Walter Williams’s ignorant attack on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

Paul Nachman writes:

The Civil War / War between the States is a subject that won’t go away. Here Walter Williams talks about the Emancipation Proclamation in a way I’ll remember—or do you think he gets it wrong?

LA replies:

Williams is shockingly ignorant. He does the same thing that semi-informed millions have done over the years—criticizing Lincoln over the Emancipation Proclamation because it didn’t actually free any slaves at the moment it was signed, and therefore it was “hypocritical.” First, the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln on January 1, 1863, was a war measure using the President’s powers as commander-in-chief. It said that slavery would come to an end in every acre of territory in the rebel states that was taken back by Union forces. While it did not end slavery in the non-rebelling slave states such as Missouri (that’s why Williams calls it hypocritical), it turned a limited war to restore the Union into a revolutionary war to end slavery, and everyone understood this at the time. Many Northern Democrats, who had supported the war on the basis of restoring the Union but wanted to leave the South’s peculiar institution alone, became war opponents as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. From that point on, Lincoln had to deal with a vociferous anti-war movement in the North as well as trying to win the war.

Second and more important, has Williams never heard of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States? Lincoln worked assiduously to get the Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which it did in January 1865. Yet somehow these anti-slavery people, who call Lincoln a hypocrite for not freeing all the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation (as though he had the power to do that), never give Lincoln credit for supporting and persuading the Congress to pass the Constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

Williams further loses my respect by citing the rabid Lincoln hater Thomas DiLorenzo (a favorite of the paleo-anarchist Llewelyn Rockwell) as his authority on Lincoln, and by endorsing the Confederate position that the states had the power to leave the Union for any reason or no reason, on a whim, without any mutual consent among the states, a view that would render the United States of America no more enduring than a day labor contract.

Finally, topping it all off, after criticizing Lincoln for not going far enough and not using powers he didn’t possess to free all the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, Williams turns around and blames Lincoln for using excessive powers and undoing the Constitution. On one hand, the inescapable conclusion of Williams’ argument is that Lincoln ought to have used dictatorial powers in 1863 and abolished slavery in the slave states that were not in rebellion. On the other hand, Williams says Lincoln through his excessive use of wartime powers to defeat the rebellion.destroyed the Constitution.

To be a neo-Confederate paleo-libertarian who says the U.S. can be dissolved at whim by any state and who denies any power of the United States to preserve itself in existence is bad enough. But to be an ANTI-SLAVERY neo-Confederate paleo-libertarian who blames Lincoln for not using MORE power than he actually did and turning himself into an Abolitionist dictator in order to end slavery really takes the cake.

Paul Nachman writes:

I don’t see how your response engages with this part of what Williams wrote:

The hypocrisy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came in for heavy criticism. His Secretary of State William Seward said, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” The New York World wrote, “He has proclaimed emancipation only where he has notoriously no power to execute it. The exemption of the accessible parts of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia renders the proclamation not merely futile, but ridiculous.”

I understand what you’re saying: Territory that was recaptured by the Union would immediately have its slaves freed. But why isn’t that hypocritical, as Seward’s “on-the-scene” quote implies?

As to the 13th Amendment, when did Lincoln start pushing on that?

LA replies:

Obviously, in a purely micro sense, the Emancipation Proclamation was or seemed contradictory. It was saying that slaves in to-be-conquered rebel territory would be freed, while slaves in non-rebel territory currently under the United States authority would not be freed.

But to call this hypocritical and condemn Lincoln for his hypocrisy exemplifies the “history-less” mindset that leaps on any superficial contradiction and fails to see the whole picture of any issue, a problem that especially applies to the Civil War. Nothing that Lincoln did during the war can be understood properly without seeing it in the context of the unfolding events.

Lincoln’s paramount aim, as he said with utmost clarity in his August 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, a letter written after he had reached his determination to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, was to save the Union. If he could save the Union by freeing the slaves, he would do that. If he could save the Union by leaving the slaves in slavery, he would do that. If he could save the Union by freeing some slaves and not others, he would do that.

At the same time, as the war dragged on and became a far vaster and bloodier conflict than anyone had anticipated, there was a growing sense that having paid so much, the Union could not simply let the South return to the ante-bellum condition that had led to the war in the first place. Something more needed to be achieved to make it all worthwhile. The instrumental project of freeing the slaves gradually over time became an end in itself.

