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Abraham Lincoln FAQ: Part Three

All week on the OUPblog we will be celebrating the Lincoln Bicentennial.  Be sure to read Jennifer Weber’s post on how Lincoln almost failed, the excerpt from James M. McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln, and Craig L. Symonds post on how Lincoln and his leadership are reflected in our current President. In the original piece below Allen Guelzo, author of Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction, answers some FAQs about Lincoln.  You can read part one here and part two here.

OUPblog: More than one observer has noted that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any enslaved people in the very territory controlled by Lincoln’s government. What then is its lasting importance?

Allen Guelzo: This is probably the most-frequently-repeated howler in American history, and no one who thinks twice about will ever believe they said it.

The question refers to an apparent oddity in the Emancipation Proclamation – Lincoln freed the slaves in the Confederate States, but did not free the slaves of the four border states which remained loyal to the Union or the slaves in the Southern areas which had been re-occupied by federal forces. So, Lincoln frees slaves where he can’t control them, and neglects to free them where he can. Right? Wrong.

We live under a Constitution which does not give Presidents plenary powers to do anything they like. Only in time of war or rebellion does the Constitution even surrender control of the armed forces to the President, and the “war powers” which the Constitution confers on the President are almost the only discretionary powers he has.

It was under the rubric of those “war powers” that Lincoln issued, and could only have issued, an Emancipation Proclamation. And since those four border states, and the occupied districts of the South, were not at war with the United States, or in rebellion against it any more, Lincoln had no “war power” authority to free any slaves there. If he had tried, slaveowners would have made a bee-line for the federal courts. And at the top of the federal judiciary, itching for a chance to strike down emancipation for good, sat Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision. Lincoln might have had the military power to free slaves in those places, but not the legal authority.

By the same token, Lincoln declares the slaves of the Confederacy free because, even though he lacks the military power at that moment to enforce his proclamation, he retained the legal authority to do so. Lincoln had never recognized the Confederacy as a valid government. In his eyes, it was an insurrection against the existing forms of constitutional government, and as such, it came directly under the weight of his “war powers.” He might not have been able to enforce the Proclamation at once, but that’s very different from saying he had no authority to free the slaves there. Having the authority, it was only a matter of time and events before the enforcement, in the form of the Union Army, caught up with the authority and liberated the ex-slaves from their masters. Many of those slaves saw the distinction clearly enough that they began running away in droves to the Union lines, where they knew that the Army would at once recognize their freedom. Together, Lincoln and the slaves made the Proclamation in reality what it already was in law. But the reality would never have happened without the law.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln called on the nation to remember the war dead by a re-dedication to “unfinished work.” What is unfinished today? The unfinished work he was talking about at Gettysburg was the war itself, which he realized had to be won if the principle of government of the people was to be vindicated. If there was a sense in which he looked beyond that, it was to the larger goal of bringing opportunity for self-advancement and self-improvement to as many as possible. For Lincoln, the promise of the Declaration (that “proposition” that all men are created equal) was realized best when an open and democratic society gave to everyone the freedom to climb as far as talent and ambition could take them – as he himself had. Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, once wrote that Lincoln “was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.” Douglass attributed Lincoln’s lack of racial bias to Lincoln’s sympathy with Douglass’s struggle and the “similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest round of the ladder.” I confess, having also started on that “lowest round,” that this is what fascinates me most about Lincoln, too.

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