The proclamation did not, in fact, whatever it may have otherwise accomplished at the time it was issued, liberate a single slave. What is more, slavery as an institution was altogether too securely rooted in our system to be abolished by proclamation. The talk of such a thing greatly belittles the magnitude of the task that was performed. Its removal required a long preliminary work, involving, as is made to appear in previous chapters of this work, almost incalculable toil and sacrifice, to be followed by an enormous expenditure of blood and treasure. Its practical extinguishment was the work of the army, while its legal extirpation was accomplished by Congress and the Legislatures of the States in adopting the Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, which forbids all slaveholding. That amendment was a production of Congress and not of the Executive, whose official approval was not even required to make it legally effective.
The story of the proclamation, with not a few variations, has often been told; but the writer fancies that the altogether correct account has not always been given. It may be presumptuous on his part, but he will submit his version.
To understand the motive underlying the proclamation we must take into account its author’s feeling toward slavery. Notwithstanding various unfriendly references of an academic sort to that institution, he was not at the time the proclamation appeared, and never had been, an Abolitionist.
Not very long before the time referred to the writer heard Mr. Lincoln, in his debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton, Illinois, declare—laying unusual emphasis on his words: “I have on all occasions declared as strongly as Judge Douglas against the disposition to interfere with the existing institution of slavery.”
Judge Douglas was what was then called a “dough-face” by the Abolitionists—being a Northern man with Southern principles, or “proclivities,” as he called them.
Only a little earlier, and several years after Mr. Lincoln had claimed to be a Republican, and a leader of the Republicans, he had, in a speech at Bloomington, Illinois, asserted that, “the conclusion of it all is that we must restore the Missouri Compromise.”
Now the adoption of the Missouri Compromise was the hardest blow ever inflicted on the cause of free soil in America. It did more to encourage the supporters of slavery and to discourage its opponents than anything else that ever happened. Its restoration would undoubtedly have produced a similar effect. Although he is not to be credited with any philanthropic motive, Stephen A. Douglas did an effective work for freedom when he helped to overthrow that measure. Leading Abolitionists have accorded him that meed of praise.
But there was that proposition which Mr. Lincoln was so fond of repeating, that the nation could not remain half free and half slave—“a divided house”—but the remedy he had to propose was not manumission at any proximate or certain time, but the adoption of a policy that, to use his own words, would cause “the public mind to rest in the belief that it [slavery] was in the course of ultimate extinction.” Practically that meant very little or nothing. What the public mind then needed was not “rest,” but properly directed activity.