Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan—Three Main Features

From a lecture series presented by Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.

Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation plan had what he called “three main features.” It had to be gradual, it had to pay compensation, and it had to have the vote of the people. In other words, any idea of emancipation should be on a timetable rather than an immediate shock to the system.

Image showing Lincoln drafting his Emancipation Proclamation

The Shape of Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan

It should involve the payment of compensation to the slave owners—not so much as a kind of reward for them as slave owners, but more with a view to putting into their hands the cash they would need to hire the former slaves as free laborers afterwards—and emancipation should be approved by a vote of the people, or at least by their representatives in the state legislatures.

Learn more: Young Man Lincoln

Although Lincoln as president had no power to force such a plan on the four slave states that had remained in the Union—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—he was certainly prepared to do everything he could to entice them into doing it themselves.

As early as November of 1861, Lincoln drew up a gradual, compensated emancipation scheme for the state of Delaware, which would have granted the state of Delaware, still a slave state in 1861, $700,000 in government bonds to finance the emancipation of all of Delaware’s slaves over the following 32 years.

As early as November of 1861, Lincoln drew up a gradual, compensated emancipation scheme for the state of Delaware, which would have granted the state of Delaware, still a slave state in 1861, $700,000 in government bonds to finance the emancipation of all of Delaware’s slaves over the following 32 years.

In March of 1862, Lincoln drafted a resolution for Congress endorsing federal compensation for emancipation in all the other border states. But instead of grasping for this promised buyout of slavery, the border states, including Delaware, rose up as one and threw the offer back in Lincoln’s face, telling him and the federal government to mind their own business.

Learn more: Lincoln, Law, and Politics

Lincoln Shocks His Cabinet  

By the time Lincoln returned from Harrison’s Landing and his meeting with McClellan, he had been no more successful in getting the border states to adopt compensated emancipation than he had been in getting McClellan to win victories. In fact, he now had to deal with the possibility that McClellan just might be tinkering with the idea of some form of military intervention, maybe even a coup, followed by a negotiated peace with the Confederacy, and that would sweep emancipation off the table for good.

On July 13, 1862, he astounded members of his cabinet by announcing that he had given it much thought and he had about come to the conclusion that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” After all, slavery was what the rebels at Shiloh and Richmond had shown they were fighting for, and slave labor on the plantations was freeing up southern white men to fight in the Confederate army.

Carrying a Rifle or a Shovel 

Slaves working for the Confederate army were allowing white men to carry rifles instead of shovels, so let the war become a war to emancipate the slaves, and when it did, every slave working now for the Confederacy would throw down his hoe or his shovel and run for the Union lines and the promise of freedom, and maybe even rise in arms to assist the Union forces.

This might not be the kind of emancipation plan Lincoln had originally had in view, but he no longer had the time that he needed to make gradual, compensated, voluntary emancipation work. Besides, emancipation would light a fire in the Confederate rear that the rebels would never be able to put out, and that was more than George McClellan was doing.

Learn more: Lincoln’s Triumph

“A Fit and Necessary Military Measure…” 

image showing the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at a Cabinet meeting
First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at a Cabinet meeting

On July 27, 1862, Lincoln called a special cabinet meeting and there unveiled a proclamation that he proposed to issue. It was a brief document, but promised a very big bang.

“As a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three … all persons held as slaves within any state or states wherein the Constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to and maintained, shall then thenceforward and forever be free.”

With those words Lincoln was abandoning all his previous attempts at persuading the state legislatures to do the emancipating, and he was doing it himself on the grounds that this constituted a legitimate exercise of his war powers as commander-in chief.

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That, curiously enough, was not the most surprising aspect of this proclamation. Although there was dangerously little jurisprudence in American law that specified exactly what the president’s war powers were, nations had frequently used the promise of emancipation to lure an enemy nation’s slaves into running away.

The British, in fact, had done so in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The really radical gesture Lincoln was making was to declare these slaves whom he was now enticing into running away and deserting their rebel masters, the really radical gesture was to declare these slaves “forever free.”

Freedom and International Law 

Under international law, freed slaves in time of war were liable to be returned to their owners, or at least owners could sue for compensation in the same way that they could sue for other losses and damages they had incurred in wartime. But as Lincoln would have been very quick to point out, if I had said that to him, this Civil War was not actually a matter of international law. It was not a war between separate sovereign nations at all; it was a domestic insurrection, and in that case, Lincoln asserted that no obligation to return freed slaves to bondage after the end of the war would exist. In other words, once this proclamation came into effect, Lincoln was pledging the United States, come what may, to treat the slaves as free men and women forever.

Keep reading:
Dismantling Slavery: The Emancipation Proclamation
American Bison: A Story of Near Extinction and Conservation
Who Helped Fund America?

From the lecture series Mr. Lincoln: The Life of Abraham Lincoln
Taught by Professor Allen C. Guelzo
Images Courtesy of:
Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cabinet meeting: Francis Bicknell Carpenter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons