William F. Ward (George Novack)

Some Thoughts On

The Emancipation Proclamation

Written: 1963
First Published: International Socialist Review, Spring 1963, Volume 24, No. 24, pages 35-40.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect a century ago on January 1, 1863. The freedom heralded by that decree is far from won; slavery was buried but Jim Crow is very much alive.

Despite this excessive “gradualism,” the Emancipation Proclamation stands as a monumental landmark in the advancement of liberty, not only for the colored people, but for all Americans. Even though Lincoln resisted Senator Sumner’s plea to issue the proclamation on the Fourth of July, this charter of freedom ranks with the Declaration of Independence in our revolutionary heritage.

However, the vast discrepancy between the promise held out by the 1863 pronouncement and the performance of the possessors of power in the hundred years since presents problems for historians as well as for the political defenders of the existing order. What caused this failure and where should the responsibility for the perpetuation of Negro inequality be placed?

* * *

The Civil War ushered in the Second American Revolution. This was the most momentous event in the entire nineteenth century for out of it came the capitalist colossus of our own day. The Emancipation Proclamation was the greatest event in that conflict. Its significance—and shortcomings—cannot be understood except in the context of the Civil War and the divergent interest and aims of the social forces on the winning side. The Civil War erupted as the climax to a prolonged contest for command over the country between the Northern businessmen and the Southern planters. Ever since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the moving force in American history and the pivot of its political affairs had been the now muffled, now acute struggle for supremacy between the beneficiaries of slave labor and the upholders of free soil and free labor. Just as the rule of Big Business is central to the problems of our generation, so throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the major social issue before the American people was: what is to be done about the slave power?

In the decades before the Civil War the cotton nobility became dominant not only in the South but over the nation. Its representatives and accomplices controlled the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the armed forces and charted the main lines of foreign and domestic policy.

This sovereignty of the slaveholders was first seriously challenged by the Republican party organized in 1854. This was a coalition composed of the rising industrialists, the small farmers of the Northwest, the urban middle classes and part of the wage-workers. All these elements opposed to the slave power rallied around the young party. When Lincoln was elected President in 1860, the long-established balance of power in national politics was profoundly upset. Until that point the slaveholders could count on a pliant and even servile administration to do their bidding at Washington. The Republican assumption of command meant that the authority and resources of the federal government had slipped from their grasp and were being taken over by their foremost rivals, the Northern manufacturers and their associates.

Because of the grave difficulties besetting their antiquated system of production, the Southern planters and slave-dealers could ill-afford to lose possession of the heights of power they had so long and profitably occupied. Like other ruling classes on the skids, they placed defense of their privileges before the democratic decision of the electorate. Up to 1860 the wealthier and more conservative planters had rejected the arguments of the Southern “fire-eaters” that departure from the Union was the cure for their ills. Now they swallowed the desperate remedy of secession, formed the Confederacy and fired on Fort Sumter.

The immediate cause of the Civil War was therefore political: the shift of supremacy from the cotton barons: to the industrial bourgeoisie and their allies. The secessionist coup d’etat confronted Lincoln’s government with the choices of resubmission to the dictates of the slavocracy or taking the field of battle to clinch by bloody warfare its constitutional triumph in the 1860 elections. The loyal states mobilized to beat down the defiance of the “lords of the lash.”

The statesmen on both sides brought forward legalistic and constitutional arguments. But these covered up a far deeper issue. Behind the embattled governments and armies were two antagonistic forms of property and wealth production. The Confederacy was conceived in chattel slavery, property in human beings; the Union rested upon wage-labor and freehold farming. The planters had plunged into secession in order to safeguard their “peculiar institution” at all hazards; its preservation was bound up with their victory. The fate of the slave system hung on the outcome of the Civil War.

The founders of the Confederacy were far more cognizant of this fundamental feature of the conflict than were their Northern adversaries. In a grandiloquent defense of the Confederate Constitution on March 16, 1861, Vice-President Alexander Stephens declared: “The new Constitution has put to rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as ’the rock upon which the Old Union would split’ . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the Old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically . . . These ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error . . .

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon, the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. (Applause.) This, our new Government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Stephens was all wrong in his assertion that the Confederate Constitution had “put to rest forever” agitation about slavery. Actually, secession had given crucial importance and extreme urgency to the issue. The United States could not be reunited until slavery itself had been “put to rest forever.”

