The Rightness and Legality of the Emancipation Proclamation

[Today marks the 215th anniversary of the day Abraham Lincoln gave formal notice of the the intent to free all people held in slavery in states still in rebellion to the government and Constitution of the United States. A post from the archives.]

In the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln ordered that all slaves in Confederate controlled areas were set free. Some say Lincoln overstepped his presidential authority, arguing that slavery was allowed under the U.S. Constitution.

They’re wrong.

One of the oldest rules of war (although to say that war has rules is a bit counter-intuitive) is that armies and governments exercise dominion over captured enemy property, even private property. That is what Lincoln contemplated on September 22, 1862, when he issued this preliminary order:

That on the first day of January [1863], 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 … .

The delay from September to January was designed to allow States in rebellion, or portions of those States, to cease rebelling against the United States and take themselves out of the Proclamation’s scope. (Lincoln letter of August 26, 1863, to James C. Conkling.) The order only extended to property of those living in areas governed by the Confederacy.

A central tenet of the Confederacy and its slaveholders was that the people held in slavery were property. They objected to anyone interfering with their property rights. But just as armies appropriate property from conquered people, this order declared the necessity of terminating the property rights of those in Confederate held territory for the purpose of advancing the cause of the United States.

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln “as Commander-in-Chief … and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion” issued the Emancipation Proclamation enforcing the September order:

I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

The Emancipation Proclamation

The proclamation made the war effort explicit in several places, including this invitation to join the battle:

And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed forces of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

William H. Carney, Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor (Wikipedia)

In 1864, Lincoln estimated the number of black soldiers and sailors exceeded 130,000 men, and said those who joined the Union’s cause in any way were owed what had been promised in preserving their freedom. (Lincoln letter of August 17, 1864, to Charles D. Robinson.) Lincoln’s sense of duty to the freed people was tested more than once.

Several politicians and civic leaders argued for peace with the Confederacy through compromise. Some sought reunification by reinstating the status quo on slavery before the war. Others were willing to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation that could make its own decisions on slavery. Lincoln would have none of it, pointing out more than once that without slavery there would have been no war and with it there could be no real peace. He considered it his duty to preserve the nation, not preside over its fragmentation.

Keeping Promises

Lincoln felt his oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States required every lawful effort to preserve the union governed by that constitution. He also considered himself honor-bound to keep the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation.

This sense of duty to keep your promises reminds me of Jesus’ words:

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all … . All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37.)

A paraphrase might be: “Say it if you mean it, don’t say it if you don’t mean it, and follow through on your promises.”

Jesus knew what he was talking about because it is his job to keep promises. In fact, the Bible tells us that when it comes to God’s promises Jesus is the one who keeps them all.

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:20.)

God promised to set people free, and did it in Jesus Christ. (Luke 4:18-21.) Just as Lincoln ordered the army and navy to take part in guaranteeing the freedom of the slaves, now we get to take part in Jesus’ ministry of freedom.

Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:35-36.)

Freedom indeed. There’s no going back.


*For those who insist the Civil War and Confederate Battle Flag were about something other than slavery, I have this response: The Civil War Was About Enslaving Black People.

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