September 23, 1862 (Tuesday)
President Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was released to the world on this date, appearing verbatim in the morning papers. The edict wasn’t actually anything new, merely a restating of two previous military Acts concerning slaves. The tone, however, was different. Lincoln had warned the Southern slave states that it was coming and now he was delivering.
The papers had little time to comment on it. Commentary would follow, to be sure, but any paper worth its salt printed the Proclamation on its front page. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, which had called the President out on this very subject, printed the banner “GOD BLESS ABRAHAM LINCOLN” in bold.
Another paper that had been critical of Lincoln, the Boston Advertiser, suddenly adored the man, while the Washington Daily National Intelligencer, once little more than the mouthpiece of the administration, jumped ship. “Where we expect no good,” went the editorial, “we shall be only too happy to find that no harm has been done by the present declaration of the Executive.”
The Washington Evening Star, having most of the day to mull it over, simply declared the Proclamation to be “void of practical effect.”
In Congress, as usual, the reaction was split down party lines. The oft-forgotten Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin wrote Lincoln, gushing with thanks and gratitude for writing the Proclamation, telling him that “it will stand as the great act of the age.”
Some Radical Republicans believed it did not go far enough, that the language was too legalistic. They denounced it for not actually freeing a single slave. Other Radicals saw it as “an epoch of an unheard-of magnitude.” Charles Sumner exclaimed that “the skies are brighter and the air is purer, now that slavery has been handed over to judgment.” Some of the more radical, like Thaddeus Stevens, as he would later write, hoped that the slaves would be “incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real civil war.”
While the radicals wanted squads of Federal cavalry to raid into the South, distributing the Proclamation and guns to the slaves, the less radical Republicans were worried that such a thing might just happen. The “problem” was the promise to “recognize and maintain the freedom” of the slaves. Recognizing was one thing, but just what was this maintaining business?
A friend of Sumner’s wrote that he was frightened that the abolitionists literally meant for the slaves to “be made free by killing or poisoning their masters and mistresses.”
The following day, the Washingtonian pro-slavery advocate, (and aptly named) William Owner, wrote in his diary that the abolitionist and pro-Lincoln papers were only happy because they saw “the prospect that it will inaugurate a negro insurrection in the South.” He believed it to be little more than “a broad hint to the nigs to cut their masters throats, and those of the women and children.”
While the Republican State Convention in Lincoln’s Illinois fully endorsed the Proclamation, the largely Democratic press railed against the Rail Splitter. Papers from Chicago, Joliet, and even Springfield wrote bitterly of Lincoln’s pronouncement. The Macomb Eagle, however, spelled it out in plainer terms, predicting that Lincoln and his ilk “will go flaming with the grand object of hugging niggers to their bosoms,” adding in sarcastic closure, “Hoop de-dooden-do! The niggers are free!”1
- Sources: Lincoln’s Darkest Year by William Marvel; Lincoln and the Press by Robert S. Harper; Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by Allen C. Guelzo; Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation by William Klingman; Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. [↩]