Among President Lincoln’s many great acts and accomplishments, one of the most significant was the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. By this act, he legally and formally initiated a profound shift in moral perception. The document was developed during the months that Lincoln spent at the Soldiers’ Home.
In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a State where there were black laws…
– Frederick Douglass, abolitionist. 1
During the summer of 1862, President Lincoln developed his view that emancipation of slaves would benefit the Union. When he took office in 1861, while personally opposed to slavery, the President had believed that slaves should be freed gradually and that their owners should be compensated. While Lincoln believed that all people should be free, he also believed he would be overstepping his authority as president to end slavery all at once without compensating slave owners.
I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling… I did understand however that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government “that nation” of which that Constitution was the organic law…
— President Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864. 2
By June 1862, President Lincoln became convinced that the emancipation of slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union would be necessary to win the war. He believed that such a measure would encourage African Americans to join the Union Army to fight for their own freedom at a time when the Union was desperately in need of additional volunteers. In addition, he expected that Great Britain and France, each of which had considered supporting the Confederacy, would find it impossible to do so once the Union took a clear position against slavery.3
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
— President Abraham Lincoln to Hon.Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862. 4
Without telling his advisors, Lincoln apparently began working on shaping his ideas on emancipation into an official document. On July 13, 1862, he startled Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles by telling them of his determination that the government should order the emancipation of the slaves. 5
On July 22, Lincoln informed the entire Cabinet of his decision by reading the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation. This draft called for states that had seceded to return to the Union and gradually abolish slavery but concluded that as of January 1, 1863, slaves in states then in rebellion would be declared free.
Lincoln likely worked on the document throughout the summer, probably revising it at the White House during the day and at the Cottage during the evenings. Many years after the fact, the painter Francis B. Carpenter quoted Lincoln as saying that he finished writing the second draft, or Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, while he was at the Soldiers’ Home one evening.
The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State [that the Emancipation Proclamation should not be announced until after a Union victory] struck me with very great force. It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was that I put the draft of the document aside, waiting for a victory. From time to time I added or changed a line, touching it up here and there, anxiously waiting the progress of events. Well, the next news we had was of Pope’s disaster at Bull Run. Things looked darker than ever. Finally came the week of the Battle of Antietam. I determined to wait no longer. The news came, I think, on Wednesday, that the advantage was on our side. I was then staying at the Soldiers’ Home. Here I finished writing the second draft of the preliminary proclamation; came up on Saturday, called the Cabinet to hear it, and it was published the following Monday.
— Lincoln’s account of the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation, as reported by F.B. Carpenter. 6
Wherever he was when he actually wrote and revised the Emancipation Proclamation, it is clear that Lincoln was thinking long and hard about the idea during the time he lived at the Soldiers’ Home.
While the Emancipation Proclamation was motivated in part by practical considerations and was limited in scope, it has been hailed ever since as one of the most important documents in American history. It was considered then as it is now a declaration that the Union was fighting for universal freedom.