In 1862 the military position of the United States of America was precarious.

Lincoln was deeply distressed.

It was then, while the constitutional stream was swirling red with blood, that there eddied on the edge of it the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. I have heard Negroes chant, with tears streaming down their eyes, that "Lincoln freed the slaves." Grandchildren of abolitionists, with smirking faces, have volunteered the same information.

So it must be true.

But it is not even remotely true.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not "free the slaves." It was not intended to.

Frequently, before Lincoln became President, and in his inaugural address, he firmly stated he had no such intention. To Horace Greeley he wrote, in 1862, that his only object was to save the union, and it is "not either to save or destroy slavery. . . . If I could save the Union without freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

On September 13, 1862, he wrote religious groups in Chicago that freedom for the slaves was entirely impracticable. Further, that he was not going to issue any emancipation proclamation since it would have no more effect than the "Pope's Bull against the comet."

But Lincoln had a much sounder reason for not freeing the slaves. From the border states, where slavery existed, there were "fifty thousand bayonets"—fighting on the side of the North—soldiers who might desert to the Confederacy if slaves were freed. "It would be serious," continued Lincoln, "should they go over to the rebels." But nine days later he issued what he called the "Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation," although he also said in his letter to the religious bodies that the whole world would see it "must necessarily be inoperative."

In it, he announced that "pecuniary aid" would be given to slave states not in rebellion. No slaves were to be freed that were owned by "loyal citizens." Then, in his annual message, delivered December 1, 1862, he proclaimed a "compensated emancipation."

He suggested that states be given until 1900 to abolish slavery. The states were to be paid for the slaves in United States bonds. Of course, the states must be "loyal," but there was a belief that he wanted to buy the war off. One thing is certain, however: he was offering something to the "fifty thousand bayonets" so that they would not "desert to the rebels."

Actually he was offering them a continuation of slavery, for he specifically excepted all areas of the United States under Federal "bayonets" and Federal control. He followed this on January 1, 1863, by proclaiming that after that date, "all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States [footnote: My italics, but notice closely], shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free. . . ."

Lincoln did not "free" the slaves except where the United States government was unable to make freedom effective. He was careful to except even Southern districts where the Federal Army controlled. He enumerated "emancipated" areas with exceptions as follows:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terre Bonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

Besides the exceptions, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennesee were omitted and therefore perpetuated, as far as possible, as slave states.

Where there was Confederate military occupation, he gave an empty freedom, calling upon military and naval authorities to protect such "freedom." But where the American flag flew, no freedom—slavery was recognized and protected.

Though this so-called Emancipation seemed a cruel joke on the Negro—to grant him freedom where he couldn't get it and make him a slave where the power of the United States held sway—in reality it assured him his eventual liberty.

For those to whom the slavery issue was of supreme importance Lincoln used the word emancipation. For those in the border states who did not disapprove of slavery, but who believed the preservation of the Union was all-important, he carefully avoided emancipation.

Superficially judged, Lincoln's emancipation juggling was immoral pretense and evasion. But from the long view it was great statesmanship employed to achieve a far more significant moral and democratic goal. Lincoln did preserve the Union. And that meant not only the eventual abolition of slavery but the extension of the democratic principle throughout the United States—the extension of the concept of general welfare as opposed to "states" rights.