But in the opening stages of the Civil War the Republican high command did not view or approach the situation in this light. In the immense upheaval convulsing the country they believed it possible and desirable to leave standing the underlying cause of it all! They had held this position from the birth of the Republican organization which was not designed to be a party of social revolution but of political reform.

The manufacturing and business interests at its head sought protective tariffs, transcontinental rail lines, lucrative government contracts, favorable immigration and banking policies; the representatives of the small farmers and middle classes in its ranks wanted homesteads, better transportation facilities, educational grants, etc. The Republican leaders were resolved to wrest political predominance from the planters, bridle the aggressive ambitions of the slave power on the foreign field, and fence in their domain. But they were willing to leave slavery alone if the Southern cotton magnates would accommodate themselves to the changed relationship of forces. Again and again they declared: we have no intention of disturbing or destroying slavery and are ready to give firm guarantees of its continuance wherever it legally exists.

Just as the upper crust among the planters had resisted secessionism in the 1850’s so the most influential Republicans indignantly and sincerely repudiated Abolitionism as subversive of the established order and the devilish fomenter of slave insurrection. Seward, Lincoln and others approved the hanging of John Brown. It took the bourgeois heads of the North several more years to come abreast of the requirements of their revolution than it did their slaveholding counterparts in the South to recognize and act upon the imperatives of their counter-revolution.

The Republican leadership followed this course of conciliation with slavery for over a year after the Civil War broke out. In his Inaugural address Lincoln reassured the slaveholders in these words: “1 have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists; I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” As late as July 26, 1861, after the rout at Bull Run, the Senate, by a vote of 30 to 5, resolved that the war “was not being prosecuted for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights and established institutions” of the seceding states.

Since the slaveholders would not accept second-rank in a Northern-dominated Union, and the Republican coalition would not forfeit its legally acquired supremacy, decision could only be rendered by an armed fight to the death—and this portended the death of slavery.

The Abolitionists and other consistent opponents of the slave power saw this clearly and urged Lincoln to conduct the war in a revolutionary manner by manumitting the slaves. On Nov. 7, 1861, Marx and Engels wrote from London in a dispatch to Die Presse of Vienna: “The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, between the system of slavery and the system of free labor. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”

If, as Secretary of State Seward later remarked, “The Emancipation Proclamation was uttered in the first gun fired at Fort Sumter,” he and his colleagues took a long time to get the message. For the Republican directorate the question of slavery was subordinate to the preservation of the Union under their own hegemony and so they started to wage a hesitating, purely military campaign against the rebels, which was highly ineffective. Even after losing hope of compromise with the secessionists, they feared to antagonize the upper classes in the border slave states by tampering with their accumulated wealth and labor supply.

The government feared to arm the free Negroes and enroll them in the Union forces. It was even more indisposed to encourage the slaves to rise up against their masters, sabotage production, and escape from the plantations. In 1861 Lincoln overruled General Fremont’s order freeing the slaves of all Missourians supporting the Confederacy and as late as May 1862 he voided General Hunter’s action emancipating the slaves in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

The Administration’s refusal to strike any blows at slavery provoked angry protests throughout the North and chilled the enthusiasm of its foreign friends for the Union cause. Almost from the day that armed conflict began, the Republican regime was subjected to a tremendous tug of war between the conservative faction led by Secretary of State Seward, which wanted to maintain the status quo, and the Radicals headed by Secretary of the Treasury Chase, Senator Sumner and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, who pressed for political and military action aimed at crushing the Confederacy and demolishing the slave power. To Stevens, “the vile ingredient called conservatism” appeared “worse than secessionism.”

Lincoln vacillated between these opposing tendencies. As a private person, he detested slavery. As a moderate Republican, he proposed to solve the problem by gradual and compensated emancipation followed by colonization abroad of the former chattels. He offered this scheme to the border states whose officials rejected it.

The Radical and Abolitionist leaders deeply distrusted the President for his caution and compromise on this all-important issue. Frederick Douglass denounced “the slow-coach at Washington.” Wendell Phillips, speaking at a Republican rally in Boston, was applauded when he accused Lincoln of treason and urged his impeachment for nullifying General Hunter’s proclamation.

The emancipationists were not all of one breed. The big bourgeois Radicals in high posts like Chase, Stanton and Wade insisted on ruthless measures to combat the slavocracy in order to clear the field for the unhampered expansion of industrial capitalism. Their upper class motivation was to emerge more clearly during Reconstruction. The Abolitionist agitators like Douglass and Phillips were bent on destroying the slave power in order to get justice and equality for the Negroes and fulfill the democratic ideals of the Republic.

