Lincoln Shocks His Cabinet with an Emancipation Proclamation

July 22, 1862 (Tuesday)

"The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation" by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

President Lincoln’s Cabinet met in the morning, on the usual day, taking their usual places in the President’s office. An impromptu session was called the previous day, during which Lincoln proposed several ideas. They came to no real conclusion and decided to sleep on it, and return to the items today.

As they had the previous day, the Cabinet members all agreed that Union commanders be allowed to take their subsistence from the areas where they were located. They agreed freed slaves could be employed as laborers for the army. They also agreed that some kind of compensation be paid to slave owners whose human property they had freed. On the subject of colonizing free blacks in some tropical area far away from North America, there was no agreement. Rather than debate something that might not ever have a chance of coming to fruition, the subject was dropped.

Someone, perhaps Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, again brought up the idea of arming the freed slaves. Lincoln, who had given this much thought, wasn’t quite ready to make that jump. However, there was something else, something bigger, on his mind.1

He rose, turned to his Cabinet and told them that he had prepared a draft of a proclamation that would free all of the slaves in the Confederate States. This revelation must have shocked them. Though he had made one mention of such an idea over a week before to Secretaries Gideon Welles and William Seward, both had declined to give their opinions on such a proposal.

Secretary of State William Seward

Lincoln fully realized that different Cabinet members had different opinions on emancipation, and asked them to speak freely from their hearts.2 His own heart, however, was already certain. He “had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject matter of a proclamation before them; suggestions as to which would be in order, after they had heard it read.”3

The President then read aloud the two handwritten paragraphs that would set free all three and a half million slaves in the rebellious states.

The first paragraph warned citizens, politicians and soldiers alike to return to the Union. “And,” continued Lincoln, “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 sixtythree, 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.”4

Realizing both the astonishing weight of such a proclamation and that Lincoln’s mind was already made up, the discussion was heavy. Two members, Secretaries William Seward and Edward Bates, apparently gave their immediate approval. Secretary Salmon Chase was hesitant at best.5 According to Chase, he would support it, but only if the idea of compensating the South for their freed slaves was dropped. He also wanted to allow “Generals to organize and arm the slaves (thus avoiding depredation and massacre on the one hand, and support to the insurrection on the other) and by directing the Commanders of Departments to proclaim emancipation within their Districts as soon as practicable.”6 According to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who took notes at the meeting, Chase was silent and then, declared himself against, that it might lead to universal emancipation, saying that “it goes beyond anything that I have recommended.”

Francis Bicknell Carpenter

Also, according to Stanton, Secretary Seward was not actually in favor of it (at least not at first). The Secretary of State gave an impassioned speech warning that “foreign nations will intervene to prevent the abolition of slavery for sake of cotton.”7

Attorney-General Montgomery Blair, who had been absent from the previous day’s meeting, was against it, saying that it would cost the administration the fall elections.

There is yet another source detailing Secretary Seward’s opinion. This was written down by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, the painter that spent six months with Lincoln in 1864. He claims to have penned the exact words of President Lincoln’s recollections of the meeting.

Seward, said Lincoln (via Carpenter), approved the proclamation, but questioned its timing. “It may be viewed,”
Secretary Seward perhaps said, “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.” It could be seen as “our last shriek on the retreat” (Carpenter wrote that Lincoln was certain Seward said exactly that).

Alexander Hay Ritchie print of Carpenter's painting.

In conclusion, Seward (according to Lincoln, according to Carpenter) suggested to the President that he “postpone its issue, until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war! [McClellan’s failed Peninsula Campaign]”

Lincoln had not considered such a thing. “The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force,” he told Carpenter the painter.8 And so, for the time being, Lincoln set aside the proclamation. He would wait for a battlefield victory and use the Emancipation Proclamation as a follow up blow – the first on the field of battle, the second on the fields of the plantations.9

  1. Diary by Salmon P. Chase, 1903. []
  2. The History of Emancipation by Gideon Welles, 1872. Oddly, Welles puts the date of the meeting on Saturday, August 2. According to Francis Bicknell Carpenter (the fellow who painted the famous portrayal of the first reading), Lincoln also made this claim. The true date, however, is July 22. Secretary Chase can be thanked for writing it down. []
  3. Six Months in the White House by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Hurd and Houghton, 1872. []
  4. First draft of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, as found in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5. []
  5. Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 6 by John Nicholay and John Hay, American Historical Foundation, 1914. []
  6. Diary by Salmon P. Chase, 1903. []
  7. Memorandum by Edwin Stanton, July 22, 1862. As printed in Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 6 by John Nicholay and John Hay, American Historical Foundation, 1914. []
  8. Six Months in the White House by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Hurd and Houghton, 1872. []
  9. For a much more in depth look into this meeting, I strongly recommend Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2005. []
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Lincoln Shocks His Cabinet with an Emancipation Proclamation by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “Lincoln Shocks His Cabinet with an Emancipation Proclamation

  1. A well-written account of the historic cabinet meeting. (Congratulations on getting the rough draft image.) Slight errata: Montgomery Blair was the Postmaster-General. (Yes, at that time it was a Cabinet position.) The Attorney General was Edward Bates.

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