, on which it depended to wage war against the North.

As promised, Lincoln waited to unveil the proclamation until he could do so on the heels of a successful Union military advance. On September 22, 1862, after a victory at Antietam, he publicly announced a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free in the rebellious states as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln and his advisors limited the proclamation’s language to slavery in states outside of federal control as of 1862. The proclamation did not, however, address the contentious issue of slavery within the nation’s border states. In his attempt to appease all parties, Lincoln left many loopholes open that civil rights advocates would be forced to tackle in the future.

READ MORE: 5 Things You May Not Know About Lincoln, Slavery and Emancipation


1862 Lincoln tells his cabinet about Emancipation Proclamation

On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln informs his chief advisors and cabinet that he will issue a proclamation to free slaves, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement.

Attempting to stitch together a nation mired in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln made a last-ditch, but carefully calculated, executive decision regarding the institution of slavery in America. At the time of the meeting with his cabinet, things were not looking good for the Union. The Confederate Army had overcome Union troops in significant battles and Britain and France were set to officially recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.

The issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation had less to do with ending slavery than saving the crumbling union. In an August 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln confessed “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” He hoped a strong statement declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South’s slaves into the ranks of the Union Army, thus depleting the Confederacy’s labor force, on which it depended to wage war against the North.

As promised, Lincoln waited to unveil the proclamation until he could do so on the heels of a successful Union military advance. On September 22, 1862, after a victory at Antietam, he publicly announced a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free in the rebellious states as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln and his advisors limited the proclamation’s language to slavery in states outside of federal control as of 1862. The proclamation did not, however, address the contentious issue of slavery within the nation’s border states. In his attempt to appease all parties, Lincoln left many loopholes open that civil rights advocates would be forced to tackle in the future.


Lincoln tells his cabinet about Emancipation Proclamation - HISTORY

James McPherson [Photo: Ron Cogswell]

World Socialist Web Site writer Tom Mackaman recently spoke with historian James McPherson on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. McPherson is professor emeritus of history at Princeton University and the author of a number of books on the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom.

Tom Mackaman: Can you speak to the military and political background to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of the Civil War in 1862?

James McPherson: In the beginning of 1862 the war was going well for the Union. There was great success in the Mississippi Valley campaign and in the naval campaign. In July, [Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac] McClellan was within miles of Richmond.

Already at this time there had been some movement toward abolition. There had been the military confiscation bills passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862, and there had been the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C.

Then things took a turn for the worse. In July, Lee drives McClellan away from Richmond and in August prepares to invade the North. In the context of this new and harsher war, attitudes in the North were changing. One of the lines we find repeatedly in letters from Union soldiers was “it’s time to take the kid gloves off.”

This thinking began to find its way into Lincoln’s own rhetoric. Lincoln first tried to appeal to the border states to support a plan of gradual emancipation, telling them that they can’t be blind to the signs of the times. But at a meeting with border state congressmen on July 12, the majority again turned Lincoln down. The very next day Lincoln tells Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that he plans to issue a proclamation of emancipation.

Lincoln had a very expansive idea of executive war powers, based on the idea that he could seize enemy property. There had been some history of this in relationship to slavery already in the war. General Benjamin Butler, in Union-controlled New Orleans, declared slaves who ran behind his lines “contraband of war” and subject to confiscation because they served the Confederacy.

Nine days later Lincoln told his full Cabinet that he intended to issue an emancipation proclamation. Only Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair opposed the measure. Blair feared that Democrats would use the unpopularity of such a measure to gain control of Congress in the 1862 elections, which is precisely what they attempted to do.

Seward supported it, but advised Lincoln to wait for some success on the battlefield so it wouldn’t appear to be a desperation measure—in his words, “our last shriek on the retreat.” This discussion came soon after the Seven Days Battles, in which Confederate General Robert E. Lee maneuvered McClellan and the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond.

It turned out to be a long and excruciating wait. In September, Lee invaded Maryland in the North and at the same time [Confederate Generals] Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith invaded Kentucky.

TM: And then came the Battle of Antietam.

JM: Yes. On September 17, 1862, the Union forces achieved the strategic victory in Maryland. Lincoln was disappointed that McClellan did not destroy Lee’s army when he had the chance to do so, but on September 22 he nonetheless issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

TM: How was the Proclamation received in the North?

JM: Among the abolitionists, who had been pressing for emancipation from the beginning of the war, it was welcomed, cheered. What we would call the right wing in American politics, the Democrats and the conservative unionists, were appalled by the Proclamation. The Democratic Party press promoted racist fears over the “amalgamation of races” as a result of the proclamation. Later in 1864 they coined the term “miscegenation.” But I would say that the weight of the Northern population, over 50 percent, supported the Proclamation, either out of opposition to slavery or as a necessary war measure.

