Our Second Declaration of Independence
In contrast to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, freeing all slaves resident in the Confederacy, is not celebrated as a particularly personal or inspirational event.1 Few Americans have even read it. The language is dry and technical, the eloquence suppressed in a tightly argued legal brief. But when completed the document was revolutionary, indeed nothing short of a second Declaration of Independence.
Although lacking the soaring sermonic rhetoric of the Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is arguably of far greater historical significance. Indeed, without the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural would not enjoy the significance it holds.
Despite the Emancipation’s legal language, we must look to a profound spiritual odyssey on Lincoln’s part – unique in his life – rather than law in order to understand the document’s evolution and significance. In the months leading up to its creation, Lincoln wrestled with a personal God and would not act until he was satisfied that emancipation was God’s personal mandate. At no other time in his life did Lincoln engage so profoundly with a sense of both God and his own destiny.
By 1862 Lincoln’s religious moorings were moving in ever more individual and providentialist directions. While the term “providence” enjoyed wide currency in nineteenth-century American discourse, it was a capacious term holding multiple meanings. For many liberal Protestants and free thinkers, providence assumed an impersonal meaning more closely identified with fatalism than personal divine direction. Such a “Unitarian” perspective fit an earlier Lincoln who repudiated the Calvinism of his youth in favor of a more impersonal fatalism. Historian Richard Carwardine has explored Lincoln’s religion in depth and concludes “the weight of evidence points … to a Lincoln as more in sympathy with Unitarian, not Trinitarian doctrines.”2
But two years of unprecedented war and an increasing preoccupation with the moral issue of slavery moved Lincoln toward a more orthodox conception of providence featuring a God who was immediately involved with His creation and predisposed to intervene directly in human affairs to effect His purposes. Lincoln would never move in a Christocentric evangelical direction, but he did increasingly sense a personal God at work in the war and a God whose engagement was intimately tied up with the moral issue of slavery and emancipation.
With civil war rising to unimaginable levels of devastation, Lincoln was ready to bring the personal, moral, and political together in his Emancipation Proclamation. How did he get to that point? From a moral perspective, Lincoln was always anti-slavery. In a letter to Kentucky editor Albert G. Hodges, he wrote: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” But, he continued, “I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”3
That Constitution explicitly upheld the institution of slavery, at least in the original thirteen states. In time of peace, Lincoln believed that he could not act to emancipate slaves based on his moral principles because loyalty to the Constitution required him to protect the “peculiar institution.”
But by 1862, Lincoln saw a way out that would both pursue emancipation for slaves in the Confederacy and uphold the Constitution he had pledged to defend. Picking up a point originally made by John Quincy Adams, Lincoln realized that in time of war and grave endangerment, “military necessity” could trump constitutional liberties. Acting in his capacity as commander-in-chief Lincoln could free slaves whose labor was undergirding the Confederate rebellion as a “war measure” to put down the rebellion by taking away their chief asset – the unfree labor of four million slaves.
“Military necessity,” of course, is a relative term, which explains the technical language in the Emancipation Proclamation. Unlike presidential orations, the Emancipation Proclamation would be subject to judicial review so that every term had to be nailed down and properly hitched to its proper post. That post could not be Lincoln’s personal disapproval of slavery, but rather the “military necessity” of taking away Confederate manpower.
Lincoln knew such a course of action would define his presidency – and the war. So for the first time he began to search for the will of God in pursuing his nearly unthinkable course of action.
In June 1862, Lincoln met with a delegation of Pennsylvania Quakers headed by Thomas Garrett, organizer of the Underground Railroad, who pressed him to emancipate the slaves. Though by no means the first time clergy importuned Lincoln, it was the first time Lincoln offered a religious sentiment, revealing how his course was changing in ever more religious directions. According to Garrett, Lincoln responded that “he was deeply sensible of his need of Divine assistance.” He went on to say that “sometime [he had] thought that perhaps he might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work.” But what that great work might involve was not certain. Lincoln confessed, “God’s way of accomplishing the end … may be different from theirs.”
