1865 July 8: Consideration of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln’s Cabinet
The following comes from the July 8, 1865, issue of The Prescott Journal.
The Emancipation Proclamation—The Debate in the Cabinet.
F. B. Carpenter,¹ the well-known artist, contributes to the last number of the N.Y. Independent a sketch of the Emancipation Proclamation, as given to him by Mr. Lincoln himself while the picture illustrative of its consideration by the Cabinet was being painted.
Up to September of 1862, the war had been conducted without interference with slavery, in accordance with the views of Mr. Lincoln’s letter to Colonel Hodges, of Kentucky, in which he said that, although constitutionally anti-slavery, he had never felt at liberty to act officially upon his judgement. What brought about a change of policy is told below :
“It had got to be,” said Mr. Lincoln “mid-summer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game. I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy, and, without consultation with, or the knowledge of the Cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and, after much anxious thought, called a Cabinet meeting upon the subject. This was the last of July, or the first part of the month of August, 1862. (The exact date he did not remember.) This Cabinet meeting took place, I think, upon a Saturday. All were present excepting Mr. Blair [Francis P. Blair], the Post Master General, who was absent at the opening of the discussion but came in subsequently. I said to the Cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice but to lay the subject matter of a proclamation before them, suggestions to which would be in order after they heard it read. “Mr. Lovejoy [Owen Lovejoy],” said he, “was in error when he informed you that it excited no comment, excepting on the part of Secretary Seward. Various suggestions were offered. Secretary Chase [Salmon P. Chase] wishing the language stronger in reference to the arming of the blacks. Mr. Blair, after he came in, deprecated the policy, on the ground that it would cost the Administration the fall elections.” Nothing, however, was offered that I had not already fully anticipated and settled in my own mind until Secretary Seward spoke [William H. Seward]. Said he: Mr. President, I approve of the proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind consequent upon our own repeated reverses is so great that I fear the effect of so important a step. It may be viewed 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 its hands to the Government.” “His idea,” said the President, “was that it would be considered our last shriek, on the retreat.” (This was his precise expression.) “Now,” continued Mr. Seward, “while I approve the measure, I suggest, sir, that you postpone its issue until you can give it to a country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disaster of the war!” Said Mr. Lincoln: “The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force. It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was that I put the draft of the proclamation aside, as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory. From time to time I added or changed a line, touching it up here and there, waiting the progress of events. Well, the next news we had was of Pope’s disaster at Bull Run. Things looked darker than ever. Finally, came the week of the battle of Antietam. I determined to wait no longer. The news came, I think on Wednesday, that the advantage was on our side, I was then staying at the ‘Soldiers’ Home,’ (three miles out of Washington.) Here I finished the second draft of the preliminary proclamation; came up on Saturday; called the Cabinet together to hear it, and it was published the following Monday.
“It was a somewhat remarkable fact,” he continued, “that there were just one hundred days between the dates of the proclamations, issued upon the 22d of September and the 1st of January. I had not made the calculation at the time.”
At the final meeting on Saturday, another interesting incident occurred in connection with Secretary Seward. The President had written the important part of the proclamation in these words:
“That of the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves in any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever FREE; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such person, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
“When I finished reading this paragraph,” resumed Lincoln, “Mr. Seward stopped me, and said: ‘I think Mr. President, that you should insert after the word “recognize,” in that sentence, the words “and maintain.”‘ I replied that I had already fully considered the import of that expression in this connection, but I had not introduced it because it was not my way to promise what I was entirely sure that I could perform, and I was not prepared to say that I thought we were exactly able to ‘maintain’ this. “But,” said he, “Mr. Seward insisted, that we ought to take this ground, and the words finally went in.” * * * * *
In February last, a few days after the passage of the Constitutional Amendment, I was in Washington and was received by Mr. Lincoln with the kindness and familiarity which had characterized our previous intercourse. I told him one day that I was very proud to have been the artist to have first conceived of the design of painting a picture commemorative of the Act of Emancipation—that subsequent occurrences had only confirmed my own first judgement of that act as the most sublime moral event in our history. “Yes,” said he, and never do I remember to have noticed in him more earnestness of expression of manner, “as affairs have turned, it is the central act of the Administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century.”
I remember to have asked him on one occasion, if there was not some opposition manifested on the part of several members of the Cabinet to the emancipation policy. He said, in reply:—“Nothing more than I have stated to you. Mr. Blair thought we should lose the fall election, and opposed it on that ground only.” Said I, “I have understood that Secretary Smith [Caleb B. Smith] was not in favor of your action. Mr. Blair told me that, when the meeting was closed, and he and the Secretary of the Interior went away together, and the latter told him, that, if the President carried out that policy, he might count on losing Indiana sure!” “He never said anything of the kind to me,” returned the President. “And how,” said I, “does Mr. Blair feel about it now?” “Oh,” was the prompt reply, “he proved right in regard to the fall elections, but he is satisfied that we have since gained more than we have lost.” “I have been told,” said I, “that Judge Bates [Edward Bates] doubted the constitutionality of the proclamation.” “He never expressed such an opinion in my hearing,” replied Lincoln. “No member of the Cabinet ever dissented from the policy in any conversation with me.” * * * * *
Mr. Chase told me that at the meeting immediately after the battle of Antietam, and just prior to the issue of the September proclamation, the President entered upon the business before them by saying that “the time for the enunciation of the emancipation policy could no longer be delayed. Public sentiment,” he thought, “would sustain it—many of his warmest friends and supporters demanded it; and he had promised his God that he would do it!” The last part of this was uttered in a low tone, and appeared to be heard by no one but Secretary Chase, who was sitting near him. He asked the President if he correctly understood him. He asked the President if he correctly understood him. [sic] “I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result with a declaration of freedom to the slaves!”
1. “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln,” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1830-1900), Oil on canvas, 1864, in the Art & History collections (Catalog no. 33.0005.000) of the United States Senate.