The Emancipation Proclamation: Do Two Wrongs Make a Right?

The Emancipation Proclamation: Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? September 20, 2012

Slavery is wrong. It is sinful. A pernicious evil in which humans seek to become as God over their fellow man. I hate it with a passion. And my heart hurts for the countless thousands of peoples who are in bondage still today across the world. Support one such freedom spreading orgnaization here.

The Sunken Road or “Bloody Lane” at Antietam that filled with 2,000+ casualties in a few hours.

And yet after a recent visit to the sacred grounds of Antietam, site of the bloodiest 12 hours in American military history, I find myself asking troubling questions about a document that supposedly began the end of slavery in our country. School children are taught from an early age that by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. But in doing so, was he wrong?

Can two wrongs make a right?

I know some historical experts far more knowledgeable in such issues will have a deeper take on it. And I suspect my questions are not new. But with the 150th commemoration of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, maybe it’s time to revisit them — without having charges of “Racist!” flying in the comments for daring to ask the obvious.

My questions were triggered by the many incredibly knowledgeable presentations given by National Park Rangers who did a phenomenal job of handling the 50,000+ visitors each of the three days of our visit to Antietam this past weekend. They truly did a magnificent job.

One ranger in particular, though, answered a question poised to him by my son: what is the one thing we should remember about the significance of the Battle at Antietam? He replied that the battle was the prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation — as if the Proclamation itself was a significant event worth the sacrifice of over 23,000 dead, wounded, and missing in the space of twelve hours. Not being the jerk that some might think me to be, I chose not to ask my questions then and embarrass him — or me.

A few sincere questions

But here are my questions about the Emancipation Proclamation, sincerely offered, because I’m concerned that Lincoln may have hoped that two wrongs would indeed make a right and help bring an end to slavery in a re-united United States.

  1. Did Lincoln even have the authority to issue it? As best I can tell, Lincoln claimed authority under the War Powers Act to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But if the President could simply have waived away the institution of slavery, wouldn’t it have been done long before instead of tolerating decades of Congressional wrangling and compromises? In many ways, Lincoln’s action reminds me of John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry a few years prior. In an effort to arm slaves and inspire them to rebel, Brown stormed the ferry and seized the arsenal there — at least for a little while. I stood in his “fort” last Saturday and thought again that this guy had the right motive, but the wrong means. Did Lincoln have any constitutional authority for mandating the end of slavery in the southern states or did he hope that re-uniting the union would justify his actions?
  2. Why did Lincoln only free slaves in the South? Few people know, I suspect, that Lincolon’s Emancipation Proclamation triggered by Antietam only proclaimed as free those slaves in Southern states — that is states that no longer recognized his authority. In many ways that would be like my proclaiming that all abortions will now be illegal throughout China. I think they should be, by the way, but no one there cares what I say. The Southern states clearly no longer cared what Lincoln said.  I suspect his true motives were revealed more by what he didn’t say than by what he did. He did not proclaim slaves to be free in border states — such as in Maryland itself — that supposedly did recognize his authority. Why? ( I’ve heard the War Powers limits argument, but don’t buy it.) The short answer is that those states would likely have ignored his directive on Constitutional grounds. It would have created more political chaos than he could afford at that time. According to one knowledgeable park ranger, Maryland itself had 2/3 of the eligible population disenfranchised (that’s right, they were not permitted to vote) in order to force a new constitution on them that was supportive of the North. Hmmm. Don’t remember reading that one in the history books in school.
  3. What was the real motive for it? According to several accounts at the park, I discovered that Lincoln had been waiting for an opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation after a victory of sorts in the east for the North. By making the move then, he hoped to portray the conflict as a moralistic one — about slavery and not over a state’s right to secede — to deter Great Britain from entering the fray. The tie at Antietam — a net loss for Lee and the South — gave Lincoln the opening to make what essentially amounted to a savvy PR move to recast the conflict and give the North the moral high ground. But did he do so by claiming authority that was not his? And if so, why do we so exalt a Proclamation whose idea looks good on paper but in practice accomplished no new freedom for anyone and trampled the Constitution to do so?

Again the disclaimer that has become necessary whenever we discuss issues of race. Slavery is evil. Why the South ever thought otherwise is beyond me — especially when there were so many devout Presbyterians there. But I digress.  On the issue of state’s right’s I think they had good standing. But the whole slavery thing, I confess, puzzles and grieves me greatly.

