The men and women who struggled to abolish slavery were not counting on a war to get the job done. Of course they knew about military emancipation. Freeing slaves as a “military necessity” in wartime was an ancient practice, familiar to the histories of Greece and Rome, the African continent, Latin America and the United States. But abolitionists and antislavery politicians were not planning for a war so that the U.S. Army could sweep through the South emancipating as it went. If there was a war or rebellion, the federal government would certainly have the power to free slaves as a military necessity. But slavery’s opponents most often put their faith in an entirely different program designed to bring about the “ultimate extinction” of slavery. They would withdraw all federal support for slavery, surround the South with a “cordon of freedom,” pressuring the slave states to abolish the institution on their own. “Like a scorpion girt by fire,” antislavery activists argued, slavery would eventually sting itself to death. When the slave states seceded from the Union beginning in late 1860, they were not fleeing the prospect of military emancipation, they were hoping to avoid the scorpion’s sting.
By specifying exactly what slavery’s opponents hoped to accomplish we can see more clearly why none of the secession-winter proposals for sectional compromise succeeded in averting war. The second chapter does something similar, but from a different angle. It begins by clarifying the definition of slavery — which Americans understood to mean property rights in human beings—so that we can better understand what a debate over slavery might have looked like. This in turn makes it easier to see why disputes over seemingly marginal issues—slavery in the territories, fugitive slaves or abolition in Washington, D.C. — were always driven by an underlying conflict over the right versus the wrong of “property in man.” New World slavery was also “racial” in that it restricted enslavement to sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants, a broad constellation of human beings widely supposed to constitute a distinct “race.” This made it impossible to argue about slavery without arguing about racial equality. Chapter three recovers that argument. Together these three chapters highlight the depth and significance of the Republican Party’s threat to slavery on the eve of the Civil War.
That threat did not include military emancipation, at least not before the secession crisis. By surveying the long history of military emancipation in the United States, chapter four demonstrates that freeing slaves in wartime was a mainstream idea whose origins lay well outside the abolitionist movement. This last point requires some elaboration.
The Emancipation Proclamation occupies center stage in most accounts of slavery’s destruction. It’s easy to see why. Issued on January 1, 1863, at the midpoint of the Civil War, the proclamation provides a convenient climax to a large and dramatic story. It transformed the nature of the war. It altered Union policy on the ground in the southern states. It was an attempt to use military emancipation not simply as a weapon of war but as a means of destroying slavery. Although military emancipation had been commonplace in human history, including American history, it was not at all common to proclaim all slaves free as a military necessity. It’s no wonder we spend so much time thinking about Lincoln’s proclamation.
But like an exploded supernova, the Emancipation Proclamation has become a gravitational force so dense that other important antislavery policies — state abolition and the Thirteenth Amendment — too often disappear into the black hole of military emancipation. Interpretations of slavery’s demise pull us almost irresistibly toward January 1, 1863. Lincoln idolaters sometimes write as if he were destined to free the slaves from the time he was a young man. Skeptics, recoiling from the excesses of Great Man History, have instead constructed what might be called a Reluctance Narrative that, ironically, depends on the very same end point — universal military emancipation. Lincoln worshippers posit a “political genius” who skillfully prepared the ground for the proclamation, a man so exquisitely attuned to the movement of public opinion that he alone could sense the precise moment when the American people were at last ready to accept a policy of universal military emancipation. Skeptics, by contrast, start from the premise that Lincoln could have or should have issued the Emancipation Proclamation as soon as the war started in April 1861. The skeptical narrative then sweeps through the events of the next twenty months, stopping at the various points along the way to show how every law passed by Congress and every order issued by Lincoln failed to measure up to the standard of universal military emancipation, and from that succession of failures the skeptics infer a reluctance to emancipate.
To say that these interpretations put too much emphasis on Lincoln’s proclamation is not to deny the importance of the origins and evolution of universal military emancipation. But military emancipation turned out to be a brutal and ineffective way to destroy slavery. No matter how aggressively implemented, military emancipation could not reach the majority of slaves, nor could it guarantee the permanent freedom of those it did reach. All along, Lincoln had higher hopes for the cordon of freedom leading to the eventual abolition of slavery on a state-by-state basis. But that didn’t work either, and in the end the complete destruction of slavery required yet a third policy — a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution.
Lincoln did not dream up the idea of state-by-state abolition on his own. The North had abolished slavery that way in the late eighteenth century. But a concerted federal policy designed to get the southern states to abolish slavery — that idea came from the abolitionists. When they began petitioning Congress to shift the bias of federal policy away from slavery and toward freedom, they demanded things like the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., a ban on slavery in the territories, state rather than federal enforcement of the fugitive-slave clause, the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, and the withdrawal of all federal support for slavery on the high seas. This set of policies became the centerpiece of the radical antislavery agenda. Wartime emancipation imposed by the military was always an option, but nobody thought it was a particularly good way to abolish slavery. John Quincy Adams first speculated that it could be done, and others — Joshua Giddings, for example — agreed that slavery could be abolished by means of military emancipation. But it wasn’t the way they wanted to end slavery. The American Antislavery Society never advocated military emancipation as a means of freeing all the slaves. It was not part of the Liberty Party platform. The Free Soilers didn’t talk about it. By the mid-1850s local Republican Party organizations across the North were adopting resolutions urging the federal government to implement many of the policies first advocated by antislavery radicals, but their resolutions never included military emancipation.
