The Popular Origins of Universal Emancipation

As the new Congress prepared to convene, northerners were far from united on a single plan of emancipation, but they seemed more interested than ever in seeing slavery somehow abolished. In the Midwest, a Republican preacher who had complained in the fall of 1862 that "nobody wants any lectures on the slavery question" observed that audiences now clamored for antislavery speakers, especially those recently converted to the cause.1 Antislavery whisperings could even be heard from some traditionally antiabolitionist newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post. When the Post, a Democratic paper, reported that "the future peace of this now bleeding and distracted country, requires the total extinction of slavery among us," the Republican Indianapolis Daily Journal was quick to respond: "that sounds very like 'Abolitionism' to our ears."2

A number of factors during 1863 had made universal emancipation, once the cause of a few abolitionists, a campaign embraced by an ever widening circle of northerners. Perhaps most important was the anti-southern hostility born from the unprecedented scale of destruction during the war. At Shiloh in early 1862, twenty thousand men were killed or

1 Ichabod Codding to Maria Codding, October i3, i862, Ichabod Codding MSS, ISHL; Ichabod Codding to Zebina Eastman, August 14, 1863, Zebina Eastman MSS, CHS.

2 Indianapolis Daily Journal, December i2, i863, p. 2. Similar examples were cited in the New York Tribune, December 3, 1863, p. 4.

wounded; at Antietam later that year, another twenty thousand; and at Gettysburg in mid-1863, fifty thousand more. Lincoln estimated that the Union was spending $3 million a day on the conflict. The havoc of war aroused northern passions for vengeance, and emancipation was the perfect instrument of retribution. Black freedom, then, was in part the result of a vicarious war fought by northern noncombatants. "We must have some compensation for the blood and treasure which we have been forced to spend," demanded the editor of the Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph; "this we find in the abolition of slavery."3 For combatants as well, anti-slavery action was often the natural outcome of antisouthern fury. According to one St. Louis editor, "our soldiers take the slave, because they hate the slaveholder, but not because they love the negro."4

Especially when coupled with black enlistments, black freedom offered not only vengeance but a military advantage to white northerners. "Among thinking men the impression is becoming daily more general," a Nashville correspondent observed, "that the coming man for whom we have been looking . . . is the negro emancipated, armed, instructed and drilled."5 First at Milliken's Bend and Port Hudson on the Mississippi River, and then at Battery Wagner in Charleston Harbor, black Americans had proved that they could make good soldiers - and thus good citizens. The abolitionist Angelina Grimke Weld exulted in the "praise that is lavished upon our brave colored troops even by Proslavery papers. . . . Their heroism is working a great change in public opinion, forcing all men to see the sin and shame of enslaving such men."6 By the end of 1863, the gallantry of African American soldiers and sailors had converted countless northern whites to the abolitionist cause.

Also decisive in turning northern sentiment in favor of emancipation was the budding antislavery movement in the border states. In the recent elections in all of the border states, even in heavily Democratic Kentucky and Delaware, proemancipation candidates had won important victories. In Missouri, the recent state constitutional convention had voted to abolish slavery, although the plan called for gradual instead of immediate emancipation. "It is certain," the New York Tribune reported, "that the

3 Catholic Telegraph, reprinted in Ohio State Journal, December i9, i863, p. 2. See Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (1991; repr., New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 260-64.

4 [Charles L. Bernays] to Montgomery Blair, August 17, 1863, Blair family MSS, LC. See Joseph Allan Frank, With Ballot and Bayonet: The Political Socialization of American Civil War Soldiers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 67-70.

5 "Granite" to Cincinnati Gazette, November i5, i863 , reprinted in Indianapolis Daily Journal, November 24, 1863.

6 Angelina Grimke Weld to Gerrit Smith, July 28, 1863, cited in James McPherson, ed., The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted during the War for the Union (1965; repr., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 191.

Administration will have no more hearty support in its Emancipation measures than from . . . the States which it was not long ago deemed necessary to conciliate by halting in Anti-Slavery progress."7

The animosity of northerners toward southern whites, the success of African American soldiers, and the increasing hostility of the slave states themselves to slavery - all fueled the drive toward universal emancipation. Yet, as congressmen gathered in the Capitol, there was no clear consensus about the form emancipation might take.

The many petitions demanding abolition, for example, failed to take a consistent position on how to end slavery. Some called simply for abolition, whereas others adopted the familiar language of the Northwest Ordinance and demanded an end to "slavery and involuntary servitude." Conservative petitioners asked Congress "to drop the negro question and attend to the business of the country." Those of a more radical mind-set demanded that Congress not only free the slaves but grant them legal equality. An equally radical measure for the prohibition of "Slavery and involuntary service" was proposed by others who probably did not realize that such a measure might outlaw many other oppressive labor systems in addition to slavery.8

One petitioning effort in particular attracted national attention to the cause of universal emancipation. The Women's Loyal National League, organized in the spring of 1863 by abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, circulated a "mammoth petition" for immediate abolition. Women throughout the Union took up the cause, sometimes venturing into areas where strong Confederate sympathies made their work exceedingly dangerous. One of the league members, H. Tracy Cutler, wrote Governor Richard Yates of Illinois for a pass so that she could carry the petition to some of the hostile regions of Kentucky and Missouri. Yates's secretary mocked Cutler for circulating "a petition for the general emancipation of the Niggers," but the governor granted the pass any-way.9 By December league members had amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures. Although the League had fallen far short of its objective of a

7 New York Tribune, December 8, 1863, p. 4. See J. R. Lowell, "The President's Policy," North American Review, 98 (January 1864), 254.