TM: Can you explain the relationship between the conduct of the war by the North’s leading generals—McClellan on one hand and then Grant and Sherman and Sheridan on the other hand—and the question of emancipation?

JM: McClellan was a Democrat and was linked to Democrats who were allies of the South before the Civil War. He disdained abolitionists. He was loyal to the Union, but he was certainly soft on slavery and was also soft on the South in the sense that he did not wish to challenge the southern social order. In 1864, he ran against Lincoln as the Democratic nominee for the presidency.

Grant was not an abolitionist, but already in 1861 he had recognized the military necessity of the confiscation of slaves. Sherman did not speak out against slavery, but his brother, who as a senator from Ohio, was writing to him that it was now time “to take the kid gloves off.” Sheridan came to be an opponent of slavery and helped to enforce Reconstruction in the South after the war.

TM: How widespread was the conception that the Union was fighting an international cause—something that Lincoln appears to refer to in the Gettysburg address when he says the fight is so that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth”—in the wake of the defeats of the revolutions in Europe after 1848?

JM: That is what Lincoln was referring to. In letters, many soldiers in the Union Army wrote to the effect that the US was the last best hope for democracy on earth. The Chartists in England had also failed to realize universal suffrage. Many of the immigrants who came from Europe came with quite a consciousness of 1848. They come to the US and they find this one scourge on the Republic—slavery—and they determine that slavery must go. The most famous is Carl Schurz, a radical republican in Germany and then America.

TM: The fate of the Emancipation Proclamation was not secured until Union victory, and it hung in the balance in the election of 1864.

JM: The late summer of 1864 is another turning point in the war. The terrible death toll in Grant’s Overland Campaign had brought on a war weariness in the North. The Democrats adopted a platform that called for a cease-fire. This would have been, of course, tantamount to a Confederate victory and would have repudiated the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln was also worried about the Supreme Court. If the Emancipation Proclamation came before the court, with his claims of wartime powers no longer operative, would they have upheld it? So Lincoln pledged himself to a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. This becomes the 13 th Amendment in 1865.

TM: How do you respond to those who say that, because of the long ordeal of Jim Crow segregation in the South—which became fully implemented in the 1890s— the Civil War accomplished little or nothing?

JM: Well, I look at it as a situation of two steps forward and one step backward. You have the abolition of slavery, and as bad as sharecropping was, it was not slavery. You could not sell and separate families, for example. And you had the 13 th , 14 th , and 15 th Amendments to the Constitution. Jim Crow segregation weakens them, but the amendments are still there. They are not taken away.

TM: As a counterfactual, suppose that the South succeeds in its drive for independence. How long might slavery have continued in the American South?

JM: It would have continued at least a generation.

There are really three plausible scenarios. First, if the South secedes in 1861 without war. Second, if the North had settled for a negotiated peace in the first years of the war. And third, if the Democrats had won the 1864 election and negotiated a peace. Depending on the scenario there might have been a gradual emancipation much later.

TM: Brazil and Cuba did not abolish slavery until—

JM: —1888 and 1886. But you have to keep in mind that their abolition of slavery was very much influenced by its destruction in North America.

TM: You have described the Civil War as a “second American revolution.” Can you explain what you mean?

JM: It was a revolution on two levels. It was so first of all in a political sense. Until 1861, Southern planters and slaveholders had dominated the presidency, first under the Jeffersonian Republican Party and then under the Jacksonian Democratic Party, for 49 of 72 years. Of 36 speakers of the House of Representatives, 24 had been from the South. And they had always had the majority on the Supreme Court.

So Lincoln’s and the Republicans’ victory in 1860 represented the ascendancy to political control of a more diversified economy, what we might call democratic capitalism. And it was recognized as a revolution at the time in both the North and South. It was called by contemporaries “The Revolution of 1860.”

But more importantly, the Civil War destroyed the planter class.

TM: Yet Lincoln did not consider himself to be a revolutionary. How does he come to play this revolutionary role in American history?

JM: It might be said that Lincoln was right of center within the Republican Party in 1860. In his first year-and-a-half he followed a policy oriented toward keeping the border states and Northern Democrats behind the war cause.

There was clearly a dynamic between the military prosecution of the war and the question of emancipation. Lincoln becomes convinced by the abolitionist argument that the revolt by the slave owners must be met by a war to extinguish slavery. As the war goes on, he understands that slave labor is at the core of the labor logistics of the Southern armies. As a consequence, striking a blow at slavery becomes increasingly attractive.

