A review of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, by James Oakes

In this strikingly original book, James Oakes offers a fresh, convincing reinterpretation of the emancipation policies and practices of Abraham Lincoln and his party. Traditionally, the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Years Day 1863 is viewed as a momentous turning point in the Civil War, when the conflict became an antislavery crusade as well as a war to preserve the Union. But Oakes contends persuasively that "[o]nly in historical mythology did the purpose of the war shift on January 1, 1863, from the restoration of the Union to the abolition of slavery." The truth is that the proclamation represented the culmination of many earlier measures that had already liberated tens of thousands of slaves.

Oakes, who is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York, examines "the critical role that political abolitionism played in the formation of Republican antislavery policies and the coming of the Civil War." He insists that the Republicans, including Lincoln, "were anything but reluctant emancipators." In fact, they were determined to abolish slavery all along; they made their intentions clear before the war; and they took several steps during the conflict to achieve their goal. Slavery was not inadvertently destroyed by the war; on the contrary, it was abolished with great difficulty by Republicans deeply committed to black freedom.

Focusing on "the origins and implementation of abolition rather than the aftermath of slavery," Oakes challenges recent attempts to breathe new life into long-discredited interpretations presented by the school of Civil War Revisionists in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Those Revisionists pooh-poohed the notion that the war was caused by slavery and that it was fought by men who cared deeply about destroying the peculiar institution. Rather, they contended, a "blundering generation" of political leaders foolishly argued over a non-issue (the extension of slavery into the western territories) and precipitated a needless war fought for the morally suspect goal of preserving national unity. The Revisionists' hero was Lincoln's nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas, whose "popular sovereignty" doctrine, they allege, would have solved the sectional dispute amicably if it had not been for reckless Southern fire-eaters and Northern antislavery fanatics.

Oakes shows conclusively how Lincoln and the Republican Party understood that the war was caused by slavery and that the conflict would determine its fate. Early on, the president and Congress perceived the centrality of slavery and acted against it, despite the Democrats' constitutional objections. Republicans countered that slaves were not property under the Constitution, which refers to them as "persons held to service" not as chattels, and which guarantees that "no personshall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." (Emphasis added.) According to Republicans, slavery was a local institution, not a national one, and enjoyed protection only under municipal law. They based those conclusions on the records of the 1787 Constitutional Convention; precedents established during the "First Emancipation" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries; several state court cases; and political movements like the Liberty and the Free Soil parties of the 1840s. Oakes traces the way that these ideas, originally articulated by a few radical pamphleteers, eventually went mainstream, and were picked up and elaborated upon by political abolitionists like John Quincy Adams, Salmon P. Chase, Joshua R. Giddings, and Charles Sumner. (The book's title comes from Sumner's 1852 Senate speech, "Freedom National; Slavery Sectional.")

By 1860, most Republicans had adopted these views and were committed to putting slavery on the road to "ultimate extinction" (in Lincoln's phrase). Southern secessionists were right, therefore, to fear that sooner or later (probably sooner) the Republicans would abolish slavery, despite their protestations that they had no intention of interfering with it in states where it existed.

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Oakes skillfully places Lincoln in the context of the Republican Party, showing that in his dealings with slavery the president sometimes forged ahead of the Republican-dominated Congress and sometimes lagged behind it, but usually worked in tandem with it. (Oakes gives more credit to congressional Republicans than is customary.) Both strove to implement policies that had been long championed by slavery's opponents. He properly rejects the Revisionist trope describing Civil War politics as a struggle between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans. In fact, though the party did have its divisions, especially on economic matters (tariffs, internal improvements, banking, homestead legislation, and the like), when it came to slavery and emancipation the party was united. Insofar as Lincoln and the Radicals clashed, it was over matters of timing, style, and tone rather than substance.

During the war, the Lincoln Administration and Congress did not shift from gradual to immediate emancipation. Oakes demonstrates brilliantly that immediate, uncompensated emancipation began less than four months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Beginning in the summer of 1861, Republicans followed a two-track policy while dealing with slavery: (1) immediate military emancipation in the seceded states and (2) gradual, compensated emancipation in the loyal border slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri).

The first strategy rested upon several foundations, some of which John Quincy Adams had spelled out in 1836 when he argued that military emancipation in time of war was constitutional: the implicit war powers incorporated into the Constitution; the many historical precedents for the use of emancipation to weaken an enemy during wartime; and Emmerich Vattel's 18th-century classic treatise, The Law of Nations, which maintained that "to deliver an oppressed people is a noble fruit of victory" as well as "a valuable advantage gained, thus to acquire a faithful friend."

The second strategy, gradual, compensated emancipation, rested on the belief that if the slave states could not expand, and if their leadership could no longer dominate the federal government, they would be willing within a generation or so to abandon the peculiar institution as unprofitable and dangerous.

