By Jasper Collier
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863, represented recognition of freedom for slaves throughout the Confederate south, but it also represented the culmination of a legal argument that had persisted throughout the war. This argument, and how it influenced the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation, is central to the book Act of Justice, by lawyer and respected emancipation historian, Burrus Carnahan. Carnahan visited President Lincoln’s Cottage on Thursday, July 12, to deliver a lecture on this topic.
Carnahan argued that since the beginning of the war, the Lincoln administration took great pains to prosecute the conflict under domestic law. Secession was unconstitutional, and the Confederate states, in Lincoln’s view, were still part of the Union. Meanwhile Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Government constantly struggled to ensure that the war would be prosecuted under “the law of war” recognized internationally. Some of the international rules of war, such as negotiations under flags of truce, were recognized and quickly rationalized by the U.S. government out of necessity. Later, the recognition of captured Confederate soldiers as prisoners of war became unavoidable. Eventually, the Confederate government stymied all of Lincoln’s attempts to maintain the stance that the war was essentially an internal rebellion; it had become a conflict between nations.
Carnahan further argued that while Lincoln failed to prosecute the war under domestic law, he seized on the shift in policy toward the Confederate States as justification for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Before the change in policy, he believed himself to be constitutionally barred from ending slavery, but the Confederacy soon learned that the benefits of “the law of war” came with severe consequences.
Carnahan noted that emancipation proclamations were a fairly common weapon of war throughout history. Recognizing the freedom of an enemy’s slaves at once deprived the enslaving party of a resource and could gain one for the emancipating party. Carnahan stated that Lincoln’s “last” Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, functioned excellently as a weapon; by the end of the war approximately 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union military , many of whom were former slaves.
Burrus Carnahan’s lecture was the first in a series called “Evenings at President Lincoln’s Cottage”. These events are open to members of the site. For information on becoming a member, contact George Rogers at George_Rogers@nthp.org or visit the membership page of the website.