Was the Emancipation Proclamation a moderate measure or a radical one?

My answer to the above question is “yes.”  Obama recently used Lincoln’s proclamation as an example of effective compromise.  I think he might have overstated the case, since Lincoln acted pretty dramatically within the bounds of what he thought he could realistically do.  I explain this position in a post over at the Lincoln Institute blog.  Read it and feel free to disagree vehemently.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History on the Web

5 responses to “Was the Emancipation Proclamation a moderate measure or a radical one?

  1. stumdanger

    The better question is not whether or not the Emancipation Proclamation was moderate or radical, but if it was visionary. Compromise exists as two sides seek to turn vision into reality. The level of compromise then places the eventual decision in the realm of conservative, moderate, or radical (all depending on one’s view point of course).

    The fact of the matter is that the Emancipation Proclamation was not as visionary as historians have romanticized it to be. The hypocracy of having a class of literal slaves in a so-called “free nation” was already catching up to the United States. Everyone knew that it was on the way out. The Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation were merely catalysts that accelerated the impending death of the institution of slavery.

    So to compare the Emancipation Proclamation to the budget crisis is accurate as everyone knows that we will exceed the debt ceiling. The American economy is a giant machine with a lot of momentum and does not stop or turn around on a dime. Also, given time, the market will stabilize itself. So the question is not whether “compromise” on the debt ceiling will be a radial act, but more whether or not it will be a catalyst to market stabilization.

    • Michael Lynch

      I’m not sure I’d agree with the statement that everyone knew slavery was on the way out. Slaveholders had become more and more strident in their defense of the institution; after the Revolution, some of them acknowledged it as a necessary evil, but over the course of the early 1800’s they began claiming that it was a positive good.


    • “Everyone knew that [slavery] was on the way out.”

      Funny how they didn’t bother to say so at the time. 😉

      Snark aside, that’s an assertion so often repeated that it’s rarely questioned. But I’ve never seen a prominent Southern politician or editorial make that claim in the run-up to the war. Indeed, the states that led the South into secession were very explicit that they were doing so to protect the institution, and the Confederate constitution embodied multiple clauses that gave almost blanket protection for the property rights of slaveholders, far more than the U.S. Constitution did. The notion that “everyone knew” that slavery was a practice that would die a natural death on its own only came later, long after the war, when it became one of the cornerstones of the Lost Cause.

      It’s a claim, frankly, that reminds me of the kid who gets grounded after being told repeatedly to clean his room, but refuses to comply. “But I was gonna do it!” It’s a claim that shifts responsibility for the conflict from the child to the grownup, and lets the kid convince himself he’s the real victim here. You can gussy it up any way you want — and plenty of historians, particularly of the Dunniing stripe, have given its a sheen of academic polish, but at it’s core, it’s a very simple and transparently self-serving, retroactive argument.

  2. Matt McKeon

    It was a radical measure, about as radical as Lincoln could take on his own authority. The Constitutional amendments and other legislation that rewrote the basic racial premises of the US came later.

    It wasn’t really a compromise, because most of the folks who would have opposed it were already in rebellion.

    • Michael Lynch

      Well, there was quite a bit of opposition to it even in the North. Lincoln took a lot of flak from Democrats for it.


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