Was the Emancipation Proclamation Trying to Incite a Slave Rebellion?

September 5, 2015 | Civil War

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Philip Leigh, who brings us a guest post on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Be sure to check out his newest book, Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies.

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Capture of Nat Turner

Such an uprising would almost certainly have compelled Confederate soldiers to desert in order to go home to protect their families. Even if they were members of the nearly 70% of families in the Confederate states that did not own slaves such a rebellion could trigger a race war. The danger was a particularly sensitive point in states like South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi where slaves represented over half, or nearly half, of the population. The Confederacy would have little chance of surviving a widespread servile insurrection that would require it to fight both the slaves and the Union armies.1

Although there were few prior American slave rebellions, Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia uprising confirmed they could be merciless racial conflicts. During their brief summer rampage Turner’s rebels killed nearly every White they encountered. A total of about sixty were massacred, mostly women and children.

One near-victim was George Thomas who was spared because he fled his home to hide in the woods with his mother and sisters. Thomas later became a famous Union general credited with saving an entire army at the battle of Chickamauga. Out of 7,000 Blacks in the region, Turner was only able to recruit about sixty followers. There were even reports that some masters gave weapons to their wards and that the armed slaves helped put-down the insurrection.2

Some slave rebellions elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere involved more extensive genocide. One example was on the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo where a multi-year revolt culminated in the formation of the Free Haitian Republic in 1804. Although most Whites left by that time, the 5,000 or so who remained were systematically massacred. Some women who took Black husbands or lovers were spared.3

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Slave Trade Destinations. Source.

The map above shows that the vast bulk of African slave trade terminated in the Caribbean and South America, not the United States. Therefore, Western Hemisphere slave uprisings outside our country were more common. As shall be explained, their potential to disrupt Atlantic trade was a serious worry for the Europeans.

President Lincoln famously resisted pressure to emancipate slaves during the first year-and-a-half of his administration. In the first year he required that Major General John C. Fremont withdraw the general’s military order freeing Missouri slaves, which was a state where Fremont was then military commander. In May 1862 Lincoln rescinded an order by Major General David Hunter that freed the slaves in parts of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Lincoln’s resistance to emancipation early in the war was partly influenced by a desire to prevent the slave-legal border-states, such as Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, from seceding.4

However, by the summer of 1862 the president was considering emancipation as a necessary means of winning the war. His earliest supportive remarks date to July 13, 1862. While riding in a carriage with Secretary of State William Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who were conservative cabinet members, he remarked that he “had about come to the conclusion that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Both men were surprised and asked for time to consider the matter. Lincoln urged them to ponder it seriously because “something must be done.”5

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Lincoln and his cabinet

About a week later on July 22 the president read a first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the entire cabinet that included abolitionist and conservative members. The secretaries had expected the meeting to address other matters and had difficulty focusing on the statement. It had a curious structure that showed the president was trying to reconcile his previous policy and constitutional arguments with the new position. For example, less than eighteen months earlier in his presidential inaugural address he said he had no lawful right “to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” It also pledged pecuniary aid to any state, including the rebellious ones, who voluntarily abolished slavery. He concluded by asking for cabinet member opinions.6

Secretary of War Stanton and Attorney General Bates urged immediate adoption. Surprisingly, the abolitionist Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase felt that it would be better to let the generals in the field implement the program sector-by-sector partly to avoid the “depredation and massacre” of civilians and their property. Secretary of State Seward remarked that emancipation “would break up our relations with foreign nations and the production of cotton for sixty years.” Apparently he believed that cotton could not be economically produced except by slave labor. Seward also advised that if the president was determined to proceed, he should wait until the Union armies won an important victory. Otherwise, he warned, the policy “would be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help.”7

Slave Reading the Emancipation Proclamation

Slave Reading the Emancipation Proclamation

Secretary Chase’s comment suggests that a number of important Northerners recognized that emancipation might prompt a slave uprising. In point of fact, President Lincoln was among them. On September 13, 1862 he replied to a delegation of Chicago abolitionists visiting Washington that he recognized the potentially immoral “consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South.” Whatever the moral benefits, or immoral consequences, of emancipation he “view[ed] the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the [Confederate] rebellion.”8

After the battle of Antietam that repulsed Robert E. Lee’s Maryland invasion, Lincoln publicly announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It is described as “preliminary” because the formal proclamation would not be effective until January 1, 1863.

Following the September public announcement many voices condemned the proclamation as an attempt to provoke a slave rebellion. Unsurprisingly, it was a common interpretation in the South where Confederate President Jefferson Davis averred the document “encouraged [slaves] to a general assassination of their masters.” But similar reactions were not uncommon in the North partly because the manuscript includes a statement that the “[US] military and naval authority…will do no act to repress [slaves], or…any efforts [the slaves] may make for their actual freedom.” Many critics concluded the statement ordered the military to do nothing to protect Southern civilians should a slave rebellion arise.9

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Charles Dana

Among them was Charles A. Dana, a trusted civilian observer of generals and armies in the field for Lincoln and Stanton. Dana immediately urged that the statement by erased or changed because of its potential to incite servile insurrection. Another example was former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis from Massachusetts. He was on the Court during the Dred Scott decision and sided with the minority who felt Scott should have been freed. After the ruling went against him, Curtis resigned from the Court. Although he did not believe Lincoln intended to instigate a slave rebellion, he concluded the proclamation’s likely result would be to “incite a part of the inhabitants of the United States to rise in insurrection against valid laws.” He foresaw “scenes of bloodshed” and “servile war.”10

