In the fall of 1862, Robert E. Lee would do something he would regret; he moved his army into Maryland, hoping to find recruits and supplies. Unfortunately for Lee, a copy of his plans for troop deployments had been discovered by Union soldiers. General McClellan, then over the Union Army, moved to intercept, and the result was the Battle of Antietam. The date of that conflict, September 17th of that year, became the bloodiest day of the war. Despite all of the bloodshed, the battle did not result in a military defeat or victory for either side. Lee was able to cope with the Union Army’s attacks, and when he decided it was time to leave the border state of Maryland, the Union Army let the rebel army go. But because the “incursion” into Union territory had been “repulsed”, Antietam could be seen as something of a Union victory. And this was what Abraham Lincoln was waiting for.
He had written up a document called the “Emancipation Proclamation”, and he wanted to issue it once the Union had won a victory. He had been waiting a while, but now was the time. On January 1st, 1863, the main part of the Proclamation was issued. Some people today say Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with this document, and that was some warrior in God’s army, righting the wrongs of his day. The purpose of this writing is to dispel that myth. First, let’s begin with the notion that the Christian God cared about slaves enough to move on Abraham Lincoln to start a war over them.
The founding fathers of this country, for the most part, were products of the Enlightenment. They lived before the time of Darwin, and so had to believe in something in the way of a creator to explain the origins of life. But despite all of the Christian hubbub and rhetoric, the most significant of our founding fathers were Deists. They believed in sort of a divine engineer, who made the world and then took a step back to watch what happened. Look at the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For the purpose of this writing, I only need to focus on the “liberty” section of Jefferson’s words. The biblical God has no issues with slavery. God authorized the taking of slaves (especially virgins) and the purchasing of slaves. (Leviticus 25:44-46, Judges 21:10-24) There were also laws regulating slavery. For example, he recommended that the Hebrews not beat slaves so hard that they die right off; just beat them enough so that they know who’s boss. (Exodus 21:20-21) Kind of like Hell -- no death, just an endless (fiery) beating. Now, these were supposed to be God’s chosen people, his holy people -- exemplars of righteousness on the earth. Shouldn’t they be above slavery? The Aztecs had slavery, but they went about it in a much more just way. People became slaves through war or debt, but it was never permanent -- and this is from a society who sacrificed over 20,000 humans a year. The Bible verse that says slaves should be set free after six years specifies Hebrew slaves. "Liberty" isn't treated much better in the New Testament. After Jesus says everything in the Old Testament is permanent (Luke 16:17), Paul tells slaves to obey their masters just like they were obeying Jesus (Ephesians 6:5). The only liberty mentioned is freedom from sin; hardly relevant to physical slavery.
Clearly, the Biblical God doesn’t mind slavery. Throw that concept out of the window. Thomas Jefferson did not have Jehovah in mind when he was penning the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and his peers had been influenced by people like John Locke, who said that no one had the right to infringe on another’s life, health, liberty, or possessions. These are not Biblical values -- they are human values, fostered by the humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Were those values present in Abraham Lincoln? Was he the champion of human rights as we suppose, and did he write and issue this document to make America a more Christian nation? Since the man is dead, we can only look at his words and his recorded actions. Let’s ask him.
“You enquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point. I think [...] that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times [...]. I now do more than oppose the extension of slavery. Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.'"
Clearly, Lincoln was uneasy with slavery. He opposed the expansion of the slave trade, and he may have possibly wanted to do something about it. His views were not uncommon. Many people during that time, especially in the north, saw slavery as evil, albeit necessary. It was in the Bible, after all, and one could hardly picture the cotton industry in the south without slaves. Lincoln said those words in 1855. In 1858, he is a politician, debating with Stephen Douglas. What are Lincoln's thoughts about slavery now, three years later?
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
Lincoln repeated this sentiment in his fourth debate, and in his presidential inaugural address. Here is the sentiment present in his fourth debate with Douglas.
“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. ... And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.“
It sounds as if his feelings on the subject aren't so clear. But let’s not condemn the man. He was, after all, the product of his times. The John Browns of that time were scarce. But if Lincoln stated he had no intention of helping the plight of the slaves, why did he? Again, we go to the man’s words.
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and 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 also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause."
He wrote those words in a letter a month before the first part of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in late September. President Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union. It is fortunate for the slaves that the nations of Europe were a bit hesitant to step in and help the C.S.A. While they weren’t fond of the fledgling United States (we had been in wars with both Britain and France by this time), the whole slavery thing was…well, messy. England had banned it. It would seem rather preposterous of them to defend American men’s right to have slaves when English men couldn’t. But until January 1st, 1863, a case could be made that this war was about the states’ rights. For the English, that reason would work as an excuse to make sure the United States didn’t grow excessively powerful. But when Lincoln declared “All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” he made the war a moral issue. It wasn’t “kind of about” slavery, it became Christian Lincoln’s crusade against injustice. The hope of Richmond, that Europe would come to the South’s aid, became futile at this point. This is why I feel the South began its slide toward defeat on the muddy banks of Antietam Creek.
So far I have made a case against two points -- the first being that God would move anyone to fight against slavery, the second being that Lincoln even fighting against slavery in the first place. My third point is that the Emancipation Proclamation did not magically free the slaves. Look at the quoted text above. Lincoln specified that slaves in the rebelling states were free. The ones in the north or in the border states -- were still slaves. And now look at the second part.
“…and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
What does this mean? It means that only the slaves in rebelling areas where the Union Army had established a prescence were free. The slaves in the Confederate states that the Union troops didn’t get to until the tail end of the war still had two and a half more years of involuntary servitude -- their former masters certainly weren't going to volunteer the information. What freed the slaves forever in America was the 13th Amendment. The Emancipation Proclamation was a proclamation of politics, not emancipation.
The purpose of this writing was to dispel the myth that the Civil War was a Christian crusade against the evil slaveholders of the south, not to defame the legacy of President Lincoln. Humans are fallible creatures; all of us fail, and this includes our leaders. Every one of America’s presidents has made his own separate mistakes, and every one of them in the future will make his or her own. The founding fathers, who we almost revere, were flawed in many ways. My own favorite presidents -- men like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gerald R. Ford -- had their flaws. Our contemporary presidents certainly have their flaws. The Americans of 1861 to 1865 had a president with flaws, but one who left a legacy. Lincoln may not have started the war with the intention of freeing the men, women, and children in bondage, but when the war had ended and Reconstruction began, they were free. For this we must thank President Lincoln, the soldiers, and the men who composed the Congress at that time. We must thank them, but never put them on a pedestal.