But Lincoln opposed slavery, and he viewed the Emancipation Proclamation as warranted both as an act of justice and as a military necessity.

TM: You write of Southern secession as a “pre-emptive counterrevolution.” Can you explain that concept?

JM: The concept was developed by my colleague here at Princeton, Arno Mayer, though not in relationship to the Civil War. The expansion of slavery was the raison d’être of the South. The Republicans and Lincoln were clearly of the mindset to contain slavery and were predisposed toward some sort of ending of slavery. The South thought the Republicans would squeeze them to death, so they struck out for independence. The Counterrevolution of 1861 came in response to the Revolution of 1860.

TM: Do you recall the 100 th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation?

JM: Yes, I had just started teaching at Princeton. John Hope Franklin’s book on the Emancipation Proclamation had just come out. This was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. would often make reference to the Emancipation Proclamation. I notice that President Obama does not.

TM: In closing, let me ask what your overall assessment of the Emancipation Proclamation is.

JM: I consider it one of the great iconic documents of American History, right up there with the Declaration of Independence.


July 22, 1862: Lincoln tells his Cabinet about the Emancipation Proclamation

On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln informs his chief advisors and cabinet that he will issue a proclamation to free slaves, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement.

Attempting to stitch together a nation mired in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln made a last-ditch, but carefully calculated, executive decision regarding the institution of slavery in America. At the time of the meeting with his cabinet, things were not looking good for the Union. The Confederate Army had overcome Union troops in significant battles and Britain and France were set to officially recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.

The issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation had less to do with ending slavery than saving the crumbling union. In an August 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln confessed

He hoped a strong statement declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South's slaves into the ranks of the Union Army, thus depleting the Confederacy's labor force, on which it depended to wage war against the North.

As promised, Lincoln waited to unveil the proclamation until he could do so on the heels of a successful Union military advance. On September 22, 1862, after a victory at Antietam, he publicly announced a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free in the rebellious states as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln and his advisors limited the proclamation's language to slavery in states outside of federal control as of 1862. The proclamation did not, however, address the contentious issue of slavery within the nation's border states. In his attempt to appease all parties, Lincoln left many loopholes open that civil rights advocates would be forced to tackle in the future.


Historic Lincoln document that changed America coming to Syracuse

View full size NARA C&GS Collection Central New York artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter, of Homer, in 1864 painted this famous scene, "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet." The painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol.

With blood flowing horrifically on the nation’s battlefields in the summer of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln searched for a way to seize the moral high ground and weaken the Confederacy at the same time.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Since taking office the previous year, Lincoln said his only goal was to save the Union, not to free the slaves, even though he had opposed slavery his entire career. He often noted that he had no legal authority under the Constitution to end slavery.

But with casualties piling up and no end to the Civil War in sight, Lincoln devised a strategy to both free the slaves and strengthen the military’s hand as it struggled to put down the rebellion — and do it in a way that could survive a challenge in court.

Lincoln, a lawyer before he was elected president, decided to issue a military order freeing the slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union, but not in the four border states that had not joined the Confederacy.

As commander in chief, he reasoned, he had the authority to issue such an order in states at war with the Union. In effect, he would authorize the Army to take manpower — the labor of slaves — away from the Confederacy, just as it would seize weapons and other tools of war.

His order became known as the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in the nation’s history, and led to the greatest freeing of people in history until the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II.

"This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would tell thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech 100 years later on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. "It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity."

But few people know that Lincoln, ever the political genius, issued his order in two parts. The first was a sort of threat to the South, as well as a way to appease Northern conservatives who, while supporting a war to preserve the Union, had no interest in fighting one to end slavery.

View full size New York State Library The only surviving copy of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, handwritten in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, will be exhibited Thursday Sept. 27, 2012 at the Nicholas J. Pirro Convention Center in Syracuse.

Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office and became the sixteenth President of the United States. While he had no way of knowing the extent challenges ahead, a pall hung over the celebrations as the nation hovered on the brink of civil war. To lead the nation during the looming crisis, Lincoln appointed a group of opinionated, stubborn, and powerful secretaries, which became known as his “team of rivals.” Captured beautifully by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and then featured in the film Lincoln, Lincoln’s cabinet is one of the best known in American history.

