|First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln|
Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864
Most Americans have been schooled to think of the Civil War as having been fought over slavery. But that was not the case, at least at the beginning of that great conflict. Even after more than a year into the War Between the States, the abolition of slavery was not a key political or military objective of the Union, nor of President Lincoln himself. Many people, North and South, opposed slavery but did not favor emancipation. They were willing to let slavery die on its own over time. They were not willing to let the slavery issue bring on a war.
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that—
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it—if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it—and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save this Union.*
Lincoln’s Proclamation didn't actually outlaw slavery. Neither did it make the freed slaves citizens of the United States. What it did accomplish was to make the destruction of slavery an explicit goal of the war in addition to reuniting the severed Union through military force and occupation. Also, by making the abolishment of slavery a war goal, Lincoln's executive order had the effect of turning foreign opinion in favor of the Union. That shift doomed the Confederacy's hopes of gaining official recognition from European countries, particularly Britain, which had abolished slavery 30 years earlier.