DL Fowler's Blog

Lincoln’s Psychology Behind the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted in Lincoln, Lincoln's Psychology, Research by DLFowler on February 8, 2011

Danny Jacobson from Vancouver, WA emailed me with a question about Lincoln’s motivation for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. He’s working on a documentary that argues that the purpose of the Proclamation was not to free slaves but to preserve the Union. 

The short answer is either both or neither, but not one or the other.

I haven’t read everything there is on the subject, but my sense is that Lincoln did not see a difference between preserving the Union and freeing slaves. The evidence for that lies in Lincoln’s psychology as well as the cultural/political realities of his time. In his mind, he had woven slavery and preservation of the Union into a single issue.

His psychology would not permit him to be at peace with the idea of slavery. Lincoln’s first encounter with slaves was when he was about 20 years old. He took a trip down the Mississippi River and observed African slaves being beaten by their overseers. He had immediate empathy for the slaves, because he was beaten frequently by his father in the fields of their Illinois farm. Lincoln hated labor, preferring reading instead, and when he was caught slacking, Tom Lincoln thrashed him severely. Lincoln perceived no difference between himself and the slaves.

Three bits of trivia from Lincoln’s life can help spotlight the effect his father’s beatings had on his psychology. The most poignant was his reaction to the news of his father’s death. He dismissed the messenger without comment and went right back to work. He did not attend the funeral. He and his father were estranged for the bulk of Lincoln’s adult life. 

Another insight comes from Lincoln’s declaration that he was a slave and the son of a slave. Though he never excused his father’s severity, he understood that Tom Lincoln was shackled to a life as a subsistence farmer, and that condition made Lincoln’s service in the fields a necessity. Lincoln berated Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideals, claiming they had enslaved most Americans to a subsistence lifestyle. As a result, he fought to undo every political accomplishment of both men.

Furthermore, Lincoln made every effort to circumvent labor. He still holds the distinction as the only US President ever to hold a patent in his name. In addition, his political career was laced with efforts to promote technology and advances in transportation.

So the idea that his psychology was strongly anti-slavery is indisputable.

But what about his dedication to preserving the Union?

On that score his motivation was only partly about slavery. His personal psychology was steeped in a hell-fire of personal loss. From his mother’s death, to nearly starving, if not freezing, to death when his father left for months to court a new wife, to the loss of his first love, to his estrangement from his father, to his separation from his companion Joshua Speed, to a loveless marriage, to the loss of two of his four sons during his lifetime, Lincoln had a clear obsession with holding relationships together. That fact was reflected in his choices for key appointments. It was easier to get a job in the Lincoln administration if you were his enemy than it was if you were his friend.

 But preservation of the Union was also key to ending slavery in the civilized world. The United States was the last civilized country to end human slavery and our approach to slavery was thought to be one of the cruelest to that point in human history. If the country split up, Lincoln and his abolitionist supporters would have no influence over the Confederacy and their timeline for ending slavery.

Abolition played a central role in Lincoln’s political ambitions. He retired from politics in 1854, returning to law practice, because he was convinced that the Missouri Compromise was secure and he had reconciled himself to the idea that stopping the spread of slavery was all that would be accomplished in his lifetime.

 But by the end of the decade, Stephen Douglas led a coalition that successfully repealed the Missouri Compromise. An all out race was soon underway to spread slavery into Kansas, Nebraska and the West. Lincoln was livid and re-entered politics with a fury.

Lincoln’s passionate opposition to slavery spawned two of his cleverest legal arguments. The first was his insistence that the Declaration of Independence was the supreme law of the land. He declared that the Constitution was unenforceable where it contradicted the principles articulated by our founders in the 1776 document. Specifically, he objected to the principle of States Rights as set forth in the Tenth Amendment. According to Lincoln, the Tenth Amendment was an “invention of the devil” which “only existed to preserve the insidious institution of slavery.”

 His other legal argument came in defense of the Emancipation Proclamation and gives us an idea of what he intended for it to accomplish.

It’s important to note that the Proclamation only freed slaves in the secessionist states. That’s why it drew a great deal of criticism from abolitionists. Lincoln’s angle was that the Proclamation appropriated enemy property in furtherance of the war effort. When the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (his own appointee) complained the Proclamation was unconstitutional, Lincoln replied that the Constitution granted him the power as Commander-in-Chief to appropriate enemy property. However if the Court chose to take the position that the slaves weren’t property, then slavery was illegal and the war was moot.


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