President Lincoln carefully selected his department secretaries to bring diverse skills and perspectives into his cabinet. He recognized that cabinet appointments offered a valuable opportunity to build coalitions and strengthen tenuous bonds between factions remaining in the Union. First, Lincoln selected former Republican Party rivals for three of the most important cabinet positions: Senator William H. Seward of New York became the secretary of state, Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio became secretary of treasury, and Missouri’s elder statesman Edward Bates became the attorney general. These appointments also extended representation to crucial states from the northeast, old northwest, and border states. Next, Lincoln appointed former Democrats to build bipartisan support: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. All six were more educated, better known, and had more government experience than Lincoln himself. They also brought gravitas to the new administration. While they initially resented Lincoln for his success, they grew to respect his political savvy. Bates even admitted that the president was “very near being a perfect man.” 1

Floorplan of the second floor of the White House during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

Created by Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky, 2020.

The secretaries were familiar faces at the White House. They visited several times a day to deliver news, discuss an issue with the president, or attend a meeting. They usually walked up the back stairs, through the waiting room at the center of the hall, and into Lincoln’s office. The eastern side of the Second Floor contained the executive work spaces. On the north side of the hall, Lincoln’s secretaries, John George Nicolay and John Hay shared a bedroom, and Hay shared an office with the third secretary, William Stoddard. On the south side, a vestibule and Nicolay’s office flanked the president’s office, which also served as the cabinet room.

The workspaces were worn and outfitted with tattered furniture. The waiting room had old-fashioned horsehair sofas and chairs for callers, dusty busts of former presidents, old prints of founding fathers, and a faded copy of the Declaration of Independence in a cheap frame. The carpet on the floor was a varnished oilcloth that was bare and soiled in spots around the spittoons. 2 Both of the clerks’ offices had dark mahogany doors, marble mantels, and paneled wainscoting that harkened back to the 1830s. The floors had fraying carpets and dull green curtains that had been faded by the sun.

This photo depicts the stairs and doorway Lincoln used to access the family’s private rooms.

Hay and Stoddard’s office offered a bit of a reprieve for Lincoln—a place where he could go relax for a few minutes, enjoy the company of his clerks, and take his mind off work. Bookcases with law books lined the walls, two upright desks stood in the corners, and wax figurines stood guard on the fireplace mantel. Stoddard spread out on a large table covered by an ink-stained green cloth. The legs of the table bore the distinct markings of Tad and Willie Lincoln’s handiwork after they received pocketknives as gifts and used the table to test the knives’ effectiveness. From his desk in the corner, Hay sat in his swivel chair and regaled visitors with stories. When he needed a break, Lincoln would recline in Andrew Jackson’s old leather chair and listen to his secretaries’ banter. 3

Lincoln welcomed most guests in the president’s office, including the department secretaries. He referred to his office as “the shop” and this room was primarily a work space. 4 The office featured old, hand-me-down furniture from former presidents, as Lincoln was not about to spend important government funds on an office renovation during the war. The most prominent feature was a long, wooden table in the middle of the room. This table was likely acquired sometime during the presidency of either John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson. 5 A few maps and bundles of papers bound by rubber bands were usually spread across the table, pertaining to appointments, officer ranks, or troop movements. When the daily mail delivery arrived, the clerk poured out the contents of a large canvas sack on the table—often leaving thousands of letters for Nicolay, Hay, and Stoddard to sift through and sort.

This photograph of President Abraham Lincoln is by Anthony Berger, of photographer Mathew Brady's studio, and was taken on April 26, 1864. In the photograph, Lincoln stands tall in the Cabinet Room, which also served as President Lincoln's office. Lloyd Ostendorf is credited with retouching the image.

Collection of Lloyd Ostendorf

Lincoln’s primary workspace was a mahogany upright desk that stood by the middle window. Some presidents, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, cover their workspaces with trinkets and gifts that symbolize important relationships or happy memories. Lincoln preferred little clutter or unnecessary things. His desk usually held additional bundles of papers and the most current or relevant maps with color-coded pins that he used to track Union generals and armies. Lincoln’s desk obscured a small doorway and staircase that opened into a private passage, which offered the president a path to the family’s quarters without interacting with the callers lingering in the waiting room.

The room was quite literally covered with maps, often obscuring the dark green and gold star wall paper. On the east side of the room, an old sofa leaned against the wall beneath a large spring roller with more maps. In the northwest corner, a standing rack held additional map rollers, and folios of maps were scattered across the floor, blanketing the dark green carpet with a buff diamond pattern. 6

A few additional items remained from Lincoln’s predecessors. A bell rope dangled next to the fireplace to summon the staff, courtesy of James Buchanan. An old bust of Franklin Pierce loomed over the room and the brick arch underneath the mantel bore the marks of Jackson’s feet. A gas chandelier hung from the ceiling with a rubber hose that fed a lamp below, providing light for the table at night. 7

This October 1864 ink and paper sketch by C. K. Stellwagen depicts President Abraham Lincoln's office on the Second Floor of the White House. Courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.

Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio

The room’s best feature was the view. Outside the south-facing windows, visitors observed the Potomac River, General Robert E. Lee’s former house atop Arlington Heights, soldiers and cows milling about on the mall, and the unfinished stump of the Washington Monument. 8

Much like the worn furnishings in the room, Lincoln frequently dressed in clothes that had seen better days. When in the office, Lincoln wore a black cravat and black broadcloth suit, which hung loosely on his tall, wiry frame. Sometimes he added a black or buff vest. His cuffs frequently wore out, which he rarely replaced, much to his wife’s dismay. On his feet, Lincoln wore blue socks, in need of darning, which showed when he kicked off his worn carpet slippers. If dignitaries showed up unexpectedly, Lincoln sometimes presented himself in a faded dressing gown, happy or perhaps unaware, of the surprise his appearance caused his guests. 9

The meeting space and culture reveals much about Lincoln’s leadership. Lincoln never adopted particularly stuffy or formal manners, but he actually allowed few people into his inner circle. The cabinet secretaries were among the chosen and they had almost instantaneous access to Lincoln. They could stroll into his office at any time, a privilege that Seward exercised multiple times per day. 10 Lincoln selected individuals he could trust, sought out their advice, and relied on their expertise. Although he reserved the final determination for himself, Lincoln’s secretaries were integral to his decision-making process.

This hand-colored wood engraving was published on April 6, 1861 during the early days of the Abraham Lincoln administration. The caption below the engraving describes a scene of office-seeking men gathered outside of the Cabinet Room waiting for a word with President Lincoln. The arched window and doorway of the East Sitting Hall, just outside of the Lincoln Bedroom, is depicted on the left.

White House Collection/ White House Historical Association

Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln didn’t require the secretaries to come to the White House for meetings. Every morning, after eating a light breakfast, Lincoln walked across the street to the War Department to consult with Secretary Stanton and read the latest cables. He returned to the White House by ten o’clock to greet office-seekers and visitors. If First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was in town, Lincoln used the private passage to avoid the constant crowds and return to the family quarters to enjoy lunch with his family. After dinner, he returned to the War Department at nine or ten o’clock for about an hour before retreating to the White House. 11

Lincoln generally left the Treasury Department, attorney general, and State Department to function under the management of his secretaries. He didn’t know as much about financial matters and generally trusted Seward’s decades of experience to handle diplomacy. But from the very beginning, Lincoln treated the War Department as an extension of his own office and carefully monitored the war effort. He even consulted the other secretaries as a group when contemplating a major military decision. 12 In the summers, the first family moved to Soldier’s Home to escape the summer heat in the White House, but each morning Lincoln would ride on horseback into town to work in his office and visit the War Department. 13

This painting depicts a meeting in the White House in late 1862. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation from the large wooden table seen in Waddell's depiction. In the painting, Lincoln meets with Livermore in his Cabinet Room and office, located on the Second Floor of the White House.

Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

Official cabinet meetings took place twice a week in the president’s office, but when Lincoln required a meeting on unscheduled days, he sent a note to Steward or instructed Hay to dispatch messengers. Stoddard wrote that “these meetings are wonderfully secret affairs. Only a private secretary may enter the room to so much as bring in a paper. No breath of any “Cabinet secret” will ever transpire, so faithfully is the seal of this room guarded.” 14

When the secretaries gathered, they were usually consumed with solemn matters, but the group also enjoyed each other’s company and often shared stories and laughter. Each cabinet secretary made themselves comfortable in their own way. Lincoln often paced or leaned against the mantel, while insisting his guests stay seated. The others stretched out on the sofa, propped their feet up on the table, or chomped on cigars. 15 In these positions, the cabinet played a crucial role in most of Lincoln’s most notable moments as president, from the decision to surrender Fort Sumter and Pickens without a fight in 1861, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to the final campaign that led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. 16


How the Emancipation Proclamation Came to Be Signed

On July 20, 1862, John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary, predicted in a letter that the president “will not conserve slavery much longer.” Two days later, Lincoln, wearing his familiar dark frock coat and speaking in measured tones, convened his cabinet in his cramped White House office, upstairs in the East Wing. He had, he said, “dwelt much and long on the subject” of slavery. Lincoln then read aloud a 325-word first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, intended to free slaves in Confederate areas not under United States authority.