I suppose we must recall that the entire world supported the practice of slavery in some form prior to the work of Wilberforce and take comfort that our nation is the only one to ever have fought a war that resulted in its end. Wherever the gospel has gone, it has eventually set the captives free.

But I just can’t shake an old adage I heard as a lad: “It’s never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right.”

Is that what Lincoln did with the Emancipation Proclamation? Was Lincoln wrong? All civil comments welcome with a click here.

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  • Eric L

    This website includes an answer to your questions that seems reasonable while being much less cynical than “Lincoln did a good thing in a bad way”:;view=fulltext

    The most relevant quote:

    “Civil War contemporaries and historians alike have criticized the Emancipation Proclamation. It did not free any slaves on the day it was promulgated; slavery was left undisturbed in the border states and in those portions of the Confederacy in Union hands; only the slaves in areas of rebellion were declared to be free. This semi-abolition approach stemmed not from Lincoln’s reluctance to terminate slavery, as some historians imply, but rather from his own doubts about the federal government’s lack of authority to touch slavery in the loyal areas. The Emancipation Proclamation itself he regarded as a legitimate weapon of war — an act of confiscation ‘warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity,’ and an act that could apply only to areas still engaging in insurrection.”

  • Jay Saldana

    Morning Bill, this was an enjoyable exercise. I had fun digging through dusty tomes for this reply. It took a while, so sorry for the delay.

    (Information quoted from WILL HUHN, from FEBRUARY 17, 2009

    “Lincoln was forced to acknowledge that the Constitution countenanced slavery. Constitutional provisions such as the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave trade clause made it clear that slavery, in and of itself, was not unconstitutional, even though neither the word “slave” nor the word “slavery” appears in the Constitution itself. Lincoln remarked on how ashamed the framers seemed to be of slavery. In the Peoria Address Lincoln likened the framers’ refusal to use the word “slavery” to a disease that the victim wishes to deny or conceal, but which he nevertheless longs to be free of. Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.”

    “However, Lincoln’s election as President did not, in his view, give him the lawful power to end slavery. Moral considerations, even in as clear a case as slavery, are not enough to clothe the President or any other public official with legal power. But the southern states seceded and rebelled, and as a result President Lincoln justified emancipation as a necessary war measure, and he issued the Emancipation Proclamation under the power granted to him by the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. Here is what the Emancipation Proclamation says:
    ‘I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, … order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free ….
    Lincoln’s reasoning:
    In one of his public letters to the American people (but addressed to a private individual, James Conkling) Lincoln explained why it had been lawful and constitutional for him to free the slaves in territory controlled by the confederacy:
    ‘You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional – I think differently. I think the constitution invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there – has there ever been – any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy? Armies, the world over, destroy enemies’ property when they can not use it; and even destroy their own to keep it from the enemy. Civilized belligerents do all in their power to help themselves, or hurt the enemy, except a few things regarded as barbarous or cruel. Among the exceptions are the massacre of vanquished foes, and non-combatants, male and female’.

    Note how Lincoln uses the arguments of slaveholders against their own position. They contend that slaves are property, and no more; Lincoln believes that they are people and that they are entitled to all of the fundamental rights which are guarantied by the Declaration of Independence, but he responds to the southerners that the property rights of belligerents in war can be extinguished.

    A few months later, as it became clearer that the armed forces of the United States would prevail against the seccessionist armies, the people of the north began to contemplate what their society should be like when the war was over – in particular, how they should proceed with the reconstruction of the south and whether slavery would continue to exist. Lincoln proposed generous terms for the people of the south; for example, he said that a state government could reenter the Union as soon as 10 percent of its citizens took an oath to the United States and the Constitution. However, in his annual message to Congress on December 8, 1863, Lincoln said that he would also require former rebels to swear obedience to the Emancipation Proclamation as well. Lincoln argued:
    “ But if it be proper to require, as a test of admission to the political body, an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, and to the Union under it, why also to the laws and proclamations in regard to slavery? Those laws and proclamations were enacted and put forth for the purpose of aiding in the suppression of the rebellion. To give them their fullest effect, there had to be a pledge for their maintenance. In my judgment they have aided, and will further aid, the cause for which they were intended. To now abandon them would be not only to relinquish a lever of power, but would also be a cruel and an astounding breach of faith. I may add at this point, that while I remain in my present position I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress. For these and other reasons it is thought best that support of these measures shall be included in the oath; and it is believed the Executive may lawfully claim it in return for pardon and restoration of forfeited rights, which he has clear constitutional power to withhold altogether, or grant upon the terms which he shall deem wisest for the public interest. It should be observed, also, that this part of the oath is subject to the modifying and abrogating power of legislation and supreme judicial decision.