While the contradictory nature of the EP may have bothered Seward at the time, in the long view the fact that the EP did not free the Union slaves was irrelevant. The EP was a war measure aimed at defeating the South and restoring the Union, not a social measure aimed at ending slavery. But, once the revolutionary act of freeing all Southern slaves in territories to be re-taken by the Union became the policy, a dynamic had been set in place that would lead ultimately to the freeing of all slaves.

Further, any concern about Lincoln’s supposed hypocrisy vis a vis the EP is wiped out by the lead role he took in advocating and pushing through Congress the 13th Amendment. Given the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 which freed all the slaves, the hoary obsession about Lincoln’s supposed hypocrisy in 1863 because he didn’t free all the slaves, seems bizarre. Yet it doesn’t go away. For some reason, all that people can see is the Emancipation Proclamation. They are blind to the 13th Amendment, which transcends the Emancipation Proclamation.

LA continues:

My above remarks should not be taken as approval of everything Lincoln did and said on the subject of slavery. My only purpose here was to respond to the wearisome, knee-jerk charge that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was hypocritical. Here are a couple of past discussions on Lincoln that are more critical:

My thoughts on Lincoln
Lincoln’s unprincipled exception to racial equality

Paul Nachman in reply to LA’s first comment wrote:

Williams gives an explanation of Lincoln’s reasons that involves relations with European countries. I haven’t the slightest idea if that’s correct, but it doesn’t sound nuts.

LA replies:

When I was in high school (and if I didn’t get this in high school, I got it from basic reading on Lincoln and the Civil War), it was basic stuff that Lincoln was very concerned about Britain recognizing the Confederacy, because, so long as the war was not about ending slavery (which the British cared about) but only about restoring the Union (which the British didn’t care about), then there was no reason for Britain not to recognize the South. So to prevent that happening, the war needed to be about ending slavery.

This factor in Lincoln’s decision-making doesn’t contradict his statement to Greeley, that anything he did or didn’t do about slavery, it was with the aim of winning the war and restoring the Union. So even if keeping Britain from recognizing the South constituted 100 percent of his reason for the EP (which it did not), the EP would have been aimed at keeping Britain from recognizing the South, and thus helping the Union to win and restore the Union.

These are basic facts about the Civil War that would be in any book on Lincoln or the war. Lincoln and the Civil War are among the most interesting subjects on earth. I think you would find it very rewarding to read a book or two about them—and not some contemporary book driven by ideology or resentment, but solid history that provides a narrative structure and makes sense of things.

- end of initial entry -

James W. writes:

Just an informal note to say your rundown of the events and issues in question was masterly.

In my opinion, it distracts from the whole to point out that Williams, who does many an important service, bombed. We will not fail to see that after reading your reply. Did Alfred Hitchcock show the actual murders? When done right, that is counterproductive. And you committed the murder right.

LA replies:

As always, Mr. W., I am charmed and flattered by your allusive, poetic manner of expression. At the same time I must say, without any desire to offend, that it would be nice to have a prose version of your note so that I could actually understand what you’re saying.

So I approach you humbly, as an acolyte his honored guru, wishing not to be so crude as to trample on subtle truths with vulgar and obvious questions.

You’re saying I did a masterly job of showing that Williams bombed, but that it distracted from my point to say that Williams bombed?

That’s rather hard to grasp, unless you mean that my whole discussion was good, except for the opening line where I called Williams “shockingly ignorant”?

James W. replies (1/22):

That’s right, you got it exactly. And, it was masterly.

January 22

LA to Paul Nachman:

Was my answer re Lincoln satisfactory?

Paul Nachman replies:

I read your explanation earlier and learned from it.

But since you ask, I’ve just now read it again. Fine, except for one thing, or maybe a couple of things. But first, I hadn’t read the letter to Greeley before. Now I’ve read it. Yes, that adds a lot. And, presumably, this was in an era without spin—people said what they actually meant and supported. (Oh, I suppose there had to be some level of spin—it’s grease for human relations. But nothing like today’s spin and talking points.)

But … given that straightforwardness, why wouldn’t Seward have been clued in? I’m assuming he wasn’t a shallow gadfly or petty obstructionist. (Does his acquiring Alaska give evidence on that one way or the other?) If he wasn’t a gadfly, his “on-the-scene” view has to have some significance. I mean, Lincoln’s letter to Greeley couldn’t be clearer—so was there something else going on that made Seward dubious?

And … how did the EP help the war effort operationally? Was Lincoln hoping for slave revolts in the South (I very much doubt that)? Was the EP actually a signaling to Britain and France (Holland?), as Williams claimed? You say “instrumental project” as something that would result in change as partial recompense for the war—but still, how did it help advance the war?

