Which came first – slavery or the Union?

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. When we studied it at school it was portrayed very much as the defining momemt of the Union cause in the Civil War. The nation was in the second year of an increasingly bitter struggle.  Just a few days before, the Union strategic victory at Antietam Creek had produced the bloodiest single days fighting in American history.  This gave Lincoln the impetus to free the slaves and from then on the Union cause was supercharged by the crusade against slavery.  At least, that’s how it seems if you skim the surface.  In reality of course, issues such as the freedom and equality of all men were not as important as holding the Union together.  In fact, many of Lincoln’s Republican Party were slave owners themselves – especially those from the Border states like Kentucky.  What finally did it for me though was reading the following direct quote from old Abe himself:

“What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”  (In a letter to Horace Greeley dated 23 August 1862).

I wonder how many of the diehard Boston abolitionists knew just how much this was an issue of political expediency rather than morality?


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