The Art of the Possible

Published:May 27, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

The other day a friend passed along a link to the “6 Civil War Myths Everyone Believes (That Are Total B.S.)” Yes, it’s from Cracked magazine, but it doesn’t present itself as parody; it’s not even funny. Instead, it’s smug and know-it-all-y with a dash of foul language intended (I assume) to signal some mad alliance with hipsters. Or something.

Anyway, I was reminded of Myth No. 6 when thinking about Union general Ben Butler‘s pragmatic, legalistic, figure-it-out-as-you-go-along approach to dealing with fugitive slaves. Few if any grand principles were guiding him; he supported Jefferson Davis for president, after all! Instead, he took what this writer calls the “scrum” approach to management (think rugby)—which is to say, working within your means and with your interests always in mind, but at the same time showing a willingness to move in a direction that’s not always predictable. This is how the United States government crawled and lurched toward emancipation … which brings me, finally, to Cracked‘s Myth No. 6:

The Emancipation Proclamation Ended Slavery in the United States

Since everyone believes this to be true except for our intrepid reporter, allow me to quickly explain: the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves who resided in territory controlled at the time by the Confederacy. In other words, it declared free exactly those slaves whose freedom the government could not enforce, and it left enslaved those whose freedom it could enforce. This is a great irony to be sure. But the conclusion Cracked draws from this is … hot to say … B.S.?

Why did Lincoln only go half-way? Because as far as political waffling goes, the Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s masterpiece. Yes, Lincoln personally detested slavery, but abolition was still a touchy subject on account of four border states remaining loyal to the Union while still being hardcore slave states. There was also the matter of turning the war into a crusade to end slavery, which frankly was not the kind of thing your average Northerner would gladly have his head exploded over. [My emphasis]

One doesn’t need to be a Lincoln apologist to point out that the reason he didn’t free slaves who lived in Union-controlled territory was because he had no authority to do so. Slavery in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri was still protected by the United States Constitution. Only once the Confederate states renounced that Constitution could Lincoln act outside of the law’s normal bounds by citing military necessity. In fact, he could cite military necessity only in those parts of the Confederate states where such necessity did, in fact, exist, and not in those parts where it didn’t.

Look at this way: Lincoln exploited the military-necessity loophole in order to declare millions of slaves free, not to keep millions of slaves in bondage.

In retrospect it’s easy to deride Lincoln for waffling when, in fact, he was engaged in the art of the possible, both politically and legally. The faux outrage and cynicism, meanwhile, accomplish little that serves history.

PS: The historian Brooks Simpson reminds us that Lincoln made this point himself when one of his own cabinet members, Salmon P. Chase, raised the objection.

IMAGE: First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln (1864) by Francis Bicknell Carpenter