Addressing the controversy over "who freed the slaves?" Oakes emphasizes that no single agent was responsible for abolition. Lincoln, Congress, the abolitionists, runaway slaves, the Union navy, the Union army (including the 180,000 blacks who served in its ranks), and the Republican Party together ended slavery.

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In his first inaugural address as well as in earlier speeches, Lincoln warned slaveholders that if the South seceded, the Fugitive Slave Act would not be enforced and slave owners would suffer greater losses out of the Union than if they had stayed within it. Six weeks after the war began, a few Virginia slaves appeared at Fort Monroe and asked the commander, Benjamin Butler, for asylum. He agreed, and when the owner's agent demanded their return, Butler refused, pointing out that the Fugitive Slave Act was enforceable only in the United States, and Virginia had declared itself to be an independent country. A week later, the Lincoln Administration supported Butler's decision. Secretary of War Simon Cameron told the general plainly that he was to accept fugitive slaves, put them to work (both men and women), and refuse to surrender them or their children to their owners, though he was not authorized to entice them to flee to Union lines. Butler called the fugitives "contraband of war," and as such they could be seized by the Union.

Two months later, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, codifying Butler's approach. The bill, which could well have been called the First Emancipation Act, provided for the immediate liberation of slaves used by Confederates in a military capacity. Within days, the War Department issued instructions that went far beyond the limited scope of that law. Commanders in the field were ordered to accept and free any slaves (including women and children) entering their lines who claimed to be owned by disloyal masters. They did not have to allege that they had been employed to aid military operations. Commanders were to keep records so that loyal masters might be eventually compensated.

Thus immediate emancipation began on August 8, 1861, not January 1, 1863. Between those two dates, thousands of slaves were freed, not only those who escaped to Union lines but also those whose masters fled the advancing Union army and left their slaves behind. It is not clear whether Lincoln ordered Cameron to issue the expansive directive based on the First Confiscation Act, but he did not disavow it.

The day before passing the first Confiscation Act, Congress adopted the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, which declared that the war was not being "waged upon our part in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those states." That resolution has been widely misinterpreted as proof that Congress cared little about abolishing slavery, at least early in the war. Oakes rightly points out that Republicans supported the resolution overwhelmingly because they agreed that the goalof the war was preserving the Union and believed that emancipation was a legitimate means to achieve that goal. Weeks earlier, Congress had overwhelmingly rejected resolutions framed by pro-slavery members that sought to rule out military emancipation as a legitimate tool of war.

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A month after the passage of the First Confiscation Act, Lincoln felt compelled to modify General John C. Frémont's controversial proclamation freeing slaves of all disloyal masters in Missouri. The president did not insist that the general rescind his order, only that he modify it to conform to the First Confiscation Act (i.e., that it apply only to slaves being used in a military capacity). Oakes contends that Lincoln did so not because he was soft on slavery but because he believed that civilian officials, not generals, should make policy, especially policy that might drive the Border States into the arms of the Confederacy. Nonetheless, critics then and now have denounced Lincoln as a reluctant emancipator because he ordered Frémont to modify his proclamation.

The avalanche of protests that Lincoln received, according to Oakes, showed that "whatever else Lincoln was doing about slavery in the first eighteen months of the war, he was not waiting for public opinion to catch up with him." Although antislavery sentiment was strong in the Upper North, it was weaker in the Lower North and the Border States. Lincoln could not ignore opinion in those areas if he wanted to maintain their support for the war effort.

Because he had publicly soft-pedaled the slavery issue throughout 1861, Lincoln's detractors failed to appreciate how much he had done: he supported Butler's "contraband" policy; signed the First Confiscation Act; approved the War Department's broad interpretation of that statute; appointed the most radical member of his cabinet, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom in Louisiana as well as in the Sea Islands off South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; and worked quietly to persuade Delaware to accept a plan of gradual, federally compensated emancipation.

The first confiscation act did not officially apply to the Border States, though Lincoln's order to Frémont seemed to imply that it did. But the president was vague about how it was to be applied in loyal slave states. It was left up to commanders in the field, most of whom resolved to act as "neither negro stealers nor negro catchers," as they put it. Some, like William T. Sherman, refused to allow runaway slaves into their lines; others enthusiastically accepted them. Congress clarified matters in March 1862 by forbidding the military to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

But that tweaking of antislavery policy was insufficient to deal with the huge number of slaves living in areas, like New Orleans and environs, that the Union army occupied in early 1862 and from which slaveholders had not fled. So in July of that year, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, freeing all slaves of disloyal masters whether or not the slaves were being used in military capacities. The statute provided that emancipation would take effect only when the president, acting as commander-in-chief, issued a proclamation after giving fair warning to the rebels.

Less than a week after that bill passed, Lincoln announced to his cabinet that he would issue such a proclamation. He decided to postpone that step when advised that it would be better to wait until the Union army won a significant victory, lest it seem like an insincere desperation measure just after the defeat of the Union efforts against Richmond.