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Video: Behind the Scenes of a Historic Photo Shoot

Inkwell used by Lincoln, in the National Museum of African American History and Culture / National Museum of American History show, "Changing America" the Proclamation draft at the Library of Congress's "The Civil War in America" and Lincoln's pen at the Massachusetts Historical Society's "Forever Free." (Robert Clark / Institute)

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Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury, stated that he would give the measure his “cordial support.” Secretary of State William Henry Seward, however, advised delay until a “more auspicious period” when demonstrable momentum on the battlefield had been achieved by the Union.

Lincoln concurred, awaiting a propitious moment to announce his decision and continuing to revise the document. At noon on Monday, September 22, Lincoln again gathered the cabinet at the White House. Union troops had stopped the Confederate Army advance into Maryland at the Battle of Antietam on September 17. The president saw that he now operated from a position of greater strength. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles later observed that Lincoln “remarked that he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory. it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.”

The meeting soon adjourned, and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued that day. “It is my last trump card, Judge,” he told his supporter Edwards Pierrepont, a New York attorney and jurist. “If that don’t do, we must give up.”

One hundred-fifty years later, three numinous artifacts associated with the epochal event have been photographed together for the first time. An inkwell—according to the claims of a Union officer, Maj. Thomas T. Eckert, used by Lincoln to work on “an order giving freedom to the slaves of the South” as the president sat awaiting news in the telegraph room of the War Department—is in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The first draft of the Proclamation resides at the Library of Congress. And the pen with which Lincoln signed the final document belongs to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Yet even when Lincoln acted decisively on September 22, he announced that he would sign the act only 100 days hence, affording additional time for the Northern public to prepare for his shift in policy. The New York Times opined that “There has been no more far reaching document ever issued since the foundation of this government.” The Illinois State Register in Springfield, Lincoln’s hometown, warned darkly of “the setting aside of our national Constitution, and, in all human probability, the permanent disruption of the republic.”

One of the weightiest questions was whether significant numbers of Union soldiers would refuse to fight in a war whose purpose was now not only to preserve the Union but also to end slavery. “How Will the Army Like the Proclamation?” trumpeted a headline in the New York Tribune. Yet the Army would stand firm.

During that 100-day interlude, Lincoln’s own thinking evolved. He made alterations in the document that included striking out language advocating colonization of former slaves to Africa or Central America. He opened the ranks of the Army to blacks, who until then had served only in the Navy. Lincoln also added a line that reflected his deepest convictions. The Proclamation, he said, was “sincerely believed to be an act of justice.”

The edict, says NMAH curator Harry Rubenstein, “transforms the nation. Lincoln recognized it and everybody at the moment recognized it. We were a slave society, whether you were in the North or the South. Following this, there was no going back.”

When the moment arrived for signing the Proclamation—on January 1, 1863—Lincoln’s schedule had already been crowded. His New Year’s reception had begun at 11 a.m. For three hours, the president greeted officers, diplomats, politicians and the public. Only then did he return to his study. But as he reached for his steel pen, his hand trembled. Almost imperceptibly, Lincoln hesitated. “Three hours of hand-shaking is not calculated to improve a man’s chirography,” he said later that evening. He certainly did not want anyone to think that his signature might appear tremulous because he harbored uncertainty about his action. Lincoln calmed himself, signed his name with a steady hand, looked up, and said, “That will do.” Slaves in Confederate areas not under Union military control were decreed to be “forever free.”

Ultimately, it was Lincoln who declared his own verdict on his legacy when he affixed his signature that afternoon in 1863. “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right,” he said, “than I do in signing this paper. If my name goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”


Lincoln In Search Of A Union Victory

Lincoln needed a decisive Union victory to lend credence to the proclamation and got one at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, which had ended Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s first Northern invasion. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which informed both the Confederacy and the Union of his intention to free all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states.

As promised in the preliminary proclamation, 100 days later, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The five-page document declared that slaves in the rebel states were free, provided them with the support of the U.S. government&mdashincluding the Army and Navy, declared that freed slaves should be paid a wage, urged freed slaves to abstain from violence except in self-defense, and publically declared that all suitable freed men would be accepted into the armed services to fight in the war.


Lincoln tells his cabinet about Emancipation Proclamation - HISTORY

On November 6, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States -- an event that outraged southern states. The Republican party had run on an anti-slavery platform, and many southerners felt that there was no longer a place for them in the Union. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded. By Febrary 1, 1861, six more states -- Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas -- had split from the Union. The seceded states created the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi Senator, as their provisional president.