Three months later, on Sept. 13, Lincoln met with two more ministers from Chicago, William Patton and John Demster, who brought with them a petition, signed by area clergy, urging emancipation on the president. By then Lincoln had come to the same conclusion as his petitioners and drafted a preliminary proclamation, but in their company he played coy, asking questions that would imply he wouldn’t move forward. What would the country do with the freedmen? How could it be enforced as long as Confederates controlled their states? Who would feed the freedmen and protect them?
However, in one significant aside Lincoln also showed his hand. First he reiterated the pledge he made to the Quaker delegation: “It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!” Later, as the conversation moved forward, he conceded that in fact he had been contemplating just the course of action his visitors enjoined:
Understand, I raise no objections against it on legal or constitutional grounds; for, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy. Nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. I view the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion … Whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do.4
Although Lincoln had already decided to issue the proclamation, he needed a sign from God. After Lincoln shared his intention to draft the proclamation with his cabinet, Secretary of State William Seward urged him to issue the proclamation only after a victory, else the opposition would label it a desperation measure put forward by a failing president. Lincoln agreed. Later he told Salmon Chase “that if General Lee was driven back [at Antietam] … I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” The reasons eventually became clear. He told his cabinet that he had said nothing about this determination to anyone in his circle; it was a promise he made only to “myself and” – here, Chase noted in his diary that Lincoln hesitated – “to my Maker.”
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles also described this unprecedented moment in his diary when Lincoln described “a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle he would consider it an indication of the divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” Allen Guelzo has noted that this was only the second instance in all of Lincoln’s writings when he went on record as preceding the word God with the possessive “my.” As Lincoln explained to his cabinet: “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”5
An Exalted Status
While the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural remain engrained in American memory, they did not occupy such exalted states in Lincoln’s mind. Only his Emancipation Proclamation was accorded that special status, the most solemn and spiritual political decision of Lincoln’s life. Lincoln – and his Confederate adversaries – recognized that beyond its legal rhetoric the proclamation actually affected lives directly – four million of them.
Of hundreds of presidential proclamations, including President Washington’s famous proclamation of American neutrality, none exerted a greater impact, and Lincoln knew it. At last the pieces were aligned for him to follow his personal instincts in an entirely fitting and legitimately constitutional manner. It was with this realization that Lincoln concluded his December 1862 Annual Message to Congress with the stirring peroration:
Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation … We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.6
Without the Emancipation Proclamation there would be no Lincoln Memorial bearing the Gettysburg Address and no Second Inaugural because there would be no Union. As John Burt aptly summarizes: “Emancipation and Union were not contradictory goals. They were not separate goals. They were the same thing.”7 Although hardly single-handedly responsible for emancipation and the end of slavery, Lincoln was indispensable – and he knew it. He had the catch in his throat while describing his covenant with God to his cabinet because he realized the enormity of what he was doing. He caught the thunderbolt. This was the single most momentous outcome that he – and he alone – could ever accomplish in his lifetime. The shock was existentially electric and he felt it.
We in the twenty-first century feel it too. Viewed contextually, the Emancipation Proclamation was a revolutionary declaration in an ongoing revolution in which we continue to participate. Considered as an idea rather than an event, the Revolution is as alive today as it was in 1776 or 1863. We continue to face the contradictions between the revolutionary rhetoric of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence and the reality of ongoing prejudice, self-interest, and discrimination. Like Lincoln, we confront the question of our destiny and the intentions of providence. And like Lincoln, we cannot escape history and the judgments it bears.
Harry S. Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at YDS. He is the author of several books, including Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2007).
1 The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves dwelling in Confederate states under Confederate administration. It did not apply to slaves in the border states. Slavery was prohibited universally with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1864.
2 Richard Carwardine, “Lincoln’s Religion,” in Eric Foner, ed., Our Lincoln; New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World (Norton, 2008), p. 230.
3 Don E. Fahrenbacher, ed., Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1859-1865 (Library of America, 1989), pp. 585-86.
4 Fehrenbacher, ed., Lincoln Speeches and Writings, p. 367.
5 Quoted in Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln Redeemer President (Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 341-42.
6 Fehrenbacher, ed., Lincoln Speeches and Writings, p. 415.
7 John Burt, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (Cambridge, 2013), p. 365.