Today marks the 149 anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22, 1862 Lincoln publicly announced that on January 1, 1863 all slaves in Confederate controlled territory would be forever free. This announcement was the culmination of months strategizing about emancipation (months Lincoln spent at the Cottage). So why did Lincoln choose to issue the proclamation in September of 1862? Though there were many factors, Lincoln believed he had divine inspiration.
After the Border States rejected a gradual, voluntary, compensated emancipation plan in July 1862, Lincoln realized he needed to take a stronger stance against slavery. This epiphany had certain mystical overtones, according to historian Allen Guelzo. “Here was the moral of the summer of 1862 for Abraham Lincoln: human events do not run on like machines, but by providential intervention; just so, the war would not run to a conclusion, nor the Union be saved, unless Lincoln himself took note of providence’s whispering.”1
As a result, Lincoln proposed freeing rebel-owned slaves in a meeting with the cabinet on July 22. Secretary of State William Seward advised him to wait to issue it until after a victory, so that the proclamation wouldn’t be “our last shriek, on the retreat.”2 Unfortunately, the next eight weeks did not see Union military successes. So when two Chicago ministers visited the President on September 13 urging national emancipation, he still did not believe the time was right. “What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet!”3
Lincoln told the religious men that he needed a divine sign before proceeding. “If it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.”4 In the end, Lincoln promised the ministers that “whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do.”5
Soon, Lincoln believed God’s will had appeared. On September 22, 1862 — five days after the Battle of Antietam forced the Confederates back to Virginia and exactly two months after he initially proposed the proclamation — Lincoln called for a cabinet meeting. At this meeting, Lincoln told the Cabinet that “I made the promise to myself and” – (after hesitating) – “to my Maker” that if the Confederates were defeated he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. “The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise… I think the time has come now.”6 Welles described this as “a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of the divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of Emancipation.”7
Entering a covenant – not unlike the one his biblical namesake made – was strange to Lincoln, he admitted. Yet “circumstances had happened during the war to induce [me] to a belief in ‘special providences.'” As he put it simply to his cabinet “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”8 And thus, 149 years later, we celebrate the passage of this historic document.
6 Diary entry, September 22, 1862, in David Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (New York: Longmans, Green, 1954), 150 via Matthew Pinsker Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 63.