During the first half of 1862 the anti-slavery forces conducted a relentless campaign to compel the President to change his course. The difficulties in handling the large numbers of slaves who ran away and sought refuge behind the Union lines and in the army camps, the need for more men and money to carry on the war, the desire to placate European liberal opinion made the old conciliatory policy less and less tenable. The mounting impatience of the most energetic supporters of the Administration with its temporizing attitude toward the rebels was expressed in the open letter that the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, known as the Tom Paine of the Radicals, addressed to Lincoln on August 20, 1962. Headed “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” it demanded that the President liberate the slaves in both the secession and border states at once and turn to the Negroes for aid against the South.

To this Lincoln replied: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or 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.”

Despite the restraint in this restatement of his guiding line, Lincoln had reached the point where he could no longer withstand the fierce pressure of emancipationist sentiment. He was losing popularity in the North and risking leadership of his own party. The powerful Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War controlled by the Radicals was insisting that the military deadlock could not be broken without the suppression of slavery.

Lincoln had made up his mind to take action by June 13, 1862, when he informed Seward and Welles, that the Union would be subdued if he did not free the slaves. The legal basis for his exercise of executive power had been laid by the Confiscation Act passed by Congress on July 6, 1862, for the unshackling of slaves belonging to the secessionists. On September 23, after Lee had been driven back at Antietam, Lincoln made a preliminary public announcement of emancipation. One hundred days later his definitive proclamation was issued. January 1, 1863, was the great Day of Jubilee for all friends of freedom.

Few nowadays have read the Emancipation Proclamation. Compared to the fiery Declaration of Independence, it is a pallid document. According to Professor Richard Hofstadter, “it has all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Lincoln did not present the edict as an affirmation of democratic principle but as “a fit and necessary war-measure.” It did not outlaw slavery as such or free any slaves. It applied only to areas over which the Federal government exercised no control and specifically exempted all regions under Federal military occupation. In the scornful words of British Lord Russell: “It does no more than profess to emancipate slaves where the United States authorities cannot make emancipation a reality, and emancipates no one where the decree can be carried into effect.” In the text Lincoln took care to enjoin orderly behavior upon the Negroes and “recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”

But these defects of the document turned out to be far less significant than its issuance. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts rightly observed that the Emancipation Proclamation was “a poor document but a mighty act.” It signalized the decisive turning point when the Civil War was transfigured into a social revolution against the last of the pre-capitalist formations in the United States. The further course of the conflict was powered by the irresistible dynamism of its attack upon the structure of slavery. The proclamation gave official sanction to the Negro’s efforts to free themselves; it opened the Union armies to them. From that time on every advance of the Union troops into the South became a step toward full emancipation. The sentence of death which the Emancipation Proclamation in effect passed upon the slave power was carried out in the subsequent stages of the Second American Revolution.

Referring to the problem of slavery, Lincoln truthfully remarked that circumstances controlled him more than he controlled circumstances. The Republican switch from the path of reform to the highroad of revolution, from the expectation of negotiating a deal with the deposed slaveholders to their extirpation, from the shielding of slavery to its suppression is a remarkable example from our history of how the exigencies of a life-and-death struggle can transform people, policies and parties. The necessities of waging a war to the hilt against the Confederacy compelled the Republicans to depart from the restricted perspectives of their original platform and enforce the most far-reaching anti-slavery measures which they previously opposed. The ascending revolution propelled the people of the North to ideas and positions advocated until then only by a tiny, isolated minority. The Abolitionists, who had made emancipation their war-cry long before secession, anticipated the march of events and the needs of national progress far better than the “realistic” and opportunistic professional bourgeois politicians.

In retrospect, it can be seen how emancipation advanced step by step as the Civil War developed, overcoming one obstacle after another. The Republicans abolished slavery in the District of Columbia in April, 1862; they fulfilled their campaign pledge to forbid slavery forever in the territories the following June; Lincoln opened the flood gates with his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. When the Radical machine went into high gear, it put over the most revolutionary solution of confiscating slave property without compensation and enacting the 13th Amendment. So a mighty revolutionary shakeup revolutionizes the mentality and politics of its participants and leaders.

Today Kennedy occupies the White House tenanted by Lincoln a century ago. The President has condemned the Fidelistas because they did not confine their actions to the pronouncements of the original national-democratic, humanistic platform, but went on to take socialist measures. He refuses to see that, in order to realize their democratic objectives and carry out their pledges to the poor, the honest and courageous Cuban revolutionaries had to go far beyond their initial intentions.

