A Strange Speech, but One of the Most Eloquent in American History
Lincoln on Compensating Slave Owners, Colonialization, and Emancipation
On December 1, 1862, nine weeks after issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln gave his annual message to Congress at the opening of the Third Session of the Thirty-seventh Congress. He began by speaking about “bountiful harvests,” international affairs, the health and prosperity of the western territories, the fiscal condition of the nation, the Sioux uprising in Minnesota, and the creation of the Department of Agriculture. He then turned to the subject of emancipation, specifically, compensated emancipation.
Lincoln framed the central issue that prompted disunion, just as he had almost two years earlier in his first inaugural: “One section of the country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”
Knowing that the Emancipation Proclamation was to become official in only thirty days, Lincoln proposed an alternate solution to the problem through a Constitutional amendment consisting of three parts. The first provided that any state that abolished slavery before January 1, 1900 (yes, 1900!) would “receive compensation from the United States.” The specifics of the slave buy-out was not specified, but payment would be delivered to the affected state in the form of government bonds.
The second article declared that all slaves “who shall have enjoyed actual freedom by the chances of war at any time before the end of the rebellion, shall be forever free; . ..” and that the loyal owners of such slaves “shall be compensated for them, at the same rates . . .”
The final section simply declared that, “Congress may appropriate money and otherwise provide for colonizing free colored persons, with their own consent, at any place or places without the United States.”
Lincoln argued that his scheme for emancipation would remove the core cause of the war: “Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.” The president presumed that while emancipation of any kind would be objectionable to the South, the length of time offered for ending slavery “should greatly mitigate their dissatisfaction.”
Lincoln claimed that “I strongly favor colonization,” and, indeed, he had for a number of years. But then he spent the next several paragraphs of his address arguing that freedmen and women should remain within the United States. Referring to slaves as “Americans of African descent,” Lincoln asserted that “there is an objection urged against free colored persons remaining in the country which is largely imaginary, if not sometimes malicious.”
Many readers of the address found it both puzzling and disappointing. Some wondered what had become of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Others wondered why he had bothered suggesting constitutional amendments that would never be adopted. A strange message by any account, it ultimately did not affect the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation when it became official on January 1, 1863.
Lincoln’s emancipation and colonization message on December 1, 1862 is not widely known today largely because he concluded his remarks with eloquent phrases and inspirational challenges that completely overshadowed the constitutional mechanics of the speech. Lincoln biographer Eric Foner asserts that those words “remain among the most eloquent ever composed by an American president.”
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall [liberate from slavery or servitude] ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation….We — even we here — hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”
– Submitted by Dwight Pitcaithley, New Mexico State University
Congressional Globe, 3rd, Sess., 37th Cong. (Appendix), 1-5;
Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 237-238;
Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 136-137.
In a letter written on December 3, 1862, Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart, one of Lee’s most trusted and successful officers, eulogized his aide de camp, Redmond Burke, who had been killed in action ten days earlier: “A devoted champion of the South was one who possessed a heart intrepid, a spirit invincible, a patriotism too lofty to admit a selfish thought and a conscience that scorned to do a mean act. . . . His legacy would be to leave a shining example of heroism and patriotism to those who survive.” Stuart was articulating the notion of chivalry that was widely held by many Southerners, particularly the wealthy. Southern chivalry emphasized manly virtue, honor, and gentlemanly dignity, particularly in an aristocratic and military context.
– Submitted by Peter Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director