Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan—Three Main Features

From the lecture series: Mr. Lincoln — The Life of Abraham Lincoln

By Allen C. Guelzo, PhD, Princeton University

Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation plan had what he called “three main features.” It had to be gradual, it had to pay compensation, and it had to have the vote of the people. In other words, any idea of emancipation should be on a timetable rather than an immediate shock to the system.

Abraham Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation, by David Gilmour Blythe 1863
(Image: By Ehrgott, Forbriger & Co., lithographer; Blythe, David Gilmour, 1815-1865, artist /Library of Congress)

The Shape of Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan

It should involve the payment of compensation to the slave owners—not so much as a kind of reward for them as slave owners, but to put into their hands the cash they would need to hire the former slaves as free laborers afterward—and emancipation should be approved by a vote of the people, or at least by their representatives in the state legislatures.

Although Lincoln as president had no power to force such a plan on the four slave states that had remained in the Union—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—he was certainly prepared to do everything he could to entice them into doing it themselves.

As early as November of 1861, Lincoln drew up a gradual, compensated emancipation scheme for the state of Delaware, which would have granted the state of Delaware, still a slave state in 1861, $700,000 in government bonds to finance the emancipation of all of Delaware’s slaves over the following 32 years.

This is a transcript from the video series Mr. Lincoln: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

As early as November of 1861, Lincoln drew up a gradual, compensated emancipation scheme for the state of Delaware, which would have granted the state of Delaware, still a slave state in 1861, $700,000 in government bonds to finance the emancipation of all of Delaware’s slaves over the following 32 years.

In March of 1862, Lincoln drafted a resolution for Congress endorsing federal compensation for emancipation in all the other border states. But instead of grasping for this promised buyout of slavery, the border states, including Delaware, rose up as one and threw the offer back in Lincoln’s face, telling him and the federal government to mind their own business.

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Lincoln Shocks His Cabinet  

By the time Lincoln returned from Harrison’s Landing and his meeting with George B. McClellan, he had been no more successful in getting the border states to adopt compensated emancipation than he had been in getting McClellan to win victories. In fact, he now had to deal with the possibility that McClellan just might be tinkering with the idea of some form of military intervention, maybe even a coup, followed by a negotiated peace with the Confederacy, and that would sweep emancipation off the table for good.

On July 13, 1862, he astounded members of his cabinet by announcing that he had given it much thought and had come to the conclusion that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” After all, slavery was what the rebels at Shiloh and Richmond had shown they were fighting for, and slave labor on the plantations was freeing up southern white men to fight in the Confederate army.

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Carrying a Rifle or a Shovel 

Slaves working for the Confederate army were allowing white men to carry rifles instead of shovels. Therefore, let the war become a war to emancipate the slaves, and when it did, every slave working for the Confederacy would throw down his hoe or his shovel and run for the Union lines and the promise of freedom. They might even rise in arms to assist the Union forces.

This might not be the kind of emancipation plan Lincoln had originally had in view, but he no longer had the time that he needed to make gradual, compensated, voluntary emancipation work. Besides, emancipation would light a fire in the Confederate rear that the rebels would never be able to put out, and that was more than George McClellan was doing.

Learn more about how Lincoln drew on his confidence in the will of God and his shrewd powers of analyzing people and situations to triumph

“A Fit and Necessary Military Measure…” 

image showing the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at a Cabinet meeting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter 1864
First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at a Cabinet meeting (Image: By Francis Bicknell Carpenter – U.S. Senate: Art & History Home > First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln/Public domain)

On July 27, 1862, Lincoln called a special cabinet meeting and unveiled a proclamation that he proposed to issue. It was a brief document but promised a very big bang.

“As a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three … all persons held as slaves within any state or states wherein the Constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to and maintained, shall then thenceforward and forever be free.”

With those words, Lincoln was abandoning all his previous attempts at persuading the state legislatures to do the emancipating, and he was doing it himself because this constituted a legitimate exercise of his war powers as commander-in-chief.

That, curiously enough, was not the most surprising aspect of this proclamation. Although there was dangerously little jurisprudence in American law that specified exactly what the president’s war powers were, nations had frequently used the promise of emancipation to lure an enemy nation’s slaves into running away.

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The British had done so in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The radical gesture Lincoln was making was to declare these slaves —whom he was now enticing into running away and deserting their rebel masters—“forever free.”

Freedom and International Law 

Under international law, freed slaves in the time of war were liable to be returned to their owners, or at least owners could sue for compensation in the same way that they could sue for other losses and damages they had incurred in wartime. But as Lincoln would have been very quick to point out, this Civil War was not a matter of international law. It was not a war between separate sovereign nations at all; it was a domestic insurrection, and in that case, Lincoln asserted that no obligation to return freed slaves to bondage after the end of the war would exist. In other words, once this proclamation came into effect, Lincoln was pledging the United States, come what may, to treat the slaves as free men and women forever.

Common Questions About Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan

Q: What did Abraham Lincoln say in the Emancipation Proclamation?

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, given on January 1, 1863, stated that all slaves within the “rebellious” states (those states which had succeeded from the Union) would be free. Of course, there were limitations both in the proclamation and in the obstacles to be overcome before all slaves would be freed, but this was at least a step in the right direction.

Q: Why did Lincoln create the Emancipation Proclamation?

The Emancipation Proclamation was largely used by Lincoln as a political move to gain an upper hand on the enemies in the war effort, as it created a barrier for Confederates who wanted to use slaves to fight on their behalf. It set the tone, though, for the eventually abolishment of slavery as a whole.

Q: What happened after the Emancipation Proclamation?

Because the Emancipation Proclamation made a connection between Confederate states and slavery, it mobilized forces for the North in that former Confederate slaves joined the Union, and European nations—who were largely against slavery—began supporting the Union as well.

Q: Why did Lincoln consider emancipation, and why did he wait to announce his plan?

Lincoln’s motives for emancipation were both moral and political. He knew that slavery wasn’t right, but he also knew that slavery was an issue that divided not only the country but also the European countries whom America depended on for support. He waited to announce his plan because he wanted to introduce the freedom of slaves gradually. If he carried out his plan too abruptly, the nation would descend into chaos.

This article was updated on November 18, 2020

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