Obama on Lincoln as a compromiser

By Michael Lynch

Like many other American politicians, President Obama invokes the legacy of Abraham Lincoln from time to time.  He did so while discussing the current debt ceiling controversy, referring to the Emancipation Proclamation as an example of Lincoln’s willingness to make compromises:

“This notion that somehow if you’re responsible and you compromise, that somehow you’re giving up your convictions — that’s absolutely not true,” the president said at a University of Maryland town hall.

While the proclamation declared slaves who were in areas that had rebelled against the Union to be free, Lincoln exempted five slave states from the terms of the agreement.

The basis for the proclamation was its utility as a war measure and Lincoln excluded several areas on the basis that they were not at war against the U.S. because they remained loyal to the Union.

“Now think about that,” Obama said. “The Great Emancipator was making a compromise in the Emancipation Proclamation because he thought it was necessary in terms of advancing the goals of preserving the Union and winning the war.”

With the August 2nd deadline to default rapidly approaching, Obama asked if Lincoln can do it, why can’t Congress?

“So, you know what?  If Abraham Lincoln could make some compromises as part of governance, then surely we can make some compromises when it comes handling our budget,” Obama said.

Obama was correct in noting that the proclamation did not completely and immediately eradicate slavery.  Lincoln considered abolitionists’ calls for an immediate and total end to slavery to be unrealistic, and believed that he lacked the authority to simply extinguish slavery by decree.

When he finally issued his Emancipation Proclamation, he did so as a war measure, exercising his military authority in a time of rebellion.  Those states and portions of states still in revolt were the only areas where Lincoln could invoke this extraordinary power.  The loyal border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri were therefore exempt.  So was Tennessee (much of which had fallen into Union hands), along with parts of Virginia (particularly those western counties in the process of becoming a separate state) and southern Louisiana.

This map shows the Emancipation Proclamation's reach. Slaves in areas colored red were declared free. Slavery existed in the light blue areas, but these regions were exempt from the proclamation. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Critics of Lincoln sometimes claim that the proclamation was both ineffectual and hypocritical—ineffectual because it supposedly freed no one, and hypocritical because it applied only to areas over which Lincoln’s government had no effective control.  These critics are wrong on both counts.  The proclamation did free many slaves, and it did so immediately. Parts of the Carolinas, Alabama, and Virginia had fallen behind Union lines but weren’t exempted, so thousands of slaves in these regions became free when the proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863.  And, of course, slaves who were still in Confederate-held territory on that date eventually experienced emancipation once Union armies penetrated and occupied the areas where they lived.  The claim that the proclamation did not free anyone is therefore simply untrue.

Having taken the fateful step of moving against the institution, Lincoln also played a crucial role in securing freedom for those slaves in the areas exempted under the proclamation.  He sought and achieved the passage of a constitutional amendment which permanently and completely eradicated slavery in the United States, and the states ratified this Thirteenth Amendment after his death.  This measure freed those slaves who remained in bondage in Kentucky and Delaware; Maryland and Missouri had already taken action to end slavery within their borders by that time.

While portraying the Emancipation Proclamation as a half-way measure is somewhat accurate, it minimizes the political and constitutional realities Lincoln faced.  He acted decisively and dramatically, but he did so within the limits of what he believed his authority to be at the time.  The proclamation was thus something of a paradox—a measure both cautious and radical at the same time.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

4 Comments

Filed under Lincoln and Memory, Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief

4 responses to “Obama on Lincoln as a compromiser

  1. Pingback: Was the Emancipation Proclamation a moderate measure or a radical one? | Past in the Present

  2. Foner has a really good map in The Fiery Trial, that shows areas where the Emancipation Proclamation did have a real, and immediate, effect. As I recall, it encompassed the Sea Islands on the Atlantic Coast, parts of the Florida Keys, and a long stretch of occupied territory in the west along the Mississippi. Foner estimates the number of slaves freed directly and immediately by the EP as upwards of 50,000 — a very tiny part of the whole, for sure, but not an insignificant number, especially to those slaves themselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s