In his inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, Lincoln proclaimed that it was his duty to maintain the Union. He also declared that he had no intention of ending slavery where it existed, or of repealing the Fugitive Slave Law -- a position that horrified African Americans and their white allies. Lincoln's statement, however, did not satisfy the Confederacy, and on April 12 they attacked Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold in Charleston, South Carolina. Federal troops returned the fire. The Civil War had begun.

Immediately following the attack, four more states -- Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee -- severed their ties with the Union. To retain the loyalty of the remaining border states -- Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri -- President Lincoln insisted that the war was not about slavery or black rights it was a war to preserve the Union. His words were not simply aimed at the loyal southern states, however -- most white northerners were not interested in fighting to free slaves or in giving rights to black people. For this reason, the government turned away African American voluteers who rushed to enlist. Lincoln upheld the laws barring blacks from the army, proving to northern whites that their race privilege would not be threatened.

There was an exception, however. African Americans had been working aboard naval vessels for years, and there was no reason that they should continue. Black sailors were therefore accepted into the U.S. Navy from the beginning of the war. Still, many African Americans wanted to join the fighting and continued to put pressure on federal authorities. Even if Lincoln was not ready to admit it, blacks knew that this was a war against slavery. Some, however, rejected the idea of fighting to preserve a Union that had rejected them and which did not give them the rights of citizens.

The federal government had a harder time deciding what to do about escaping slaves. Because there was no consistent federal policy regarding fugitives, individual commanders made their own decisions. Some put them to work for the Union forces others wanted to return them to their owners. Finally, on August 6, 1861, fugitive slaves were declared to be "contraband of war" if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy in any way. And if found to be contraband, they were declared free.

As the northern army pushed southward, thousands of fugitives fled across Union lines. Neither the federal authorities nor the army were prepared for the flood of people, and many of the refugees suffered as a result. Though the government attempted to provide them with confiscated land, there was not enough to go around. Many fugitives were put into crowded camps, where starvation and disease led to a high death rate. Northern citizens, black and white alike, stepped in to fill the gap. They organized relief societies and provided aid. They also organized schools to teach the freedmen, women, and children to read and write, thus giving an education to thousands of African Americans throughout the war.

Though "contraband" slaves had been declared free, Lincoln continued to insist that this was a war to save the Union, not to free slaves. But by 1862, Lincoln was considering emancipation as a necessary step toward winning the war. The South was using enslaved people to aid the war effort. Black men and women were forced to build fortifications, work as blacksmiths, nurses, boatmen, and laundresses, and to work in factories, hospitals, and armories. In the meantime, the North was refusing to accept the services of black volunteers and freed slaves, the very people who most wanted to defeat the slaveholders. In addition, several governments in Europe were considering recognizing the Confederacy and intervening against the Union. If Lincoln declared this a war to free the slaves, European public opinion would overwhelmingly back the North.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln showed a draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. It proposed to emancipate the slaves in all rebel areas on January 1, 1863. Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed with the proposal, but cautioned Lincoln to wait until the Union had a major victory before formally issuing the proclamation. Lincoln's chance came after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. He issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22. The proclamation warned the Confederate states to surrender by January 1, 1863, or their slaves would be freed.

Some people were critical of the proclamation for only freeing some of the slaves. Others, including Frederick Douglass, were jubilant. Douglass felt that it was the beginning of the end of slavery, and that it would act as a "moral bombshell" to the Confederacy. Yet he and others feared that Lincoln would give in to pressure from northern conservatives, and would fail to keep his promise. Despite the opposition, however, the president remained firm. On January 1, 1863, he issued the final Emancipation Proclamation. With it he officially freed all slaves within the states or parts of states that were in rebellion and not in Union hands. This left one million slaves in Union territory still in bondage.

Throughout the North, African Americans and their white allies were exhuberant. They packed churches and meeting halls and celebrated the news. In the South, most slaves did not hear of the proclamation for months. But the purpose of the Civil War had now changed. The North was not only fighting to preserve the Union, it was fighting to end slavery.

Throughout this time, northern black men had continued to pressure the army to enlist them. A few individual commanders in the field had taken steps to recruit southern African Americans into their forces. But it was only after Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation that the federal army would officially accept black soldiers into its ranks.

African American men rushed to enlist. This time they were accepted into all-black units. The first of these was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Regiment, led by white officer Robert Gould Shaw. Their heroism in combat put to rest worries over the willingness of black soldiers to fight. Soon other regiments were being formed, and in May 1863 the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops.

