SEE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING AVAILABLE NOW
Becoming the Party of Freedom
By MARC EGNAL
Republicans began the Civil War as the party of Union, not the party of Freedom. They did not become the celebrated destroyers of slavery until almost two years into the war, with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued Jan. 1, 1863. But during the summer of 1861 the direction of change was unmistakable, as Republicans took the first, crucial steps in a mounting attack on the South's "peculiar institution." Long-held beliefs about the immorality of slavery combined with the challenges posed by an escalating conflict, explain the evolving outlook of the Republicans.
Along with a strong commitment to expanding the Northern economy, the Republican Party had always emphasized its opposition to slavery: both the 1856 and 1860 platforms cited the Declaration of Independence with its ringing affirmation of liberty for all. Many of the individuals leading the new party had long denounced bondage. Representative Owen Lovejoy, whose abolitionist brother had been killed by a pro-slavery mob, labeled the institution "the sum of all villainy"; Abraham Lincoln remarked that he favored free soil "because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself." Most mainstream Republicans shared this outlook.
And yet that cauldron of antislavery sentiment bubbled alongside the carefully restrained policies the party enunciated. Republicans promised to respect slavery where it existed. They agreed to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Seeking to rule a nation of property owners, the new party eschewed lawless actions, even those committed in opposition to slavery. Indeed, before 1861 the only step the Republicans advocated to speed the demise of slavery was restricting its spread into the territories. But, free soil was not abolition, and Republicans recognized that barring slavery from the West would lead to its ultimate extinction only far in the future.
Had the Civil War been brief, the Republicans' reverence for property rights - rather than their profound antislavery convictions - would have prevailed, and Southern institutions would likely have emerged unscathed. During April and May 1861 federal forces captured and returned the hundreds of African Americans who rushed to the Union troops in Maryland or crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania. A Maryland editorialist remarked that more fugitives had been recovered since Lincoln took office "than during the whole of Mr. Buchanan's presidential term."
But as the clash continued, new circumstances gradually led the Republicans to rethink their cautious policies. The beginnings of change came toward the end of May, when Gen. Benjamin Butler accepted three fugitives at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Butler wrote to the War Department for advice, leading Lincoln to discuss the matter with his cabinet. Many in Washington, like General in Chief Winfield Scott (who chortled at "Butler's fugitive slave law"), expected a simple reaffirmation of the administration's commitment to returning slaves.
Instead, in response to Butler's request Lincoln and his cabinet mapped out a policy that moved the North away from strict adherence to the fugitive slave law. The president had to strike a careful balance. On the one hand, he knew that various concerns reinforced the Republicans' defense of property rights. To win the war and preserve the republican "experiment" Lincoln had to keep together an unwieldy coalition. It included not only Republicans but also Democrats and Border State Unionists who demanded a strict adherence to the Constitution. On the other hand, Lincoln and other members of the cabinet could hardly ignore their long-held antislavery beliefs and the wonderful opportunity offered by Butler's initiative.
The result? Butler was told that his decision to harbor the slaves was "approved," but he was given no indication whether these individuals, and the many others now arriving at "Fortress Freedom," were considered free. Similarly mixed messages were provided to other commanders. Hence some officers welcomed numerous "contrabands" into their camps, while others, like Henry Halleck and George McClellan, returned runaways to their masters. Not until March 1862 did Congress order the Army to keep all fugitives.
The Northern defeat at Bull Run on July 21 led Republicans to take yet another step toward emancipation. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, lawmakers accepted a resolution, put forth by John Crittenden of Kentucky, affirming that the Union would not interfere "with the rights or established institutions" of the South. But many Republicans soon had second thoughts about any effort to protect slavery. Northerners now recognized that the conflict would be a prolonged one and that slaves were an important resource for the Confederates. More than ever before, Republicans voiced long-held antislavery feelings, and expounded the moral, economic and strategic reasons for emancipation.
The most visible result was that on Aug. 6 Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which allowed Union officers to take and free those slaves the Confederates had used for military purposes. This measure, which moved a step beyond what Butler had done, worried Lincoln, who feared it might alienate the Border States. He signed the bill, according to the New York Times, "with great reluctance."
The next step in the radicalization of Republican, and Northern, opinion came with John C. Fremont's proclamation at the end of August. After suffering a series of reverses, Fremont, who commanded federal forces in Missouri, declared that he would emancipate the slaves owned by his Confederate opponents. Republicans across the North cheered this bold move. "Everybody of every sect, party, sex, and color approves it," declared Senator James Grimes of Iowa. But Lincoln, acutely aware of the impact the proclamation would have on the pivotal state of Kentucky, first requested and then ordered Fremont to revoke his decree. A few weeks later he removed the general.
Despite Fremont's removal, by the fall of 1861 Lincoln's views and the outlook of most Republicans had become far more radical. While as yet only a minority of senators and congressmen called for emancipation, that chorus had grown mightily since the beginning of the war. When Congress reconvened in December it refused to reaffirm the Crittenden resolution. In his State of the Union address Lincoln set forth his own plan for ending slavery. Although the proposal would prove unworkable, resting as it did on voluntarism, compensation and colonization, the plan displayed Lincoln's newfound belief that the status quo was unacceptable.
The boldness of the slaves themselves and the escalating war helped drive this change. But "events" are not a sufficient explanation. Democrats and Border State Unionists, who traditionally had been less vehement in their opposition to bondage, resisted each of the steps. Only when changing circumstances are combined with the beliefs of a party that had long condemned (in Lincoln's words) the "vast moral evil" of slavery does the march toward freedom become understandable.