Many Were Not Certain Lincoln Would Free Slaves Some in Pittsburgh Voiced Opposition to Emancipation

Article excerpt

All across "the once United States" -- as Pittsburgh abolitionist and women's rights champion Jane Swisshelm dubbed the nation still at war with itself -- people waited to see whether President Abraham Lincoln would free the slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, in those states still in rebellion against the Union.

The president had promised to do so in September 1862, after Union forces stopped Gen. Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North at the Battle of Antietam.

The wait proved to be a long one. Not until late in the afternoon did the president slip away from a New Year's Day reception, return to his office on the second floor of the White House and sign the Emancipation Proclamation. News of his action was telegraphed from Washington to cities across the United States.

"It is the most brilliant New Year's Day that has dawned upon the republic during the 86 years of her existence," the abolitionist editor of The Pittsburgh Christian Advocate, a denominational paper of the Methodist Church, wrote a few days later. "It is destined to be cherished in the most sacred memories of millions throughout the coming centuries."

Of course, not everyone was pleased.

The editors of the Democratic-leaning Pittsburgh Post hoped Lincoln would not issue the proclamation. In late December 1862, the Post reprinted, with obvious relish, an editorial from the anti- Lincoln New York Herald, denouncing the president's emancipation policy as one "hatched by monomaniacs, deplored by statesmen, unjudged by Congress." And most damning of all, in the eyes of Lincoln's severest critics, it was a proclamation that "risks the horrors of servile war," the Herald said.

The Pittsburgh Gazette, a staunch backer of the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party, sought to assure its readers in late December that the president would not waiver. Lincoln would not bring "infamy" on himself or his country by going back on his preliminary proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862. The president is determined, the paper said, "to stand firm on the position he has taken, and on the first of January, the final edict of freedom will go forth."

But still, until it was done, few could be absolutely certain. Since the outbreak of the Civil War following the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Swisshelm and more nationally prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, had pressed Lincoln to make the abolition of slavery a central war aim. But the president had rebuffed them. To their disgust, Lincoln had overturned Gen. John Fremont's order confiscating the slaves of rebels in arms in Missouri.

Even in his preliminary proclamation of September 1862, the president was still touting his plan to colonize blacks outside of the United States, if they were willing to leave.

Besides, the cultivation of cotton and tobacco by enslaved people was a business "too big to fail," to borrow words familiar from the recent debate over government help to large banks and the auto industry.

Slavery affected millions, not only in the South but in financial and shipping centers like New York. Even Pittsburgh had strong economic ties to the South. Its textile industry was dependent on slave-cultivated cotton from the South.

And judging from the elections in the fall of 1862, many white voters in the North were against Lincoln's emancipation plans, along with his handling of the war. Republicans took a thrashing in congressional elections, losing a number of House seats.

Nowhere was Lincoln's decision more eagerly awaited than among the communities of free blacks and fugitive slaves in the North, along with their abolitionist friends and allies. Even among the enslaved people of the South, news of the impending "dawn of freedom" spread among the 3.5 million blacks, despite attempts to suppress it.

"People gathered in churches on Dec. 31, 1862, on what they called 'freedom's eve' and prayed that Lincoln would act," said Sam Black, director of African-American programs at the Heinz History Center. …