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Lincoln, And The Path To The Emancipation Proclamation


We're going to turn now to an important anniversary in the history of this country that may not have gotten its due. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first version of his Emancipation Proclamation. It warned that if Confederate states did not return to the Union by January 1, they would forfeit all legal right to their slaves. Here to tell us more about this milestone and its significance is Christopher Bonner. He's a professor of history at the University of Maryland. Professor Bonner, thank you so much for talking to us.

CHRISTOPHER BONNER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I understand that this is called - in your business - the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. But I understand that Lincoln actually started drafting a version of the Emancipation Proclamation in July of 1862, but he didn't deliver this version until September. Why is that?

BONNER: Right. So from what we can tell, Lincoln has drafted the preliminary proclamation in the summer of '62, and he's holding it in his desk. He's waiting for the right moment. And his advisers tell him that if he issues it when the Union is not performing well in the war, it will look like a desperate move. It'll look like an effort to try to save a losing fight. And the reality is that, for much of 1862, the Union is losing the war. And Lincoln waits and waits at his advisers' suggestion for a Union victory.

MARTIN: OK. So why was this the right time then? Why was September 22 - what made him think that, yes, this is the moment?

BONNER: September 22 follows what is called or understood as a Union victory in the Battle of Antietam. And Antietam, for people who know a little bit about the Civil War, will probably be familiar as the bloodiest single day of fighting. It is a massive loss of men and manpower for the Union army, larger than for the Confederacy. But it's a victory tactically because Robert E. Lee has tried to venture into Antietam and circle around Washington, D.C., to surround the federal capital. And he has been pushed back at Antietam. So that becomes the tactical victory that Lincoln uses to justify feeling like issuing the Emancipation Proclamation is not an act of desperation.

MARTIN: So the proclamation made the front page of The New York Times when it was issued. I assume that was a big story. What was the reaction?

BONNER: The reaction was intense, I think, on - from multiple perspectives. One of the things that actually incites a lot of opposition is that Lincoln says in the preliminary proclamation the federal government will not take any steps to repress efforts that enslaved people take to free themselves. White Southerners and even some white Democrats in the North read this as Lincoln inciting slave rebellion. And it's seen as outside of the bounds of established terms of war. And so it's really upsetting and really outrageous to a lot of people.

There's also questioning about whether Lincoln actually has constitutional authority to pursue emancipation as a policy. At the same time, on the other hand, there is a lot of joy and excitement, both a positive and negative sense on the part of African Americans. Free African Americans were eager for the government to become a vehicle for emancipation. And enslaved people heard about the proclamation and continued and intensified their efforts to make their own freedom.

MARTIN: So then what changed between the release of the preliminary proclamation on September 22 and the one most people think of as the proclamation, the one delivered on January 1?

BONNER: There are two main differences, and the first of them is that the preliminary proclamation includes a provision to investigate colonization, to investigate ways to remove African Americans from the country once they were freed. Lincoln had this anxiety about African Americans and white Americans living together in the United States as free people. That provision gets removed from the final proclamation. And Lincoln also adds into the final proclamation a new provision allowing African Americans to be enlisted in the Union military.

What Lincoln does is, I think, understand that black people will be valuable for winning the war, black soldiers and that that service requires some sort of reciprocity, that black military service deserves or entitles African Americans to being American people, to being in the country. And so there's a really interesting shift in between the two proclamations that reflects, I think, Lincoln's changing ideas about where black people fit in the United States, that black people are increasingly thought of as people who belonged in that nation.

MARTIN: So how do you want us to think about this day when we think about kind of the long sweep of history and the way that African Americans found their place in this country, the way that, you know, Lincoln and other political leaders grappled with the place of African Americans in this country? How do you want us to think about this day?

BONNER: If we think about emancipation in one way, it should be that emancipation policy on a government level is a direct response to the actions that African Americans were taking to free themselves. Enslaved people were showing up at Union camps, running to the Union lines, seeking freedom with the Union Army. So when these enslaved people showed up, army officers saying, what do we do with these people? Congress enacts a series of policies that basically prevent the Union Army from being used to return these technically fugitive slaves to their owners.

Lincoln then uses those policies to help bolster his turn toward emancipation as a policy. So I think that the biggest thing is that black people's actions drove government policy. So these are people who were formerly excluded from formal lawmaking but had significant opportunities and took significant steps to change the ways the law related to them. Black people voted with their feet and made emancipation real.

MARTIN: That is Christopher Bonner, professor of History at the University of Maryland. Professor Bonner, thank you so much for talking to us.

BONNER: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.