    In the last sentence of the foregoing passage Lincoln acknowledged that this part of the oath was “subject to … legislation and supreme judicial decision.” Lincoln recognized that the oath to support emancipation and even the Emancipation Proclamation itself could be repealed by Congress or invalidated by the courts. This is why he labored so vigorously for the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, which would change the Constitution and outlaw slavery forever. Lincoln made the adoption of this Amendment the centerpiece of the platform of the Republican Party in 1864. In that election he swept to victory and brought 37 new Republican congressmen into office with him. The Thirteenth Amendment was adopted by Congress on January 31, less than three months before the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s death. It provides:
    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

    Since, Bill, you are a man of reason you can follow Lincoln’s thought process:
    1. As commander in Chief, he could order the dissolution of property or the capture of property for the war effort. (the slave holder’s own values used against them.)
    2. Since the proclamation only applied during hostilities he instituted a “new agreement” as part of rejoining the union, thus extending it temporarily in formally rebellious states only.
    3. To make it law since it was initially constitutional, Lincoln created, and declared an Amendment as a election platform, ran on it and then once elected, passed the 13th Amendment and made it unlawful through out the whole country incorporating all the states including non secessionist.
    So it seems your fears where unfounded. There were no “two wrongs” except a desire to see Government as wrong where no wrong existed. Government can and does do great things for us all the time.
    Have a God filled day.
    of the enemy.

    • Thanks, Jay. I knew I could count on you to give some input on this!

      First thought: so Lincoln adopted thinking that he believed to be wrong — slaves are property — to take action he believed to be right? Aren’t we back to the ends justifying the means?
      Second: the whole issue was whether or not the states were, in fact, in rebellion. They didn’t think so. They just wanted to leave. They were only at war becasue Lincoln forced it to be so (from their perspective). So his own action positioned himself as Commander-in-Chief and gave him what he thought were war powers. By assuming that they were in rebellion to justify his action, how did that change anything? I’m still left with it being a PR move on his part — a successful one I might add given the historical perception of his action.
      Third, I agree with your point on the Thirteenth Amendment. I applaud the passage of that Amendment through Constituional channels. It’s what he did mid-war that still troubles me.

      And Jay, I know government can and does do great things for us all the time. It is also potentially the greatets evil because it is simply us potentially evil people with concentrated power.

      Enough with the “enemy” talk. You’re practically family.

      • Jeremy Forbing

        Whether or not the Southern states were in rebellion– I don’t see how they could be defined any other way, but in any case– the states that remained were, at the point when the proclamation was issued, at war with them. Men were dying on battlefields, two armies were attacking each other’s territories, it was a war. The reasons behind that war are not relevant to Lincoln’s authority under the War Powers act. Under that act, he made a legal declaration on how the nation he was elected to lead would consider certain noncombatant persons in enemy territory, both during and after wartime. That was entirely within the realm of how nations behave in war. After the declaration, there was no longer any chance of returning to the status-quo antebellum. Also, Lincoln did not position himself as Commander-in-Chief. He was elected Commander-in-Chief, in a nation that has always had a civilian-led military to protect its citizens’ freedoms, and he held that position from the moment he was sworn in until the day he died.

        • Eagle

          When it comes to the issue of rebellion it comes down to perspective. Take the Revolutionary War for Independence. If you look at it from the British perspective it was either an insurrection or civil war. From our perspective it was the war that led to independence. So in the north it was viewed as the Civil War while in the south some viewed it as a war for independence. And you have to remember that all the industrial bases were in the north. Slavery largely died in the north though was practcied on the bordering union states. In the south which was agriarian driven those who supportted slavery were those who owned plantations, etc.. For many people in the south slavery was a non-issue. To own slaves you had to be quite wealthy and most slaves were financailly out of reach for the common southerner.

          • Good points. What do you make of the argument that minumum wage laws were an effort by the North to level the work force playing field?

