In the summer of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, who never knew a peaceful moment during his one and only term in office, needed a victory.
On Sept. 17, he got one in the form of the Battle of Antietam. Five days after, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the lesser-known proclamation of two, the second being the legendary Emancipation Proclamation that was promulgated on Jan. 1, 1863 — 100 days later.
In this Preliminary Proclamation, the President wanted to restore constitutional relation between the Union and states in rebellion, to fund voluntary abolition in loyal slave-states, to colonize freedmen, to secure the freedom of slaves in rebel areas, to compensate loyal states and owners for the loss of their slaves and, most importantly, to emancipate all slaves in states or parts of states in rebellion on Jan. 1.
Needless to say, the Lincoln of this proclamation was not the Lincoln mythologized as the “Great Emancipator.” This Lincoln prioritized the indivisible Union above all else. This Lincoln was willing to pay slave-owners to free their slaves. This Lincoln tolerated slavery if its beneficiaries would just stay in the Union.
Our post-Civil-Rights-Era world is mostly oblivious to our Sixteenth President in his own time. We have placed him, as we have seemingly all other historical personages of note, in a vacuum divorced from the sequence of history in which he actually lived. We know him only for preserving the Union and freeing the slaves; the former may very well be true, but the latter must, notwithstanding Lincoln’s war measure and his late abolitionism, be attributed to Congress and the Thirteenth Amendment.
Lincoln only really became an “abolitionist” as we conceive it when it was clear that abolition — that is, immediate and uncompensated emancipation — would help end the Civil War just as slavery itself had started it. In terms of singular impact, he was the Great Emancipator, but he was by no means the great abolitionist of his age.
With his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln freed all the slaves not in Union territory — all the slaves he could not technically “free” until the military occupied the area. In effect, no slaves were actually freed, but it was federal law that they would be.
Lincoln foresaw the end of slavery, but he knew that abolition was contingent on the end of the War and a Union preserved. He supported abolition as President such that the War could be won and the Union preserved. Thus while Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the strict sense, he probably did more than any other abolitionist to not only free the slaves, but also ensure their freedom “thenceforth and forever.” Lincoln should not be known as the Great Emancipator, but rather as the greatest president in our history.