The leaders of the Cuban Revolution had good precedent for this in American history. They acted no differently than the heads of the Second American Revolution who discovered that they could not preserve the Union, defend democracy, and clear the way for national progress without dispossessing the counterrevolutionary slaveholders. The Republicans who started out as reformers became converted by force of circumstances and much to their surprise into bourgeois-democratic revolutionists. The Fidelistas, who began as bourgeois-democratic rebels, have ended up as socialist revolutionists. The Cubans of the 1960’s took up where the American revolutionists of the 1860’s left off. After all, the Castro regime which Kennedy is so intent on destroying has uprooted racial discrimination in Cuba.

This is well worth noting on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead of blaming Castro for transgressing the limited aims of the July 26th Movement in its infancy, Kennedy’s propagandists and historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., might better direct attention to the following questions closer to home: Why didn’t the President’s predecessors of Civil War days succeed in eliminating Jim Crow and why must Negroes still be fighting today to acquire the status of full citizenship?

Enlightenment on these points can be obtained through understanding the motives and aims of the ruling capitalist class in its progressive and in its reactionary phases of development. It took four years of civil war and twelve years of military occupation of the South before the Northern statesmen felt securely entrenched at the summits of power. So long as they feared a political comeback by their traditional adversary, the Republican bourgeoisie had to make substantial concessions to keep the allegiance of the farmers and Negroes.

At each turn of events from 1861 to 1876 their conduct was primarily shaped, not by consideration for the needs of the common people and still less for the claims of the four million Negroes, but by the shifting requirements of their drive for unchallenged supremacy. After the Confederacy had surrendered and the slaves were freed, the problem of remolding the cotton kingdom came to the fore. Was the South to be democratized by transferring control to the emancipated black and the poorer whites—or would a new oligarchy take the place of the subjugated slavocracy? This issue was fought out during the Reconstruction period. In the first years after 1865 two contending programs were put forward for handling the South. Lincoln’s successor, President Johnson, sought to restore order as quickly as possible and keep the Negroes subjected by enforcing the Black Codes, denying them the vote, and restricting changes in social relations to the minimum. The Radicals, backed by the Abolitionists and Negroes, set out to complete the demolition of the planting aristocracy. To forestall any resurgence of the unregenerate rebels, the aggressive agents of Northern business and banking found it expedient to give the Negroes the vote and sustain by military force the reconstructed state governments established and administered by opponents of the old order. These introduced many worthwhile innovations in education, taxation, the criminal codes and other domains.

As in all modern revolutions in backward areas, agrarian reform was the most burning need of Southern society. Here the Republican administration defaulted. In some places the ex-slaves seized the plantations, worked them for their own account, defended them arms in hand. Generally, they expected that a generous Federal government would give them “forty acres and a mule.” They waited in vain.

"Confiscation is mere naked justice to the former slave,” declared Wendell Phillips. “Who brought the land into cultivation? Whose sweat and toil are mixed with it forever? Who cleared the forests? Who made the roads? Whose hands raised those houses? Whose wages are invested in those warehouses and towns? Of course, the Negro’s . . . Why should he not have a share of his inheritance?”

Bust the representatives of the rich in Washington refused to hand over this rightful inheritance by providing the masses of freedmen with the material means for economic independence: land, livestock, seeds, cheap credit and other essentials for raising crops. Consequently, the four million landless, helpless agrarian laborers, fell back into servitude in new forms to the merchants, money-lenders and landowners. In a few years this economic dependence led to the loss of their civil rights and political power as well. In the showdown the Republican bourgeoisie had confiscated four billion dollars worth of slave property since that kind of investment was unsuited to their own mode of exploitation. They were happy to transfer title to the Western territories belonging to the Federal government to homesteaders, railroad, mining and lumbering corporations, because this brought profit to their enterprises. But it was pushing social revolution too far for these moneyed men to expropriate landed property in the settled South. That would not only set too dangerous an example of confiscation but might endow the small cultivators of the soil with too much potential political weight.

