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The United States of America: A History
Book 4: Chapter IV - Liberty to the Captive


THE slave question, out of which the rebellion sprang, presented for some time grave difficulties to the Northern Government. As the Northern armies forced their way southwards, escaped slaves flocked to them. These slaves were loyal subjects. Their owners were rebels in arms against the Government. Could the Government recognize the right of the rebel to own the loyal man? Again, the labour of the slaves contributed to the support of the rebellion. Was it not a clear necessity of war that Government should deprive the rebellion of this support by freeing all the slaves whom its authority could reach? But, on the other hand, some of the Slave States remained loyal. Over their slaves Government had no power, and much care was needed that no measure should be adopted of which they could justly complain.

The President had been all his life a steady foe to slavery. But he never forgot that, whatever his own feeling might be, he was strictly bound by law. his duty as President was, not to destroy slavery, but to save the Union. When the time came to overthrow this accursed system, he would do it with gladdened heart. Meanwhile he said, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do it."

From the very beginning of the war, escaped slaves crowded within the Federal lines. They wore willing to perform any labour, or to fight in a cause which they all knew to be their own. But the North was not yet freed from her habitual tenderness for Southern institutions. The negroes could not yet be armed. Nay, it was permitted to the owners of escaped slaves to enter the Northern lines and forcibly to carry back their property. General M'Clellan pledged himself not only (May 26, 1861) to avoid interference with slaves, but to crush with an iron hand any attempt at insurrection on their part. General Fremont, commanding in Missouri, issued an order which gave liberty to the slaves of persons who were fighting against the Union. The President, not yet deeming that measure indispensable, disallowed it. A little later it was proposed to arm the blacks. To that also the President objected. He would do nothing prematurely which might offend the loyal Slave States, and so hinder the restoration of the Union.

But in War opinion ripens fast. Men quickly learned, under that stern teacher, to reason that, as slavery had caused the rebellion, slavery should he extinguished. Congress met in December, with ideas which pointed decisively towards Abolition. Measures were passed which marked a great era in the history of slavery. The slaves of men who were in arms against the Government were declared to be free. Coloured men might be armed and employed as soldiers. Slavery was abolished within the District of Columbia. Slavery was prohibited for ever within all the Territories. Every slave escaping to the Union armies was to be free. Wherever the authority of Congress could reach, slavery was now at an end.

But something yet remained. Public sentiment in the North grew strong in favour of immediate and unconditional emancipation of all slaves within the revolted States. This view was pressed upon Lincoln. He hesitated long; not from reluctance, but because he wished the public mind to be thoroughly made up before he took this decisive step. At length his course was resolved upon. lie drew up a Proclamation, which (July  1862) gave freedom to all the slaves of the rebel States. He called a meeting of his Cabinet, which cordially sanctioned the measure. After New Year's Day of 1863 all persons held to slavery within the seceded territory were declared to be free. "And upon this act "—thus was the Proclamation closed—"sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favour of Almighty God."

This—one of the most memorable of all State papers—gave freedom to over three millions of slaves. It did not touch slavery in the loyal States ; for there the President had no authority to interfere. But all men knew that it involved the abolition of slavery in the loyal as well as in the rebellious States. henceforth slavery became impossible on any portion of American territory.

The deep significance of this great measure was most fully recognized by the Northern people. The churches gave thanks to God for this fulfilment of their long-cherished desire. Congress expressed its cordial approval. Innumerable public meetings resolved that the President's action deserved the support of the country. Bells pealed joyfully in the great cities and quiet villages of the East, and in the infant settlements of the distant West. Charles Sumner begged from the President the pen with which the Proclamation had been signed. The original draft of the document was afterwards sold for a large sum, at a fair held in Chicago for the benefit of the soldiers.

The South, too, understood this transaction perfectly. It was the triumphant and final expression of that Northern abhorrence to slavery which had provoked the slave-owners to rebel. It made reconciliation impossible. President Davis said to his Congress that it would calm the fears of those who apprehended a restoration of the old Union.

It is a painful reflection that the English Government utterly misunderstood this measure. Its official utterance on the subject was a sneer. Earl Russell, the Foreign Secretary of that day, wrote to our Ambassador at Washington that the Proclamation was "a measure of a very questionable kind." "It professes," he continued, "to emancipate slaves where the United States cannot make emancipation a reality, but emancipates no one where the decree can be carried into effect." Thus imperfectly had Earl Russell yet been able to comprehend this memorable page of modern history.


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