“My Whole Soul Is In It”

As his army faltered and his cabinet bickered, Lincoln determined that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” In 1862, he got his chance

Reading of Emancipation Proclamation
First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln. Francis Bicknell Carpenter / United States Senate

While Washington sweltered through the long, hot summer of 1862, Abraham Lincoln made the momentous decision that would define both his presidency and the course of the Civil War.

The great question of what to do about slavery had provoked increasingly bitter debates on Capitol Hill for months. Back in March, Lincoln had asked the legislature to pass a joint resolution providing federal aid to any state willing to adopt a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery; without the approval of the border-state representatives, it went nowhere. Meanwhile, the Republican majority in Congress, freed from the domination of the Southern bloc, began to push its own agenda on slavery.

Within the cabinet, too, the rancor over slavery infected every discourse. The debates had grown "so bitter," according to Secretary of State William Henry Seward, that personal and even official relationships among members were ruptured, leading to "a prolonged discontinuance of Cabinet meetings." Though Tuesdays and Fridays were still designated for cabinet sessions, each secretary remained in his department unless a messenger arrived to confirm that a meeting would be held. Seward recalled that when these general discussions were still taking place, Lincoln had listened intently but had not taken "an active part in them." For Lincoln, the problem of slavery was not an abstract issue. While he concurred with the most passionate abolitionists that slavery was "a moral, a social and a political wrong," as president, he felt he could not ignore the constitutional protection of the institution where it already existed.

The Army of the Potomac's devastating reverses in the Peninsula Campaign that June made it clear that extraordinary means were necessary to save the Union—and gave Lincoln an opening to deal more directly with slavery.

Daily reports from the battlefields illuminated the innumerable uses to which slaves were put by the Confederacy. They dug trenches and built fortifications for the army. They were brought into camps to serve as teamsters, cooks and hospital attendants, so that soldiers were freed to fight. They labored on the home front, tilling fields, raising crops and picking cotton, so their masters could go to war without fearing that their families would go hungry. If the Rebels were divested of their slaves, who would then be free to join the Union forces, the North could gain a decided advantage. Seen in this light, emancipation could be considered a military necessity—a legitimate exercise of the president's constitutional war powers. A historic decision was taking shape in Lincoln's mind.

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