8 Emphasis added. On the legal difference between "servitude" and "service," see Robert J. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). For a modern effort to read the Thirteenth Amendment as a doctrine empowering all laboring classes, see Lea S. VanderVelde, "The Labor Vision of the Thirteenth Amendment," University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 138 (December 1989), 437-504. For the original petitions, see HR 37A-G7.2; HR 37A-G7.3; HR 38A-H1.2; HR 38A-G10.1, all in RG46, NA. See P. J. Staudenraus, "The Popular Origins of the Thirteenth Amendment," Mid-America, 50 (April 1968), 108-15.

9 H. M. Tracy Cutler to Richard Yates, September 11, 1863, Yates family MSS, ISHL.

To the ienate and House oi .Representatives of

!.;.!<"■ o' eighteen years, earnestly > u-.iblc day. an Act, emancipating-all labor iii the Untied States.

Figure 2. This 1863 petition of the Women's Loyal National League was one of the earliest to implore Congress to fortify Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation with a measure that would secure freedom to all slaves. This early petition did not call specifically for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, but in early 1864 league organizers rewrote the petition so that it did. Like many such petitions, signatures were divided between male and female (on the opposite side of the petition pictured here were the male signers). A note at the top of the petition asks the last signer to return the petition to Susan B. Anthony, one of the league's organizers. (Courtesy National Archives)

million signers, the New York Tribune could report that, because of its efforts, "the People everywhere - men, women, soldiers, and civilians -seem to be rousing to the work."10 League organizers planned to present all of the petitions to Congress in early 1864, but even before then their endeavor had made its mark.11

Yet, for all its effect in shaping and demonstrating popular opinion against slavery, the petition of the Women's Loyal League, like most of the emancipation petitions, did not at first prescribe a precise law. The league's petition simply demanded that Congress "pass at the earliest practicable day an Act emancipating all persons of African descent held to involuntary service or labor in the United States." The form of the "act" -whether a statute or constitutional amendment - did not matter to league

10 New York Tribune, December 19, 1863, p. 10.

11 Susan Marie Zaeske, "Petitioning, Antislavery and the Emergence of Women's Political Consciousness" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1997), 339-47; Wendy Hamand Venet, Neither Ballots nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 109-22; Mary P. Ryan, Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 141-55; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1922; repr., New York: Arno and the New York Times, 1969), 2:50-89.

members. For some league members, the nonspecific approach was an act of deference to legislators who knew best how to frame antislavery legislation. But for others, nonspecific petitioning was meant as a subtle protest. The strategy allowed league members, like female antislavery petitioners before them, to act politically while drawing attention to their exclusion from the formal legislative process. The petitioners prided themselves on ruling the province of popular mobilization while leaving the mundane business of law making to the stuffed shirts in office. Only rarely did league members dwell on the problems of making antislavery legislation constitutional or overcoming a Constitution that seemed to sanction slavery. An exceptional instance came at the league's national convention in 1863, when Ernestine L. Rose, a Polish emigre, declared that "a good constitution is a very good thing; but even the best of constitutions need sometimes to be amended and improved." "If written constitutions are in the way of human freedom," she announced, "suspend them till they can be improved."12

Proposals such as Rose's smacked too much of radicalism. For lawmakers and most ordinary Americans, the Constitution was still the Union's sacred text, never to be suspended or rewritten. Thus, when Attorney General Edward Bates read in late 1863 that a convention of "Radical Germans" in Cleveland had recommended "a revision of the Constitution in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence," he scornfully denounced them as living in "practical ignorance of our political institutions and of the very meaning of the phrase 'Liberty by Law.' "13 A healthy dose of nativism informed Bates's opinion - Who were these foreigners to suggest changes in our national charter? - but so did his commitment to the "rule of law," the belief that only unchanging laws could preserve order and liberty.14 It was fine for Lincoln at Gettysburg to slight the Constitution in favor of the Declaration, but it was a different matter entirely to suggest an actual change in the framers' text.

12 Stanton et al., History of Woman Suffrage, 2:75. On female petitioning, see Julie Roy Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 86-93, 214-17; Nancy Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 64-69; Zaeske, "Petitioning, Antislavery and the Emergence of Women's Political Consciousness"; Deborah Bingham Van Broekhoven, " 'Let Your Names Be Enrolled': Method and Ideology in Women's Antislavery Petitioning," in Jean Fagan Yellin and John C. Van Horne, eds., The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, I994); I79-99.

13 Washington Daily National Intelligencer, October 29, 1863, p. 3; Howard K. Beale, ed., The Diary of Edward Bates, 1859-1866 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, I933 ), 3I2.

14 Phillip S. Paludan, A Covenant with Death: The Constitution, Law, and Equality in the Civil War Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), esp. 27-30.

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