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While awaiting such a victory, Lincoln came under pressure to act quickly, most notably from Horace Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune. In response to Greely's stinging editorial, "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," the president wrote a public letter that has been widely interpreted as evidence that Lincoln cared little about slavery. In it he said:

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.


Lincoln's letter is misunderstood by those who view it as a definitive statement of his innermost feelings about the aims of the war. In fact, it was a political utterance designed to smooth the way for the proclamation that he had already written and that he intended to issue as soon as the Union army won a victory. He realized that millions of Northerners as well as Border State residents would object to any steps that might be construed as helping to change the war into an abolitionist crusade. Those men were willing to fight to preserve the Union but not to free the slaves. As president, Lincoln had to make the mighty act of emancipation palatable to them. By assuring conservatives that emancipation was simply a means to preserve the Union, Lincoln hoped to minimize the white backlash that he knew was inevitable.

Another aspect of Lincoln's strong antislavery record—his preference for gradual over immediate emancipation—is also widely misunderstood. Oakes rightly argues that the president's support for gradualism "was more pragmatic than dogmatic" and that Lincoln "was always less concerned with how slavery was abolished than with ensuring that it was abolished." He reasonably believed that gradual emancipation would be more acceptable to the Border States and the Lower North.

After the Union Army's quasi-victory at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln finally announced publicly that he would, in accordance with the Second Confiscation Act, issue an Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Even before that date, the September 22 preliminary proclamation freed many slaves in the Mississippi Valley through a military order instructing generals, including those most resistant to emancipation (e.g., Don Carlos Buell and Sherman), to free all slaves entering their lines.

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The final proclamation of January 1, 1863, added two new elements to the administration's robust emancipation record: it authorized Union forces to entice slaves to run to their lines (not just passively accept those who came unbidden), and it formally authorized the enlistment of blacks into the army and navy.

Though military emancipation in the Confederate states got off to a fast start, the Republicans' other strategy—gradual, compensated emancipation in the Border States—did not. In late 1861, Lincoln worked unsuccessfully behind the scenes to persuade the Delaware state legislature to abolish slavery. He sweetened the proposal by offering federal compensation and by recommending that the emancipation be gradual. Oakes calls this "an astonishing proposal."

In March 1862, the president went public with this plan, urging Congress to pledge federal aid to states abolishing slavery. Congress did so, but the Border States balked. Only in late 1864 and early 1865 did Maryland and Missouri take that fateful step. In 1863, the newly-formed state of West Virginia agreed to abolish slavery as a condition of its admission into the Union. (During Reconstruction, the precedent thus set would become a basis for the readmission of Confederate states.)

Lincoln asserted that "military necessity" alone justified the Emancipation Proclamation, which consequently did not affect slavery in the Border States. Nonetheless, his administration liberated the 85,000 Border State blacks who joined the armed forces. Also freed were their wives, mothers, and children.

The administration's two emancipation strategies, however, were not enough to abolish slavery throughout the country; by war's end, they had de facto freed no more than one seventh of the nation's 4,000,000 slaves. Therefore in 1864, to liberate all slaves (and also to prevent their re-enslavement after the war), Republicans adopted a third policy: amending the Constitution. In 1865, the 13th Amendment finally ended slavery in America.

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The book's only questionable conclusion comes in Oakes's discussion of the secession crisis: there was more Republican support for compromise than he allows. Lincoln's emphatic opposition to the Crittenden Compromise in the secession winter of 1860-61, which would have allowed slavery to expand into part of the western territories, was largely responsible for its defeat. As the Congress debated it, Massachusetts Congressman Charles Francis Adams observed that the "declarations coming almost openly from Mr. Lincoln have had the effect of perfectly consolidating the Republicans." Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson reported that some Congressional Republicans "are weak; most of them are firm. Lincoln's firmness helps our weak ones." Historians like Major L. Wilson, Daniel Crofts, and Russell McClintock have shown that (in Wilson's words) "there are grounds for believing that Seward was prepared in late December 1860 to support the Crittenden plan." Seward's right-hand man, Thurlow Weed, published an editorial endorsing the most important element of the Crittenden Compromise (its permission for slavery to spread westward). Seward, who made no attempt to dissociate himself from Weed's editorial, once remarked: "Seward is Weed and Weed is Seward. What I do, Weed approves. What he says, I endorse. We are one." Moreover, when told by James Barbour, a prominent Virginia Unionist, "that nothing less than the Crittenden Compromise" would satisfy the Old Dominion, Seward allegedly replied: "I am of your opinion that nothing short of that will allay the excitement, and therefore I will favor it substantially."

But this objection is a quibble. Appearing on the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Oakes's book—based on extensive research in primary and secondary sources, forcefully written, and convincingly argued—richly deserved the 2013 Lincoln Prize that it won.