Historians have long puzzled over the contradictions within Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. As a statement of general principle it seems compromised by Lincoln's refusal to extend manumission to slaves within those border states which permitted slavery but which had remained within the Union at the onset of hostilities: Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland. This central contradiction was observed at the time; Evans notes that some Abolitionists claimed it was a clever but meaningless document that freed only those slaves now firmly under Confederate control, in states where Lincoln had no power to do so. 'A poor document but a mighty act,' the Governor of Massachusetts said to a friend. (Evans 192)
I would suggest, however, that our confused understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation derives from understanding the document as part of Lincoln's military strategy. The better way to understand the Emancipation Proclamation is within the context of foreign affairs. Even as a matter of military strategy, Lincoln's chief goal in issuing the document on New Year's Day in 1863 was less to disrupt the South, and more to prevent the British government from granting diplomatic recognition or military aid to the South. But I will also note the ways in which the South employed the same sort of symbolic politics in attempting to influence European views of the U.S. Civil War to their advantage.
The British took a keen interest in the progress of the U.S. Civil War because to a certain extent domestic politics in Britain in 1860 greatly complicated the question of whether they might favor the North or South. The great textile looms of industrialized northern England required a constant supply of cotton: British colonial holdings in India were intended to make this supply chain secure, but we must recall that Queen Victoria would not be proclaimed Empress of India until 1876. In 1860, Great Britain's economy was partly dependent on American cotton, while the economy of the Confederacy was almost wholly dependent upon cotton exports to England. Douglass North, in his account of the American economy in the period immediately before the U.S. Civil War, notes that in 1815 the annual value of cotton export comprised about a third of all U.S. exports, but by 1860 cotton accounted for more than half of the American economy overall (North 233). North additionally notes that the great majority of cotton grown in the South was exported in this period, reflecting the fact that England had experienced industrialization earlier than America. If a Southern victory was in England's economic interests, though, it would definitely be badly received by large sectors of English society, on the basis that Parliament in 1833 had passed a Slavery Abolition Act in response to increasing public outrage (particularly among large England's evangelical Christian community, galvanized by the oratory of William Wilberforce) over the institution. As a result, Lincoln
It is within this context -- in which Great Britain had a vested interest in the outcome of the American Civil War -- that we must understand the way in which both North and South would court British support. Their means for doing so was primarily diplomatic at first, but such diplomacy could only extend so far. England would not offer official diplomatic acknowledgement of the Confederacy as a sovereign nation, because to a certain extent such recognition would provide such substantial aid to the Southern cause that it could be perceived as outright intervention. Jones usefully summarizes the status quo by mid-1862:
The hesitant British stance regarding recognition had upset the South as well as the North. The new Confederate secretary of state, Judah P. Benjamin, complained that by not extending recognition, England prolonged a devastataing war by encouraging the North to believe that it could subjugate the South….As long as England appeared to doubt the South's capacity to maintain its government, the North would continue the war. British policies, Benjamin insisted, were undermining the chances for peace and thereby hurting their own interests based on trade with the South. Recognition would put an end to the struggle without endangering England. (Jones 111)
The logic offered by the South was itself appealing to the English to a certain degree: as Lincoln knew as well as the South, England's diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy would cost England nothing economically, and might stand to benefit them substantially. As Graebner notes of this time period: "Europe's diplomatic tradition cautioned against any recognition of the Confederacy until the South had demonstrated the power required to establish and maintain its independence….Diplomacy reflects the status of power, and Southern power never appeared greater than during the summer and autumn months of 1862." (Graebner, 68). In particular, the military events of the summer made the South look like it might prevail: Stonewall Jackson would inflict a humiliating defeat on the Union Army at Second Bull Run, and days later Lincoln would restore McClellan's position as head of the Union forces, after having earlier removed him in March. So as 1862 was coming to an end, the South was never closer to victory, or to the possibility of ending the war through diplomatic negotiations brokered (and to some extent militarily guaranteed) by Europe.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 must be seen, then, in light of the South's faith that diplomatic recognition was not far off. To some degree, we may note that there was a shift in Confederate military leadership in the same time period, when Jefferson Davis removed Judah P. Benjamin as the Confederacy's Secretary of War, and instead installed him as Secretary of State. This represented a kind of naked pandering to the British political class, as Benjamin (who had been an antebellum U.S. Senator from Louisiana) was, unusually, Jewish. The Jewish population of Louisiana was larger and more integrated in the early 19th century than it was elsewhere in the U.S., as betokened by the fact that Benjamin was not even the first Jewish Senator from Louisiana. In this precise time period, the British Conservative Party -- which to some extent was electorally dominant -- had elected Benjamin Disraeli as their leader, and Disraeli (born Jewish but converted to the Church of England) would be Prime Minister on and off with the abolition-supporting evangelical Gladstone throughout the Victorian period. Benjamin's biographer notes that "Benjamin would meet Disraeli…and be recognized by historians as his counterpart on the North American continent"; moreover, Judah P. Benjamin would be explicitly compared to Disraeli in the British press in terms of oratorical skill, with Benjamin's speech resigning from the U.S. Senate on New Years Day in 1860 being particularly well-regarded (Evans 110). To this extent, we may see Jefferson Davis's decision to change Benjamin from Confederate Secretary of War to State was an attempt to woo British political sympathies as well.
Britain, of course, did not ultimately intervene in the Civil War. Graebner notes that, if the Proclamation was intended symbolically by Lincoln, that the response to it was largely symbolic as well. By pandering to the British people, Lincoln was being democratic in a way that was at odds with Britain's own Victorian political system:
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation… had little effect on European sentiment and none on European action. British conservatives thought it foolhardy and anticipated a servile insurrection. Even William E. Gladstone was unmoved by Lincoln's action, reiterating his conviction that "negro emancipation cannot be effected, in any sense favourable either to black or to white by the bloody hand of war, especially of Civil War." British liberals, abolitionists, and workingmen lauded the Proclamation, but these groups had always favored the Union because it represented the cause of democracy. None of these groups, moreover, wielded influence over British policy. (68)
The realpolitik which was employed by Britain's ruling class in this period would not have scrupled to benefit directly…