A Divided Nation Fights for Freedom
The election of 1860 was a turning point for the nation. The outcome would determine how the country would move forward regarding slavery. One month after the election of President Lincoln, states began to secede from the Union citing several reasons. Their demands included states' rights to maintain slavery, but also focused on property rights as they cited lack of enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. By April 1861, the Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter and war was declared upon the United States. President Lincoln did not begin his term with a goal to end slavery. His military goal was to keep the Union together.
African Americans were determined to win their fight for freedom by any means necessary. They self-liberated as they escaped from plantations across the south. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect declaring that all persons enslaved in the rebelling states were free. It took the bloodiest war in the nation’s history to enforce the proclamation.
Like President Washington during the Revolutionary War, President Lincoln was not initially interested in African Americans serving in the military. However, based on the strategic need for increased military support and influenced by Fredrick Douglass, the president included the recruitment of Black soldiers as a provision of the Emancipation Proclamation. A war to keep the Union together became a fight for freedom and ultimately changed the nation.
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists . . . and I have no inclination to do so.
Abraham Lincoln, March 1861
Shaping the Debate: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
African Americans changed the course of the Civil War by engaging President Lincoln in an ongoing debate. Frederick Douglass used his renowned oratory and his power as an abolitionist leader to demand that the president take action: first, to use his position as commander in chief to end slavery; second, to enlist African Americans in a Liberating Army; and third, to grant citizenship to African Americans. Lincoln took action but wavered on the issue of citizenship.
Fire must be met with water, darkness with light, and war for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery.
Frederick Douglass, May 1861
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was always against slavery. He believed that slavery was unjust and that it placed too much power in the hands of wealthy men. Yet he was uncertain that African Americans were fit for citizenship. Lincoln began the war believing that African Americans should be sent out of the country after becoming free. But his views changed, in part because of his relationship with Douglass. By the end of his life, he began to speak in favor of Black voting rights.
It is the determination of the Government not to arm negroes, unless some new and more pressing emergency arises.
Abraham Lincoln, August 1862
Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818–1895) traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1862, determined to meet President Lincoln. Using his influence as America’s most well-known African American abolitionist, he had pressured Lincoln in speeches and in print. Now, he wanted to speak to him directly. Expecting a long wait, Douglass was surprised to be immediately welcomed into Lincoln’s private office. Lincoln, born into poverty, and Douglass, born enslaved, believed that people and nations could transform themselves.
By the end of the Civil War, Douglass had opened Lincoln’s eyes to African American equality
. . . let the Black man…get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny he has earned the right to citizenship.
Frederick Douglass, 1863
In the summer of 1862, Lincoln began to draft the Emancipation Proclamation using this inkstand while he waited for news in the War Department’s telegraph office. The president sat at the desk of Maj. Thomas T. Eckert, and Lincoln later explained to Eckert that he had been composing a document giving freedom to the slaves of the south.
The first draft included language regarding colonization, the removal of free Black people from the nation. Lincoln proposed Black Americans be sent outside of the nation built by their labor and their commodification. Reference to colonization was removed from the executive order but was still ever present in Lincoln’s mind. The matter was directly connected to African American freedom and citizenship.
Cut off from many of the advantages . . . not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. . . It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.
Abraham Lincoln, August 1862
The black man as a freeman is a useful member of society. To drive him away . . . would be . . . absurd.
Frederick Douglass, January 1862
Lincoln waited until January 1, 1863, to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. On New Year’s Day, he ushered in a new birth of freedom and a new United States. The wait made many people anxious. Keeping watch, African Americans stayed up all night to hear that the proclamation was signed.
If there is anything patent . . . it is that the Negro no more needs to be prepared for liberty than the white man.
Frederick Douglass, "What the Black Man Wants", 1865