LA replies:

Interesting question about Seward. I don’t know the answer, beyond my logical guess in my previous reply. Also, we have to see the context in which he said it.

How EP helped war:

1. The Union army wasn’t just taking land, it was disrupting the property and social system of the South wherever it went.

2. It gave Southern blacks a reason to root for the Union and against their own masters, disrupting Southern solidarity.

3. Freed blacks were employed in non-military tasks for army, freeing many thousands of soldiers for military assignments.

4. It was a demoralizing insult to the South.

5. It kept Britain from recognizing the South.

6. It turned the war into a moral cause in which the world rooted for the North.

The exact moment the above answer was sent to Paul Nachman, this came in from Roland D.:

The Emancipation Proclamations (there were two) [LA replies: I assume Roland is referring to the “preliminary” announcement of the forthcoming EP in September 1862, and the official announcement on January 1, 1863] were the components of a classic psychological warfare operation.

They were intended to accomplish the following:

1. Foment conflict, disarray, and morale problems in the rebel-held areas

2. Give weight to the arguments of pro-Union elements within those areas (“See, now look what’s happened! If we hadn’t left the Union, we’d still have our slaves! Maybe if we start negotiations to end hostilities and re-join the Union, maybe we can dicker with Lincoln and get our slaveholding privileges guaranteed.”).

3. Influence British public opinion away from recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent and possibly entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. The British public found slavery distasteful, and the Emancipation Proclamation guaranteed that the Confederacy and slavery would continue to be discussed in the same breath, thus depriving PM Palmerston of the political cover he would need even to attempt to justify intervention.

4. Give encouragement to slaves who heard of the Emancipation Proclamation in rebel-held areas, perhaps even spurring them to acts of disobedience, sabotage, rebellion, and desertion, which would have a negative impact on Confederate logistics (if a slave theoretically freed by the Proclamations escaped and made it to Union-controlled territory, he would in fact be free, as the Proclamations stated). Escaped emancipated slaves could and did join the Union Army in not-inconsiderable numbers, as well.

5. Give the abolitionists some “red meat,” while avoiding pushing Union border states [which had slaves that were not affected by the EP] into rebellion.

6. Influence both national and international opinion regarding the moral ascendancy of the Union in the conflict.

Based on the way things played out, I’d say that this was a remarkably successful ploy which made a significant contribution to the eventual Union victory.

As Shelby Foote once remarked, the Civil War (or the War Between the States, depending upon one’s sympathies) brought to prominence two bona-fide geniuses. One was Nathan Bedford Forrest; the other was Abraham Lincoln.

Spencer Warren writes:

I have just finished reading the highly respected historian Allen C. Guelzo’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004).

This richly detailed scholarly work tells the reader as much as he could ever want to know about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Among the book’s points, in response to Williams:

1. Lincoln could not include the Border States, such as Missouri, because to do so could well have led to their joining the Confederacy. If this happened, Washington DC would have been surrounded by Confederate Maryland as well as Confederate Virginia, and Union forces would not have been able to use Kentucky as the point for striking into the heart of the Confederacy in Tennessee and, later, Georgia (Sherman’s March to the Sea, which broke the back of the rebellion). Remember that the war was going quite badly in the first two years, and the Union did not even win a victory until Antietam in September 1862. Lincoln (and his Cabinet) believed such a victory was needed before issuing the Proclamation. [LA quibbles: the battle of Antietam was itself a draw, but the next day Lee’s army withdrew to Virginia, ending its invasion of the North, so the battle represented a strategic victory for the North.]

2. As you suggest, Lincoln believed the emancipation could only stand up against the Supreme Court if it was a war measure, which of course meant it could only apply to slaves held in the rebelling areas. Remember that Chief Justice Taney, author of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, still headed the Court and Lincoln was very concerned that any emancipation not be struck down by the courts.

3. Before turning to the proclamation as a war measure, Lincoln tried repeatedly to interest the Border States (and others) in an emancipation based on Federally-paid compensation. These attempts are detailed by Guelzo. Further, the Republican Congress in 1862 by law abolished slavery in the District of Columbia.

To demonstrate further that Williams thinks more like a dogmatic ideologue than a scholar, he has said a number of times when hosting the Rush Limbaugh program that the Founding Fathers were “libertarians”—like Williams.

LA replies:

See my discussion about Guelzo’s earlier, very interesting book on Lincoln.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 21, 2009 06:47 AM | Send

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