If there is one adjective to describe the Emancipation Proclamation it is ‘radical’. The document issued by Abraham Lincoln in September 1862 is perhaps the most radical document since the Declaration of Independence. Why is this the case? What makes this document so unique? Perhaps even more interestingly, how does the adjective ‘radical’ repeatedly immerse itself in the generation that experienced America’s defining war?
The Emancipation Proclamation did so many things simultaneously. With the stroke of a pen Lincoln changed the public’s focus on what the war was to be about- no longer merely to preserve the Union. The war became about so much more- “a new birth of freedom.” With this in mind the war effort in the North gained a valuable moral component that did not previously exist. Union armies became liberating forces that for the first time began to institute a total war policy by taking away the economic and social foundations that had built the South. Lincoln, who seemed to struggle leading up to and even early on in his presidency in finding the constitutional authority to challenge the institution of slavery began with the Proclamation to embrace his role as commander in chief. As commander in chief Lincoln realized that just as he ordered Union armies to seize Confederate supplies he could use these same armies to free the slaves. Slaves were Confederate property and used throughout the South to help with the war effort- building fortifications and growing/harvesting food supplies. Lincoln for the first time took the war beyond the battlefield with this total war policy. And other countries, namely Great Britain took notice. The Emancipation Proclamation insured that Great Britain, where the abolition movement was quite strong, would not ally itself with the Confederacy. Winning the war was not enough for Lincoln, from this point forward the issue of slavery had to be permanently resolved.
The issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln in 1862 was just the latest example of radicalism. Indeed, over the previous generation there had been a long line a radical events and radical personalities that emerged, and collectively played a pivotal role in bringing about the war.
Prior to time-saving inventions like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the true emergence of the Industrial Revolution on American soil after the War of 1812 and infrastructure improvements like the Erie Canal, American political leadership was more or less content to compromise its way through the slavery debate. At the time it could afford to or at least “get away with it”. . . compromise was a viable option because slavery was confined, certainly not growing exponentially and although America was expanding it was doing so at a measured pace.
And then over the course of a generation or so America took off. The cotton gin revolutionized the economy of the South- King Cotton increased the need for more slaves and put more land under the plantation. The Industrial Revolution demanded ever increasing raw materials like cotton to meet the needs of new consumer markets and infrastructure improvements made it possible for more and more Americans to push West at a remarkable pace. Almost overnight it seemed Americans became captivated and obsessed with expanding from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The principles of Manifest Destiny guided politics throughout the late 1830s and 1840s. The 2nd Great Awakening opened the public’s eyes to a Christian God that embraced personal responsibility, individualism, improving one’s lot in life and recognizing the destructive elements of slavery not only toward the slave but slaveholder alike. Now as a result slavery became a real divisive issue for Americans- to be preserved or destroyed at all costs. Radicalism on both sides emerged.
For the South it became vital to protect slavery because their economy became dependent upon it. The only way to protect it was by expanding slavery out West- to places such as Kansas. In the North the growing attitude was to confine slavery to where it already existed, make the political battleground on the issue of slavery to be fought on the basis of keeping it out of the West. The Republican Party emerged on this central theme.
Hence after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 Kansas exploded in violence and lawlessness ruled the day. Radical Border Ruffians poured in from Missouri as well as the likes of radical abolitionist John Brown. Violence at Lawrence, Kansas and Pottawatomie Creek was justified in helping to either preserve or eradicate slavery.
Radicalism and extremism could be seen through events and circumstances unfolding in our nation’s Capital. The Wilmot Proviso which attempted to forbid slavery in any new territory gained as a result of the Mexican War set off a wave of protests from pro-slavery politicians. Conversely, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision befuddled and angered anti-slavery politicians because slavery was now protected under the U.S. Constitution. Indeed politicians themselves were not immune to the violent extremism. . . in 1856 Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat to near death Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in Sumner’s Senate office. Both sides it seemed became more desperate and both sides began to slowly recognize the real possibility that our Republic may soon not exist.
The list of events, personalities and circumstances can go on- William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Nate Turner, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Beecher’s Bibles as well as Harpers Ferry, Virginia 1859. These Americans and their collective histories were made under the banner of radicalism according to the 19th century American society they were a part of.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation rightfully embraced their radical banner because after all how could our nation continue to compromise on something as so morally wrong as slavery?