An honest emancipator Lerone Bennett Jr.'s depiction of...

SATURDAY MAILBOX

March 10, 2001

An honest emancipator

Lerone Bennett Jr.'s depiction of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation was biased and distorted ("A closer look at Honest Abe," Feb. 25).

The Emancipation Proclamation was not intended to free the slaves - only a constitutional amendment could do that.

Its purpose was to establish the destruction of slavery in the Confederacy as an official war aim. Previously, only the re-establishment of the Union was an accepted aim, with Confederate slaves treated only as contraband.

By issuing the proclamation, Lincoln also sought to isolate the Confederacy politically, morally and diplomatically.

This applied particularly to Great Britain. As long as the war was about union, Great Britain could consider supporting the South; as soon as it became about slavery, the Confederacy was anathema.

Lincoln did not free slaves in the border states for several reasons.

First, the proclamation was aimed at states in rebellion as a means of defeating the Confederacy, by breaking its back economically. This was the beginning of the Union's adoption of total war - war against Southern society.

Second, the border states were crucial to Union victory; Lincoln could not afford to antagonize them and banning slavery could have pushed the border states into the Confederacy, making victory far more difficult, if not impossible.

Finally, Lincoln led a tenuous, polyglot political coalition. Political opinion regarding slavery ranged, from loyal slave-owners, Copperhead Democrats who supported the South, Irish laborers who were afraid of free slaves flooding the job market, and aristocratic Philadelphians sympathetic to the planters.

On the other extreme, War Democrats, Radical Republicans and abolitionists wanted a moral crusade against slavery. In between, the majority had little interest or sympathy regarding slaves.

Lincoln had to win the war. He had to hold his coalition together.

As a result, he had to tread carefully on slavery, often acting against his own inclinations.

Richard Micka

Baltimore

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was not a hoax.

It's true that it freed slaves only in the areas under Confederate control, where Lincoln had no jurisdiction at the time. However, as soon as those areas came under Union control, the slaves in those areas became free.

So, while it did not free any slave immediately, by the time the war ended, the Emancipation Proclamation had freed millions of slaves.

And, as for the slaves it did not free, in the border states and parts of Louisiana and Tennessee, everybody - including the slave-owners - knew in 1863 that those slaves would be freed soon.

To claim that Lincoln expected slavery to endure until at least 1958 is gross distortion.

Lerone Bennett Jr. bases that claim on a Lincoln quote from 1858, in which Lincoln predicted that the "extinction of slavery" would not occur "in the most peaceful way" for at least 100 years.

Lincoln knew that a bloody civil war could abolish slavery but in 1858, like most reasonable people, he hoped a bloody civil war could be avoided.

This does not mean that he approved of slavery - because he certainly did not.

Harry Woelfer

Ellicott City

Within the Union, the Constitution protected slavery, and Lincoln had no power to alter that protection unilaterally.

But again and again, Lincoln expressed his belief that slavery was wrong and should be ended. And, once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, he steadfastly refused to qualify or retract it.

Certainly there were many individual emancipators - blacks and whites, slaves and free men, and especially the millions of Union soldiers, including 180,000 African-Americans whose enlistments were authorized by the proclamation.

But if there was a greater emancipator than Lincoln, who was it?

Michael P. Johnson

Baltimore

While never in favor of slavery, Lincoln's sole purpose prior to the war was the preservation of the Union.

But having fought the war, Lincoln never intended anything less than freedom for all slaves.

Lincoln insisted that his 1864 re-election campaign platform include passage of the 13th Amendment. After re-election, he used his political strength to convince the House of Representatives, where it had been previously defeated, to pass that amendment.

Lincoln also supported requiring Southern state legislatures to adopt the 13th Amendment as a condition of those states returning to Congress.

Lincoln led this nation through its most painful and bloody years, sustaining it with his own strength and vision.

A balanced look at his record assures his place of honor in history.

Steve Kohler

Joppa

Black heroes deserve honor

John McWhorter contends that Black History Month and museums such as Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum focus too much on "larger-than-life" historical personalities and past black traumas and not enough on ordinary black achievers ("A new black history," Feb. 11)

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