Rethinking Rights: Did Lincoln’s Emancipation Decree put back American Civil Rights by 100 years?

In this, the 150th year commemorating the end of the American Civil War, and as we approach the 5th November, when the last active Confederate force – the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah – sailed into Liverpool and surrendered to the British navy, it is poignant to look back and evaluate the significance of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Decree.

Abraham LincolnIn American history President Abraham Lincoln’s name is written and spoken with reverence to the point of apotheosis. Rarely is any part of his Presidential career criticised as, after all, he did defeat the rebellious Southern Confederacy, which stopped the United States fracturing, and he freed the slaves. The American nation celebrates Lincoln’s achievements probably more than any other president; only John F. Kennedy, another assassinated President, is viewed with comparable admiration.

Both of these individuals enjoy an aura of virtuosity where their good deeds outshine all else. Had Lincoln’s Presidency not been ended in such a dramatic fashion by the thespian John Wilkes Booth in April, 1865, and only days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, history may have viewed his achievements in a different light. However, his assassination, at the point of victory, places him above reproach as the righteous saviour of the Union.

One of the most significant acts during the Civil War was Lincoln’s decision to issue a Presidential Decree to free those African Americans held in slavery in the Confederancy. Issued in September, 1862, with effect from January 1st, 1863, Lincoln’s Decree freed all slaves in the seceded States. Despite a common misconception, it did not free all those in bondage, as the Decree only freed those within States engaged in rebellion or in areas under Confederate control. It did not free slaves in any of the Federal (Union) States, in the breakaway state of West Virginia or in any of the Southern areas under Federal control.

Abraham Lincoln documentIndeed, Lincoln’s Decree was arguably more symbolic, as it brought the morality of slavery to the forefront of public notice, but it did very little to actually resolve the inherent problems of slavery, or to actually free any slaves in the Confederacy, or anywhere else in the United States. Lincoln used the abolition of slavery as an instrument of morality, aimed at preventing the British and French governments from recognising the Confederacy and removing the possibility of the war escalating and intensifying through the participation of those two European nations.

Despite Confederate propaganda, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but he did believe that slavery was morally wrong and inhumane. In order to protect the structure of the Union, Lincoln was willing to tolerate slavery in those States where it was currently practised, as it had been enshrined in the Constitution and sanctioned by the highest court in the land. In his first inaugural address on March 4th, 1861, Lincoln stated, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery or in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so”.

America’s Founding Fathers had previously struggled with how to address slavery and, whilst they did not explicitly include the word “slavery” in the Constitution, key clauses were inserted to protect the institution, including a fugitive slave clause (Article IV, section 4, 1793 Constitution) that effectively defined slaves as property. It was being referenced as “property” that defined how African Americans were viewed and treated, not just in the Southern States, but also throughout the Union. It manifested as a deep-rooted racial attitude expressed towards African Americans that had become ingrained in the whole of American society for the previous 200 years, and would continue unchallenged for the next 100 years.

Supreme CourtOnce the Southern States were released from Federal Control in the mid-1870s, and they again became self-governing, it was at this point that the nation abandoned its commitment to equality for all citizens regardless of race, and the 13th Amendment (enacted in December, 1865), which prohibited slavery, was effectively ignored. White supremacy would once again dominate as the Southern States immediately introduced a series of laws that became known as “Jim Crow” legislation. These laws were aimed at suppressing the rights of all African Americans and, in fact, reintroduced slavery in all but name. Thousands were imprisoned and used as cheap labour, both in chain gangs or leased, at little or no cost, to major manufacturing companies producing well known branded consumer goods. For those who were not imprisoned, life for many was borderline poverty. Very few were able to break through the barriers imposed on them, as they were denied basic rights supposedly guaranteed under the Constitution.

Imperial Laundry coOver the next hundred years Civil Rights legislation passed by both State and Federal governments was frequently ignored; of the two, the Federal government was probably the most ineffective, as there was simply no desire to relive the Civil War. Lincoln’s Emancipation Decree may have technically freed the slaves, but what did it actually achieve? I would argue that it did not change attitudes, work-place practices or individual prejudice towards African Americans, at least not until the 1960s, almost a hundred years after over 1.5 million were killed or injured fighting to end slavery.

The first real achievement was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, passed with great gusto in the liberal free-thinking “60s”, but this Act was an almost word-for-word repeat of that passed in March, 1875, and which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 1888. What had changed? In the mid-1950s, many African Americans began to want a very different life and started to refuse being treated as subhuman inferiors because of the colour of their skin.

So, what did Lincoln’s Emancipation Decree really achieve? It highlighted an inhumane practice, but it did not change attitudes or improve the plight of African Americans. On the contrary, it almost certainly harmed the civil rights movement, subduing any real progress for the next 100 years. It could be argued that you have to have a starting point for change, but it is not just the starting point that is important – it is how change continues that can define a nation. In this case, the change was radically opposed to the detriment of millions of African Americans for the next 100 years.

Stuart Smith is studying History at Kingston University, London




This entry was posted in African History, American history, Black History, British history, French History, Public History, Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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