How Abraham Lincoln saved the Union

November 1st, 2012

As a new film about Abraham Lincoln prepares to hit theaters nationwide on November 16,  we thought it appropriate to highlight two recent articles about the nation’s 16th president. First, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Allen Guelzo, professor of history and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, discusses Lincoln’s understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation, which the president termed “the central act of [his] administration, and the great event of the 19th century.” Guelzo writes:

What the American Revolution began, the Civil War completed. That, at least, was Abraham Lincoln’s view of what was at stake in the Civil War, and especially what was at stake in the Emancipation Proclamation he issued on Sept. 22, 1862. […] “I consider the central idea pervading this struggle,” Lincoln commented to his secretary, John Hay, in May 1861, “is the necessity that is upon us of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.” In other words, as he told a special session of Congress on July 4, the American republic was an “experiment” to see if ordinary people, living as equals before the laws and without any aristocratic grades or ranks in society, really were capable of governing themselves.

One way of falling over into “absurdity,” Lincoln knew, was by breaking up a republic whenever any sizable minority of its citizens didn’t get their way—as when the Southern states seceded. The other way was when those same people excluded an entire race from self-government.


On July 22, 1862, [Lincoln] presented his cabinet with a draft Emancipation Proclamation, predicated on his war powers and freeing all slaves in Confederate-held territory. His cabinet gave him unanimous approval, but Secretary of State William Seward raised this caveat: Wait until a Union army won some clear-cut victory, so that the proclamation would appear as a gesture of strength rather than desperation. Lincoln waited.

Ironically, the victory Lincoln needed was provided by George McClellan, at Antietam, Md., on Sept. 17. Once the results of the battle were clear, Lincoln formally issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, warning the Confederate States to submit to Union forces by Jan. 1 or else emancipation would become operative.


As Wesyelan University’s Richard Slotkin points out in his new book, “The Long Road to Antietam,” the proclamation wiped out $3.5 billion of “investment” in slaves, at a time when the entire wealth of the nation amounted to only $16 billion. But Lincoln saw the proclamation’s largest importance in the way it pulled down America’s “one retrograde institution” and made it clear that equality, law and freedom were not some charade.

“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free,” Lincoln said in his second State of the Union message. It makes Americans “honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.” And it has ever since.

The second article comes from the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute, which examines the Steven Spielburg movie more directly: “In one of the movie trailers, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the role of Abraham Lincoln, we see the President fighting against his opponents to abolish slavery. The trailer ends with a great line delivered by Lewis: “I am the president of the United States of America… clothed in immense power!”  Did Lincoln really say that?  The answer is found in history…”

The proposed [Thirteenth] amendment passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864, with a vote of 38 to 6. Two months later, however, it was defeated in the House of Representatives, 95 to 66 (or by another account, 93-65), shy of the 2/3 necessary for approval. Lincoln, not about to give up, made abolition a central plank of the National Union platform during his re-election campaign. […]

On being informed that the amendment was still two votes short, Lincoln is reported to have told the Republican Congressmen: “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all … time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured.  I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done, but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes …” (John B. Alley, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, ed., Rice, 1886 ed., p 585-6. Per Goodwin, p. 687). [emphasis added]

The outcome of the vote was in doubt until the final hour. A Pennsylvania Democrat, Archibald McAllister, opened the debate by explaining why he had changed his vote from a “Nay” to an “Aye.” He had been in favor of exhausting all means of conciliation, McAllister stated, but was now satisfied that nothing short of independence would satisfy the Southern Confederacy, and that therefore it must be destroyed, and he must cast his vote against its cornerstone, and declare eternal war with the enemies of the country. Fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Alexander Hamilton Coffroth also changed his vote, and gave a speech advocating passage. Arguments continued until, finally, the votes were tallied. This time it passed, by a vote of 119 to 56, with 8 abstentions.  When Speaker Colfax declared the results, “a moment of silence succeeded, and then, from floor and galleries, burst a simultaneous shout of joy and triumph, spontaneous, irrepressible and uncontrollable, swelling and prolonged in one vast volume of reverberating thunder…” (Report of the special committee on the passage by the House of Representatives of the constitutional amendment for the abolition of slavery. January 31st, 1865: The Action of the Union League Club on the Amendment, February 9, 1865, in “From Slavery to Freedom.” American Memory, Library of Congress).”


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