Did Lincoln Free the Slaves?
August 3, 2000
Americans are under the impression that Abraham Lincoln
personally abolished slavery. It seems almost self-evident that
Lincoln freed the slaves. For generations, many blacks voted
Republican out of gratitude to Lincoln.
But the statement that Lincoln
freed the slaves is a gross oversimplification. Its widespread
acceptance shows not only ignorance of history, but a deep
incomprehension of the U.S. Constitution.
No president, as Lincoln well knew,
could simply pick up a pen and do away with slavery. To think that he could
is remarkably naive yet that is what most people do think.
Legally, slaves were the property of
other men; that is what slavery means. And under the Constitution, nobody
could be deprived of his property without due process of
law that is, a court proceeding had to prove to a jury that a
slaveowner had somehow forfeited his property.
Due process of law
didnt mean a legislative act. Congress had no power to pass a law
outlawing slavery. Lincoln acknowledged this in his first inaugural
address and even said he could support an amendment to the Constitution
protecting slavery where it already existed.
the Constitution meant what todays liberals say it means,
Congress could have simply passed a law banning slavery by invoking its
Power ... to regulate Commerce ... among the several States.
But in the 1860s, nobody thought that this power was so broad as to
nullify property rights. They understood that the Constitution would have
to be amended to give Congress authority over slavery, which at the time
seemed less likely than an amendment for the opposite purpose.
Lincoln knew that emancipation would
be a risky business. Convinced that whites and blacks could never live
together as equals, he contemplated resettling freed blacks in Africa and
During the Civil War, Lincoln decided,
after much agonizing, to declare that slaves in the seceding states were
free. The Emancipation Proclamation didnt apply to slaves in the
states that remained within the Union. So it didnt really
free the slaves. It had little immediate effect on slaves in
the Confederacy, of course, since they were beyond Lincolns reach.
Wags quipped that Lincoln had freed the slaves he couldnt help,
while doing nothing for the slaves he could have helped.
The question everyone asked was by
what authority Lincoln could help any slave. Lincoln admitted that
Congress had no constitutional power to touch slavery by legislation; but
he argued that he, in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed
forces putting down what he defined as an insurrection, could punish
rebels by stripping them of their property, even if that
property happened to be slaves. In a civil war, he contended, this could be
done without the peacetime niceties of due process of
So the Emancipation Proclamation
was a limited, complex, and constitutionally dubious measure. Still, it
was a brilliant propaganda coup that won foreign sympathy for the Union
cause. It redefined the Civil War as a contest over slavery rather than
secession, distracting attention from the basic question of whether a
state could declare its independence of the Union.
That question was brutally answered
anyway by the outcome of the war. Since 1865 it has been assumed that no
state may secede for any reason, no matter how tyrannical the federal
government may become, no matter how wildly it exceeds its
constitutional powers. People still illogically associate secession with
slavery; and even if the federal government is wrong in its claim of
absolute sovereignty, the states and the people are helpless against it.
The federal government can now change the meaning of the Constitution
that is supposed to restrain it, and there is no practical remedy for its
Lincoln was in some ways a
short-sighted man, who neither foresaw nor intended the ultimate results
of the Civil War. But preserving the Union turned out to
mean inverting its federal structure and creating a central government so
strong that no countervailing forces can stop it from monopolizing power.
The worst of it is that most people in the United States of Amnesia
cant even see this as a problem.
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