New Revelations as the Emancipation Proclamation Turns 150

By Phil Magness

Last week, January 1, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. For those of you who missed Phil Magness’ webcast last month, our in house Civil War and Lincoln historian has written up a reflection on the Emancipation Proclamation that we’ve republished with his permission.

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On September 22, 1862 Abraham Lincoln issued what has since become known as the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Though less famous than its successor of January 1, 1863, this document publicly announced the president’s plan to declare “all persons held as slaves” in the states and portions of states still in rebellion “forever free” 100 days thereafter. In addition to this famous antislavery provision came two less-known stipulations – an offer “pecuniary aid” to any state that would voluntarily abolish the institution of slavery in its borders, and a corresponding pledge “to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere.”

This old “Whig formula” of compensated emancipation and colonization was a hallmark of moderate antislavery thought in the antebellum decades, finding champions in men such as Henry Clay and, later, Abraham Lincoln himself. After attaching it to the preliminary Proclamation in September the president affirmed it once again in his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862. Many historians have accordingly found it curious that both propositions are nowhere to be found in the text of the final Emancipation Proclamation. By January 1, 1863 the “Whig formula” simply seems to have vanished.

Where did colonization and compensated emancipation disappear to during this month-long interlude, and what then are we to make of Lincoln’s apparent decision to drop them from his final proclamation? After 150 years this question still begs historians for an explanation, with many suggesting that Lincoln took the opportunity of January 1st to move away from these moderate and highly conditional positions in favor of a more radical emancipationist stance. Others interpret it as the beginning of a gradual evolutionary move in the same direction. In both cases though, the evidence is almost entirely speculative if not outright wishful thinking.

Though Lincoln indisputably opposed slavery – the Emancipation Proclamation was indeed a move intended to ultimately extinguish the institution – his attachment to the “Whig formula” adds unsettling qualifiers to the Great Emancipator’s legacy, not the least because its provisions strike the modern reader as perplexingly retrograde. Reading its abandonment into the silence of the final Emancipation Proclamation accordingly seems to offer us an escape clause to the complexity of this earlier dual proposition in Lincoln’s thought.

As we reflect upon the 150th anniversary of the final Proclamation though, a closer evidentiary examination cautions against writing history from conjectural interpretations around “missing” words. In reality, we may conclusively say that Lincoln continued to pursue his colonization policy unabated well after the Proclamation, and quite probably still believed in it at the end of his life. He similarly held out compensated emancipation as late as February 1865, indicating that the “Whig formula” did not really disappear after all.

New clues to its disposition vis-à-vis the final Proclamation may be found in a closer examination of the events around New Year’s Day 1863, as my colleague Sebastian Page recently illustrated. Rather than dropping the provisions from the final Proclamation, Lincoln simply parsed them out for continuation – even simultaneously adding his signature to a separate colonization contract that same winter morning 150 years ago.

The context of the colonization in particular may be seen through the 24 hour period preceding the Proclamation. The president had previously distributed a draft of the document to his cabinet, which met on the morning of December 31 to offer revisions and prepare the final copy. Several officers provided stylistic suggestions, though curiously none pertained to the missing “Whig formula” from the September 22 proclamation. Not even Postmaster General Montgomery Blair – the most vocal colonizationist on the cabinet – seemed to notice its absence much less object, as one might expect if the omission was intended to signal a change in the administration’s policy. As with others on the cabinet he likely knew that this was explicitly not the case, and indeed that the president would be finishing negotiations on a colonization project later that very same evening.

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