Boston maritime mogul and friend to abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, Robert Forbes, concluded that Sumner’s followers genuinely wanted the slaves to “be made free by killing or poisoning their masters and mistresses.” US Representative Thaddeus Stevens who was a primary abolitionist leader and chief architect of Civil War Reconstruction validated Forbes’s conclusion. Stevens later admitted hoping the slaves would be “incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real war.” Similarly, the Continental Monthly of New York urged that a “thousand mounted men” be recruited to raid deep into the South with authority to assemble and arm the slaves.” Finally, Senator Sumner himself said, “I know of no principle…by which our [Southern White] rebels should be saved from the natural consequences of their own action…They set the example of insurrection…They cannot complain if their slaves…follow it.11

Colonel Charles Francis Adams, Jr. who was the son of Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain and the great-grandson and grandson of two US presidents concluded the prevailing belief in the North at the time of the proclamation was that it would spark an immediate slave uprising to bring the war to a sudden end. Major General George McClellan similarly complained that the president sought to stir up slave rebellions in an attempt to end the war. McClellan cannot be dismissed as an isolated example because he was Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 wartime presidential election when he received over 1.8 million votes, which was 45% of the total. As late as July 1864 Lincoln was convinced he would lose the election to McClellan, but the president’s prospects were rescued by Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 2.12

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Lowrey

Grosvenor Lowery, a US Treasury Department lawyer who wrote legal pamphlets supporting the expansion of the president’s wartime powers, opined that nobody could predict a slave rebellion. However, he added, that if a “servile resurrection …ensu[ed]” the rebels could only blame themselves. Essentially, Lowery argued for Lincoln that emancipation was legal as a wartime measure, which the government should use to win the war even at the risk of a Southern slave rebellion. In legal terms, Grosvenor echoed Lincoln’s points to the delegation of Chicago abolitionists nine days before he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It was legal as a wartime measure but had both moral, and potentially immoral, ramifications.13

According to historian Howard Jones, initial reaction that the Emancipation Proclamation might provoke slave rebellions was also common in Europe. Moreover, the Europeans worried that it could trigger a race war that would extend beyond American borders. Instead of concluding that emancipation gave the United States the moral high ground Jones writes:

What developed was not an expected debate over the morality of slavery but a deep fear among British leaders that the president’s move would stir up slave rebellions. The result, they predicted, would be a race war that crossed sectional lines and, contrary to Lincoln’s intentions forced other nations to intervene [in America’s Civil War.]

[British Foreign Secretary Earl John Russell]…told [the House of] Lords that the war must come to a halt on the basis of a southern separation. Otherwise a full-scale race war would result…14

Russell justified mediation on…[presumption of] a certain race war that would drag in other nations. In the ultimate irony Lincoln had adopted an antislavery posture in part to prevent outside interference…but had instead raised the likelihood of foreign involvement by, according to the British and French, attempting to stir up a servile insurrection… 15

Similarly Jones writes of the opinion held by the French minister to Washington, Henri Mercier:

…like the British [Mercier concluded] that the Union’s expected demand for immediate emancipation would spark a race war that disrupted the southern economy and stopped the flow of cotton. Such a conflict would spread beyond sectional boundaries and drag in other nations.16

Opinions similar to those above were echoed by a number of prominent British and French newspapers. The London Times asked whether “the reign of [Lincoln’s presidency was] to go out amid the horrible massacres of white women and children, to be followed by the extermination of the black race in the South?” According to Jones, the French “…Conservative press thought the Proclamation would cause slave rebellions and a ‘fratricidal war’ that would envelop America in ‘blood and ruins.’”17

In time, however, since a slave rebellion failed to materialize, Lincoln was able to win the moral high ground with the Europeans and posterity. It is impossible to be certain about his intentions. Nonetheless, there is a subtle but important difference in language between the Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 and the final one about three months later on January 1, 1863. Lincoln added the following paragraph to the final version, which was altogether missing from the September 22 version:

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

Philip Leigh Philip Leigh contributed twenty-four articles to The New York Times Disunion blog, which commemorated the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Westholme Publishing released three of Phil’s three Civil War books to date:

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies (2015)
Trading With the Enemy (2014)
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated (2013)

Phil has lectured a various Civil War forums, including the 23rd Annual Sarasota Conference of the Civil War Education Association and various Civil War Roundtables. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology and an MBA from Northwestern University.

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Slaves with their Master


1. Tim McNeese America’s Civil War (Dayton, Oh.: Lorenz Educational Press, 2003) 9; James Randall & David Donald The Civil War and Reconstruction (Boston: D. C. Heath & Company, 1961) 5.
2. Francis Simkins and Charles Roland A History of the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972) 126 – 127; Ernest Furgurson “Catching Up With Old Slow Trot” Smithsonian Magazine March, 2007.
3. Philippe Girard The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011) 321 – 322.
4. James McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 352, 499; David Donald Lincoln (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995) 363 – 364.
5. David Donald Lincoln 362.
6. Ibid., 365; Abraham Lincoln “First Presidential Inaugural Address” Yale Law School, The Avalon Project http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.
7. Ibid., 365.
8. Abraham Lincoln, Roy Basler Editor The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln Volume 5 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953) 421.
9. Michael Burlingame Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) 417; John Franklin The Emancipation Proclamation (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1963) 43.
10. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life 417; Louis Masur Lincoln’s Hundred Days (Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap Press, 2012) 123 – 124.
11. Louis Masur Lincoln’s Hundred Days 123 – 125; Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life 417; Allen Guelzo Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006)
12. Howard Jones Blue and Gray Diplomacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 230; Matthew Andrews Virginia: The Old Dominion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1937) 632n; James McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 771, 773, 805.
13. Louis Masur Lincoln’s Hundred Days 123.
14. Howard Jones Blue and Gray Diplomacy 120.
15. Ibid., 234.
16. Ibid., 146.
17. Ibid., 232.

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