Having been elected on a promise to put slavery on a course of ultimate extinction by surrounding it with a cordon of freedom, Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans proceeded to do just that. In the very first regular session of Congress over which they had control — between December 1861 and July 1862 — Lincoln and the Republicans abolished slavery in Washington, D.C., banned slavery from the territories, stopped enforcing the fugitive-slave clause in the northern states, signed a treaty with Great Britain to suppress the Atlantic slave trade, and required the new state of West Virginia to abolish slavery as a condition for admission to the Union. Republicans took advantage of the war by putting enormous pressure on the Border States to abolish slavery on their own. The policy was, to a remarkable degree, successful. Between 1804 and 1860 not a single state abolished slavery, but by the time the Civil War ended six more states had done so.
But much of that history is obscured by the nearly exclusive focus on military emancipation and its apotheosis, the Emancipation Proclamation. This is one of the points I want to make in these pages: the scorpion’s sting was the radical policy, born of the abolitionist movement, adopted in principle by the Republican Party in the 1850s, and substantially implemented during the first year of the Civil War.
And yet Republicans began threatening military emancipation during the secession crisis when war suddenly seemed imminent, and they began freeing slaves as a military necessity shortly after the war began. At first glance this seems odd. Not only were antislavery radicals not counting on a war, they did not believe a war was necessary to get slavery abolished. When those advocating abolition raised the prospect of military emancipation, it was usually to dismiss the likelihood of secession. They assumed that the South would never secede because that would mean war and with war came military emancipation. But this was a background assumption, something people took for granted because freeing slaves was what belligerents always did during wars. Far from being a distinctively radical idea, military emancipation was a conventional proposition, accepted by radicals and conservatives alike, a policy so deeply embedded in American history that it could be assumed without being asserted.
Secession and war suddenly brought into the foreground what had always been there in the background. Threats of military emancipation poured forth from Republican presses all through the secession crisis and within a few months after Fort Sumter Republican lawmakers and a Republican administration began freeing slaves as a military necessity. At first they stayed within the familiar precedents for wartime emancipation by offering freedom only to slaves who came within Union lines from areas in rebellion or from rebel masters. As they came to realize how weak Unionism was in the South, how loyal the slaves were, and how much resistance there was to abolition in the Border States, however, Republicans moved closer to adopting a policy of universal military emancipation. With the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862, as fully implemented by the Emancipation Proclamation several months later, universal military emancipation took its place alongside state abolition as a means of destroying slavery in the South.
Nobody could have predicted this would happen. Everybody knew about military emancipation, but few imagined that it would become as important as it did by 1863, and there were no precedents in American history for universal military emancipation. Instead, federal antislavery policy evolved in unforeseen ways over the course of the war, an evolution driven by events on the ground in the slave states, by shifts in national politics, and by the contingencies of war itself. When the fighting began, few Northerners thought that slavery would prove so durable or that the slaveholders would put up such a ferocious fight to save it. The Republicans were confident that slaves would run for their freedom to Union lines; slaves always did that. But the slaves understood better than the Republicans how many roadblocks their masters could throw down in the way, and in any case federal policy makers were not prepared to handle the number of slaves who overcame the obstacles and made it to Union lines. Then, too, there were the uncertainties of the war itself. A few insiders might have been able to predict that Robert E. Lee would prove so formidable on the field of battle, but nobody thought that about Ulysses Grant and none foresaw that George B. McClellan would prove so inadequate or that somebody named Joshua Chamberlain would inspire his men to hold on to Little Round Top on the second day at Gettysburg. Few people imagined that Abraham Lincoln would turn out to be such an effective president. Everybody knew in 1861 that the fate of slavery hung in the balance, but nobody could have predicted that under the intense pressure of war six states would abolish slavery, that military emancipation would be universalized, but that neither would be enough to destroy slavery. Hardly anybody in 1861 imagined that the Constitution would have to be rewritten for slavery to be destroyed, and nobody knew, as late as the summer of 1864, whether Lincoln and the Republicans would hold on to Congress and the presidency long enough, and in large enough numbers, to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed.
It’s possible, even tempting, to make the abolition of slavery seem as inevitable as the war itself can be made to seem, to construct a narrative arc in which each different antislavery policy led inexorably to its logical successor. But history doesn’t work that way. The Republicans hated slavery and intended to destroy it, but intentions don’t make outcomes inevitable. After all, the slaveholders intended to preserve slavery, and that didn’t ensure slavery’s survival. To show how slavery was destroyed is not to show that the destruction of slavery was inevitable.
The same thing can be said of the Civil War itself. The conflict was so long, so destructive, and so murderous that historians understandably spend a lot of their time considering the various proposals for sectional compromise that might have worked but for some reason or other did not. This sustained search for the alternatives to what happened is often driven by a deep and justifiable horror of the war that did, finally, come. It’s a humane impulse, and it can be a salutary one—it keeps us on guard against the tendency to make the war seem inevitable. No account of the coming of the Civil War can afford to ignore the possibility that it might have gone some other way. But in the end the historian must explain what actually did happen and why. The war came. Compromise failed. And these chapters are a partial attempt to explain what was at stake in the sectional crisis and why the conflict over slavery had become irreconcilable. They may also help explain why an irreconcilable conflict over slavery did not make the abolition of slavery inevitable.
Excerpted from “The Scorpion’s Sting: Anti-slavery and the Coming of the Civil War” by James Oakes. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2014 by James Oakes. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.