  • Guest

    It’s amazing how “states rights” get tossed around to justify everything from slavery to legislation oppressive of homosexuals. Even though I find your “two wrongs” idea repugnant (it was wrong for Lincoln to free slaves? what difference does it make how he did it?), I’m more repulsed by the fact that in Southern Christianity the Bible continues to be used to justify evil, like the free market, oppression of gays and women, and continued oppression of minorities (see recent Voter fraud legislation). Your thoughts are typical of the conservative tactic of being racist and oppressive without coming out and saying it. The SBC only apologized for their role in slavery IN 1995. 1995. You sound like it was a mistake for them to make that apology even then.

    • Thank you, Guest, for the comment. As predicted, the “racist” charge was hurled in the comments. I don’t think I could have been any clearer about what I think of slavery. Are you saying that the means do not matter when you think them justified by the ends? Not sure what to make about your free market is evil implication or seeing how asking someone to prove who they are in order to vote is opporessive. Frankly, I think your thinking is offensive to whatever minorities you may be referring to.

      If I understand you correctly, any action would have been justified to end the moral scourge of slavery. With that thinking then we could also justify a whole lot of wrongs to end the moral travesty that is abortion correct?

      • Jeremy Forbing

        This begs the question: Was slavery justified by the notion of states’ rights? Is that the same thing as saying abortion is justified by womens’ rights?

  • Nathaniel

    Well then, the question must be asked of you: What would be the “right” way to end slavery?

  • Lincoln favored a plan of gradual, compensated emancipation as a way to reunite the Union. He outlined it in a message to Congress on March 6, 1862 and again in a speech to Congress on Dec. 1 of the same year.
    Southern apologists such as the Presbyterian theologians James H. Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney could argue that the Bible does not condemn slavery per se, and that in some ways the “southern system of labor,” as they called it, was more humane than the free labor market that prevailed in the North. The problem is that the idealized system of slavery that they defended in their writings was not the actual system of slavery practiced in the South.
    Southern session was based on Constitutional issues, not slavery per se. Lincoln saw the war as an insurrection or “great rebellion.” Southerners saw it as a war of independence. In that sense they were being consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence of 1776.
    And Lincoln was right — he was trying very hard not to exceed his powers under the Constitution. We are a nation under the rule of law, not of men!

    • Bob, You make a good point about the Presbyterian defense of the “idealized” version of slavery and not the practical version. Some might argue that many trapped in dead-end jobs are enslaved in many ways. Thank you for the insigth and reminders.

  • John Haas

    Any good biography of Lincoln–Richard Carwardine’s for example–will give you better discussions of your questions than randomly crowd-sourcing them on the interweb. You might also consult a good history of the Civil War–McPherson’s, eg–and Allen Guelzo even has an entire prize-winning book on the Emancipation Proclamation. If you’re as interested in the topic as you say, you’d read upon it.

    • Thanks, John. I have read many such biographies. My questions remained in spite of — and perhaps because of the many differing perspectives.

    • Eagle

      When I studied histiorgraphy in grad school the Lincoln biography that is official was Stephen Oates, “With Malice Toward None”. That is the the biograghy to read.

  • Jeremy Forbing

    I am still not understanding the argument of this blog post. I just re-read and it still makes no sense.

  • Eagle

    I was a history grad student about 10 years ago, let me take a crack at the question on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

    On why did Lincoln not apply the Emancipation Proclamation in the north you have to remember that slavery was mostly confined to the south. The north became industrialized and slavery died off or become irrevlent. The south however did not industrialize, as a result they became more dependent on slavery and it grew. The Emancipation Proclamation was also a weapon toward the south. You see, the Confederacy was trying to establish diplomatic recongiziton and was waiting for Britian or France or some other nation state in Europe to recognize them. Lincoln feared this and ordered a blockade to prevent the Confederacy from shipping cotton to Great Britain. This actually affected production in the British isles.

    Also you have to remember that Lincoln didn’t want border states to secede. Tennessee was the last state to secede in June 1861. He didn’t want Kentucky or Missouri to follow suit. In the end it was politics and an effort to help preserve the north while draining the south of its primary economic factor. It was brilliant actually.

    • I agree with your assesment. I see the brilliance of the move poltiically. I’m uneasy that we aren’t honest with our kids about the political reality of the situation.