The Civil War was fought primarily according to one interpretation not to end slavery but instead only to save the union and bring the rebel Confederate states back into the fold. On the other hand, it is very hard to argue that from the Confederate perspective secession was about anything else except slavery. Well, known Confederate leaders are well known to have said that the purpose of secession was to protect slavery as the South's own "peculiar institution." While the original war aims of the Union was not originally to actually end slavery through the course of the war that was what ultimately occurred. President Abraham Lincoln's role in this process is even more complicated to ascertain given the contingencies regarding Lincoln’s need for the border states, his seeming slowness to accept the need for emancipation and the ultimate force of Congressional Radical Republicans in ultimately forcing the issue on emancipation. In the long run, Lincoln was not “The Great Emancipator” it was just a name he earned for signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Abraham Lincoln's legacy of emancipation and the abolition of slavery is a long and complicated but it is most noticeable as something which he was open to compromise and the institution of a slow and careful gradual and compensated emancipation. In November 1861, Lincoln met with two important men from Delaware, a border state, in which he proposed a process of "gradual, compensated emancipation which the federal government would finance." (Foner 182) Lincoln’s thinking in this centered on the power of Delaware emancipating its slaves would have on the border states and how it would drive them further away from the Confederacy (Foner 182) Gradual and compensated emancipation as it was instituted in Delaware was a positive step freeing both all slaves over 35 and for children, but the rest of the slaves would not be freed 1893. (Foner 182) Compensated emancipation was a very conservative ideal and definitely one that most people would associate with Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”
Furthermore, Lincoln through 1862 still connected the issue of emancipation with colonization and a reticence to lead. Lincoln like many other White American leaders "doubted whether white and black could live as equals in American society and thought it best for black people to remove themselves physically from the United States." (Berlin 294) Lincoln aimed to do this through colonization of freed slaves to Africa or somewhere else as a matter of fact two laws passed by Congress actually appropriated money for that very purpose during the Civil War (Berlin 294) Lincoln also seemed to be very much slower to act than the Congressional Radical Republicans who throughout the war passed laws which called for the confiscation of Confederate property, including slaves, as a method of helping the war effort and as a way of satisfying Northern public opinion. (Berlin 28) These laws included the Confiscation Acts.
The Republican Congress, especially the more Radical and abolitionist wing of the party were far more activist than Lincoln on the issue of emancipation of slaves. Through the first part of the war – before Emancipation – the Confiscation Acts were the most powerful laws aimed at ending slavery in the Confederacy. The First Confiscation act passed in August of 1861, “declared ‘confiscated’ by the federal government any slaves who fell into federal hands and who were found to have been employed by Confederate forces in any military fashion. (Guelzo 401) While the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 was an emancipatory piece of legislation which identified six types of treasonous activities and it gave the Union Army the right to seize their slaves and make them free, although this law was much harder to enforce than originally thought (Guelzo 404-406). The Radicals in Congress being much more abolitionist than Lincoln actually took the lead on the issue and it left him without much to do.
Abraham Lincoln did not see the Civil War as "an instrument of emancipation" and his commitment "changed with time because it had to" and it ultimately proves that no matter what Lincoln, although he was the President of the United States, had no choice to ultimately back the side of morality to be “on the right side of history.” (Berlin) The Emancipation Proclamation when it was signed by Lincoln did not free a single slave in any loyal (border) state and it can be argued that it was nothing more than a symbolic move to assert in law the realities on the ground in the Confederacy and entirely change the Union's war goals. (Ransom 207) One major effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was that it allowed for former slaves to join the Union Army as a much-needed source of manpower. (Redkey 4; Emancipation Proclamation)
The question of who freed the slaves is ultimately not a simple one. During the course of the war, the Union army, the slaves themselves, the Radical Republicans in Congress and Lincoln all played a role in breaking down slavery. Given this reality and the multitude of factors affecting the issue of emancipation and Lincoln's complicated stand on the issue of slavery and emancipation, it is ultimately not fair to call him the "Great Emancipator."
Berlin, Ira. Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.
Berlin Ira “’ho Freed the Slaves? Emancipation and Its Meaning.” In Duncan, Russell, David W. Blight, and Brooks D. Simpson. "Union & Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era." (1998): 428-430.
Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2010. Print.Bottom of Form
Guelzo, Allen C. "Restoring the Proclamation: Abraham Lincoln, Confiscation, and Emancipation in the Civil War Era." Howard LJ 50 (2006): 397.
Lincoln, Abraham. The Emancipation Proclamation. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg, 1990. Internet resource.
Ransom, Roger L. Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and the American Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.
Redkey, Edwin S. A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865. Cambridge [u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992. Print.