After using the freedmen and the poorer whites to hold the ex-Confederates down, the Northern capitalists left them in the lurch. They turned away while the Ku Klux bands instituted a reign of terror, deprived the Negroes of their gains, and drove them back into oppression. Finally, in the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican and Democratic chiefs sealed a bargain by which white supremacy was re-legalized in the South in return for a continuance of Republican rule in Washington. The Robber Barons of industry and finance, assured of a divided and destitute working population and a plentiful supply of cheap agricultural labor in the South, then proceeded to harvest and enjoy the golden fruits of their victory.1

The Reconstruction period was the final chapter in the Second American Revolution. Its tragic outcome is pertinent to the Negro struggle today. It demonstrated that the capitalist rulers at the peak of their revolutionary vigor would not accord full and enduring equality to the Negroes nor even permit the freed-men to keep the rights they had won in bloody combat. Will their present-day descendants be more inclined to grant genuine integration a century later when they have become the mainstay of the anti-democratic, pro-colonialist, and anti-socialist forces in the world?

The experience of the Civil War is instructive on both the positive and the negative sides of the problem of alliances in the fight for freedom. The coalition between the Republican bourgeoisie and the small farmers with the Negroes took time to cement and become effective. But it pulverized the slave system, struck off the shackles of chattel slavery, and protected the most democratic and progressive regimes the Southern Negroes have known to this day. With the relationship of forces in the country at that time, these accomplishments could not have been made in any other way.

After advancing the cause of Negro liberation, the upper-class Republicans broke the alliance and conspired to thrust the freedmen back into bondage. They became anti-Negro, anti-democratic, anti-labor, not because they were white, but because they were capitalist profiteers bent on their own aggrandizement.

It would be wrong to conclude from this betrayal—and those which have occurred since—that the Negroes are predestined to travel the rest of freedom’s road alone. They remain a minority in this country which they have helped create and make great. To attain the objectives they seek and overcome the enemies of equality, they can use reliable and strong allies. Where are these to be found within our borders?

It is becoming widely recognized that the “liberals” in both the white and the colored communities, who deprecate direct action and pin their hopes on the powers-that-be, are untrustworthy allies and even worse leaders. This is all to the good, since those who look to the beneficiaries of discrimination to end it serve to weaken and derail the struggle against the Jim Crow system.

At the same time many of the best fighters for Negro emancipation have lost all faith in the capacity of the white workers to aid their struggle and have totally cancelled them out as possible allies. It cannot be denied that organized labor, and especially its leaders, have given ample grounds for this mistrust. The Negro militants are completely justified in going ahead, as they are doing, to direct their independent actions against discrimination. This same spirit of self-reliance was evidenced by the slave insurrectionists, the runaway slaves, the Negro Abolitionists, the delegates to the Colored People’s Conventions, the freedmen who seized their master’s plantations and armed themselves against the resurgent white supremacists.

Will the mutual estrangement between the privileged white workers and the Negro movement, fostered by the divisive strategy of the rich, be everlasting? The Civil War showed what radical reversals and realignments can come about in the course of a life-and-death struggle. We are far from such a situation in the United States now. But the increasingly militant temper of the movement for racial equality does mark the beginning of a deep-going change in American life and politics which has revolutionary implications.

Even at this stage the government has trouble coping with the Negro problem. It will become still more disturbed as the anti-discrimination struggle batters at other parts of the Jim Crow system, North and South.

At some point along the way the reactionary anti-labor policies of Big Business will also shake up the mass of workers and bring them into opposition to the administration. Both segments of the American people would then find themselves arrayed against a common foe. It is an old adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

However hesitatingly and slowly, these converging anti-monopolist forces will have to seek points of contact and mutual support. In the course of practical collaboration, each will have to readjust their relations and revise their opinions of the qualities of the other. As has happened in many union battles—and in the battle for the Union—prejudices will be burned away and new alliances forged in the fires of joint combat.

Just as the Republicans of 1860 underwent a profound transformation and decreed the liberation of the slaves in 1863, despite their earlier indifference, so the participants in a new revolutionary movement would have to recognize even sooner the necessity of achieving solidarity through complete equality. This time, forewarned and forearmed, the Negroes will not be satisfied until that is won.

It would be unrealistic to underestimate the vigilant, unremitting efforts it will take, to purge the poison of racial prejudice which capitalism has injected into the bloodstream of American life. Yet the day will dawn when the white workers must come to understand that discrimination is not only a crime against their colored brothers and unworthy of a democratic society but injurious and costly to their own welfare. The emancipation proclaimed in the Second American Revolution will be realized for black and white alike in the “new birth of freedom” which a socialist America will bring.

1 See Two Lessons of Reconstruction by William F. Warde, Fourth International, May-June, 1950, for a fuller exposition of the three main stages of Reconstruction and the clash between the opposing methods of dealing with the subjugated South.