Black recruiters, many of them abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, brought in troops from throughout the North. Douglass proclaimed, "I urge you to fly to arms and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave." Others, such as Harriet Tubman, recruited in the South. On March 6, 1863, the Secretary of War was informed that "seven hundred and fifty blacks who were waiting for an opportunity to join the Union Army had been rescued from slavery under the leadership of Harriet Ross Tubman. " By the end of the war more than 186,000 black soldiers had joined the Union army 93,000 from the Confederate states, 40,000 from the border slave states, and 53,000 from the free states.

Black soldiers faced discrimination as well as segregation. The army was extremely reluctant to commission black officers -- only one hundred gained commissions during the war. African American soldiers were also given substandard supplies and rations. Probably the worst form of discrimination was the pay differential. At the beginning of black enlistment, it was assumed that blacks would be kept out of direct combat, and the men were paid as laborers rather than as soldiers. Black soldiers therefore received $7 per month, plus a $3 clothing allowance, while white soldiers received $13 per month, plus $3.50 for clothes.

Black troops strongly resisted this treatment. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment served a year without pay rather than accept the unfair wages. Many blacks refused to enlist because of the discriminatory pay. Finally, in 1864, the War Department sanctioned equal wages for black soldiers.

In the South, most slaveholders were convinced that their slaves would remain loyal to them. Some did, but the vast majority crossed Union lines as soon as Northern troops entered their vicinity. A Confederate general stated in 1862 that North Carolina was losing approximately a million dollars every week because of the fleeing slaves.

Numbers of white southerners also refused to support the Confederacy. From the beginning, there were factions who vehemently disagreed with secession and remained loyal to the Union. Many poor southern whites became disillusioned during the course of the war. Wealthy planters had been granted exemptions from military service early on. This became especially inflammatory when the South instituted the draft in 1862 and the exemptions remained in place. It became clear to many poor southern whites that the war was being waged by the rich planters and the poor were fighting it. In addition, the common people were hit hard by wartime scarcity. By 1863, there was a food shortage. Riots and strikes occurred as inflation soared and people became desperate.

There were also northerners who resisted the war effort. Some were pacifists. Others were white men who resented the fact that the army was drafting them at the same time it excluded blacks. And there were whites who refused to fight once black soldiers were admitted. The North was also hit by economic depression, and enraged white people rioted against African Americans, who they accused of stealing their jobs.

Finally, on April 18, 1865, the Civil War ended with the surrender of the Confederate army. 617,000 Americans had died in the war, approximately the same number as in all of America's other wars combined. Thousands had been injured. The southern landscape was devastated.

A new chapter in American history opened as the Thirteenth Amendment, passed in January of 1865, was implemented. It abolished slavery in the United States, and now, with the end of the war, four million African Americans were free. Thousands of former slaves travelled throughout the south, visiting or searching for loved ones from whom they had become separated. Harriet Jacobs was one who returned to her old home. Former slaveholders faced the bewildering fact of emancipation with everything from concern to rage to despair.

Men and women -- black and white and in the North and South -- now began the work of rebuilding the shattered union and of creating a new social order. This period would be called Reconstruction. It would hold many promises and many tragic disappointments. It was the beginning of a long, painful struggle, far longer and more difficult than anyone could realize. It was the beginning of a struggle that is not yet finished.

As part of Reconstruction, two new amendments were added to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in June 1865, granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in February of 1869, guaranteed that no American would be denied the right to vote on the basis of race. For many African Americans, however, this right would be short-lived. Following Reconstruction, they would be denied their legal right to vote in many states until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But all of this was yet to come. The Americans of 1865 were standing at the point between one era and another. What they knew was that slavery was dead. With that 250 year legacy behind them, they faced the future.


Document Deep Dive: Emancipation Proclamation

When President Abraham Lincoln read the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet on July 22, 1862, it was to mixed reviews. Undeterred, he gathered that it would be best to announce his plan to free the slaves in seceded states on the heels of a Union victory. So, he waited.

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Exactly two months later, after the strategic win at Antietam, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, giving fair warning that he would sign an official version in 100 days.

The celebrated orator toiled over the exact wording of the final document right up until he signed it, on January 1, 1863. But, if Americans were expecting poetry, they were sorely disappointed. The proclamation was uncharacteristically plain.

Harold Holzer, a Civil War scholar who recently consulted on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, takes an in-depth look at the style and structure of the Emancipation Proclamation in his book, Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. He ultimately argues that the “leaden language” is a virtue, not a flaw—giving the order the strength to withstand legal challenges.

In a way, says Holzer, Karl Marx, a contemporary of Lincoln’s, described the president’s writing the best: “He always presents the most important act in the most insignificant form possible.”

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