The Varied Political Views on Emancipation During the Civil War


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Emancipation was a critical issue in the American Civil War, but contrary to popular belief, the entire war was not based on that itself. In fact, when the war started, a lot of people were in favor of slavery. Within the Republic Party, there were different views regarding emancipation. Read to know more about these differences and their impacts.

Photograph of an African American slave family.
Emancipation was one of the most divisive issues of the Civil War, and different political standpoints led to different views on the topic, at times within a political party as well. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Within the Republican Party, there were a number of divisive viewpoints on emancipation, which made for an interesting, but complex dynamic. But, overall, there were three major divisions based on how people viewed emancipation. 

The Conservative View on Emancipation

Most of the conservatives wanted the ultimate end of slavery, deeming it to be a bad institution. But they were clearly gradualists, who believed in action by the individual states, and wanted to link emancipation to colonization of the freed slaves abroad. Their general view was to do it slowly, let the states oversee it, and then ship those people out of the country once they’re freed. 

The largest group of Republicans, however, were the moderates, and Lincoln was the foremost member of this group. 

Learn more about soldiers during the civil war.

The Moderate View on Slavery

The moderates wished to end slavery sooner than the conservatives, but were fearful of the potential social distress that could accompany sudden revolution. They were afraid of certain racial tension in areas where slavery had hitherto been prominent. In fact, early in the war, many of the moderates agreed with the conservatives in carefully tackling the issue. Many of the moderates, including Lincoln, believed in the colonization of freed slaves. 

With the progress of the war, however, as the costs, both human and material, continued to pile up, many of the moderates began to take on a more radical position on emancipation. They moved further away from the conservatives and moved toward the radicals, joining the third faction in the party.

Radical View on Emancipation

The radicals were the outright antislavery members of the party, who wanted slavery abolished then and there. They wanted the end of slavery to be part of Northern policy immediately, making freedom a war aim. They wanted the war to be about freedom as well as union. They didn’t want to bother about the constitutional niceties of it being a domestic institution and letting the states take care of it.

They pointed out the war power clause of the Constitution as a way around it. They said that this clause gave the Federal government the power to strike at slavery. According to this clause, at least as per the radicals, the South lost its constitutional guarantees when it seceded.

The radicals were always a minority in the party, but their aggression afforded them great influence. Their vision was clear, and they held key posts in Congress, disproportionately so, in fact. Some radicals, really, played pivotal roles in the Senate. 

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Key Radicals in the Senate

Most of the revolutionary radicals had been born and reared in New England, the home of true Republican and antislavery radicalism. Out of 22 committees in the Senate, men born or raised in New England controlled 16 of them.

One of the most striking figures of the time was Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a tall, immensely learned, brilliant orator, who believed he was smarter than everyone else, perhaps rightly so. He was also obnoxious in reminding everyone of this. 

Portrait of Charles Sumner.
Charles Sumner was a brilliant, albeit obnoxious, radical, who fought for emancipation. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

A Harvard lawyer, and veteran reform crusader, he called for immediate emancipation as soon as the war began, and claimed that the South had forfeited all of its constitutional rights, and should be made in the image of the North.

Another key figure was Henry Wilson, not as famous or commanding as Sumner, but indomitable still. While Sumner chaired the committee on Foreign Affairs, Wilson chaired the one on Military Affairs. 

Another radical, Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, chaired the Committee on Naval Affairs, while Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, yet another radical, chaired the Committee on Commerce. 

Then, there was Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio. A true radical, he fought for women’s rights and labor reforms, and was one of the founders of the Republican Party. He had a quick temper and wanted a no-holds-barred prosecution of the war. Ironically, he was also a huge racist, despite his insistence on emancipation. 

Learn more about the role of slavery in causing the war.

Thaddeus Stevens

The picture shows the portrait of Thadeus Stevens.
Thaddeus Stevens was a sharp witted philanthropist who had donated most of his considerable fortune. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Thaddeus Stevens was the most revolutionary amongst the Republicans. Jeered at and taunted as a boy, he championed the weak groups, including those of color, all his life. 

Having made and lavishly donated his considerable fortune, he hated what he called the bloated aristocrats of the South, the slaveholding elite. He literally wanted the pre-war South destroyed, slaveholders reduced to absolute poverty and punished, and the immediate emancipation of slaves. 

Stevens was known for his grim sense of humor and sharp tongue in debate. 

Before the midpoint of the war, many of the moderates gravitated towards the radical point of view. On the other hand, almost all Democrats opposed emancipation in the North. 

Learn more about the secession of the South.

The Democrat Stance on Emancipation

The Democrats in the North were willing to fight to preserve the Union, but not to free the slaves. Often, in Senate, they would use language that would be extremely offensive today. There were some concrete reasons for this sentiment in the North.

The Irish and other immigrants, residents of the lower tier of counties in the Midwest, were violently antiblack, as were many laborers who feared competition from black labor. Since almost all the black people at the time lived in the South, their emancipation risked their flooding into the North. 

This sentiment was echoed, and exacerbated, by the controversy surrounding the topic of miscegenation. A newspaper once prophesied that “Two or three million semi-savages will inundate the North after emancipation to mix with the sons and daughters of white working men.” 

This attitude also applied to most soldiers in the army, most of whom did not enlist to free slaves. The vast majority of Northern soldiers were in service to save the Union, not to free slaves, though many eventually accepted emancipation as a way to defeat the South. 

So, it was the two prongs of economic competition and racial mixing that brought out the worst in the white North and created a great deal of antipathy towards black people. 

Common Questions about the Varied Views on Emancipation During the Civil War

Q: What were the various categorizations of Republican views on slavery?

According to their views on emancipation during the Civil War, the Republicans were categorized into three groups: the conservatives, who wanted to abolish slavery, but gradually; the moderates, the largest group, who wanted to abolish slavery quickly, but were reticent because of fears of social upheaval; and the radicals, who wished to put an immediate stop to slavery through any means possible.

Q: Who was Thaddeus Stevens?

Thaddeus Stevens was the most revolutionary amongst the Republicans. Jeered at and taunted as a boy, he championed the weak groups, including those of color, all his life. Stevens was known for his grim sense of humor and sharp tongue in debate. 

Q: What were some reasons for which emancipation was opposed in the North?

Emancipation was opposed in the North because of two primary concerns. Firstly, there was an economic concern that the newly freed black laborers would move to the North and compete with the white laborers there. Secondly, there was the social, and wildly racist concern about miscegenation or racial mixing. These culminated into a vehement anti-emancipation perspective that many, including many Democrat leaders, held.

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North vs. South: Prelude to the American Civil War
Slavery, Compromise, and the Long Road to War