Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling: Let’s Make a Deal with the Negro; or, the Emancipation Proclamation as a Grand Bargain


In late August of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to fellow Illinois Republican James Conkling which contained his thoughts on various subjects, most prominently, the Emancipation Proclamation. The letter has drawn much interest from historians. Louis Masur provides comments at the New York Time’s Disunion blog, and Brooks Simpson has comments here and here. At the second link from Simpson, he opines as to the most powerful part of the letter.

To me, the most salient passage of the Conkling letter is this:

But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.

There are three things that make this text so notable. First, it explicitly acknowledges the agency of African Americans. Negroes will not do something for nothing; Lincoln recognizes that they must be given good reason to act in favor of the Union. And he feels that if they are given good reason, they will act.

Second, Lincoln is under no illusion that African Americans are fighting for the same thing as white northerners. For African Americans, 90% of whom are enslaved southerners, the idea of preserving the Union – the so-called Union Cause – had limited resonance. A Union preserved with slavery intact was not going to garner the support of the black population. Lincoln understood that the price of black support was the promise of freedom; nothing else would do.

And finally, Lincoln characterizes the Proclamation as, essentially, a transaction. The Union is making a deal with African Americans: it promises freedom to the Negro, in exchange for the Negro’s support in destroying the Confederate regime. And Lincoln says emphatically: we will keep this promise.

And of course, all Lincoln could do is promise freedom. He was the president of the United States, not the Confederate States. The Proclamation infuriated Confederate slaveholders, but it had no legal power over them. It could not compel enslavers to free the enslaved; only a military victory by the Union could provide such compulsion.

As we know, both parties to the deal kept up their side of the bargain. Over 200,000 African Americans served in the Union military. And thousands of black civilians acted as spies, scouts, laborers, servants, and otherwise helped the Union military. African Americans were an integral part of the Union war effort that defeated the Confederate States.

And the United States abided by the deal with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. On a de jure basis at least, the enslaved were forever free.

Sadly, when I talk to people about the Emancipation Proclamation, they have the notion that the Proclamation, in and of itself, ended slavery. It’s as if Lincoln was god-like; he gave the word, the word was made flesh, and freedom rang throughout the land. But as Lincoln himself suggests, it was nowhere near that simple.

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One thought on “Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling: Let’s Make a Deal with the Negro; or, the Emancipation Proclamation as a Grand Bargain

  1. “Sadly, when I talk to people about the Emancipation Proclamation, they have the notion that the Proclamation, in and of itself, ended slavery.”

    My problem is just the opposite–I get the “Well, the EP didn’t actually end slavery.” Everybody wants a soundbite or a cartoon; nobody wants the “narrative with nuance.” Very frustrating.

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