April 1862 The Civil War

American Civilization

An Atlantic founder argues vehemently for the emancipation of the slaves.

Shown in this 1861 cartoon, Union General in Chief Winfield Scott’s plan to win the war involved sealing Confederate ports and gaining control of the Mississippi River. The notion was ridiculed by those who thought the war would be too brief to warrant such a strategy. As the war pressed on, though, the once-dismissed idea became a key factor in the Union’s victory. (MP/Getty Images)


For abolitionists, the key issue at stake in the war was slavery. But even President Lincoln, who found slavery repugnant, had run for office on a platform committed merely to containing the institution—rather than eliminating it altogether. As the war dragged on, however, and casualties mounted, the Union sought a way to break the stalemate. Both Congress and the president began to consider emancipation, which would change not only the moral but also the tactical calculus of the war.

In late January 1862, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution, urging emancipation and emphasizing that only ending slavery would end the conflict. Two days later, he visited Lincoln at the White House. Three months after that, the text of his speech (along with some additional paragraphs commending Lincoln for steps he had since taken toward emancipation) appeared in The Atlantic. Within a year, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

—Sage Stossel

The highest proof of civility is, that the whole public action of the State is directed on securing the greatest good of the greatest number.

Our Southern States have introduced confusion into the moral sentiments of their people, by reversing this rule in theory and practice, and denying a man’s right to his labor …

Labor of each for all, is the health and virtue of all beings … Well, now here comes this conspiracy of slavery,—they call it an institution, I call it a destitution,—this stealing of men and setting them to work,—stealing their labor, and the thief sitting idle himself …

We cannot but remember that there have been days in American history, when, if the Free States had done their duty, Slavery had been blocked by an immovable barrier, and our recent calamities forever precluded. The Free States yielded, and every compromise was surrender, and invited new demands. Here again is a new occasion which Heaven offers to sense and virtue. It looks as if we held the fate of the fairest possession of mankind in our hands, to be saved by our firmness or to be lost by hesitation …

Emancipation is the demand of civilization. That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue …

Congress can, by edict, as a part of the military defense which it is the duty of Congress to provide, abolish slavery, and pay for such slaves as we ought to pay for. Then the slaves near our armies will come to us: those in the interior will know in a week what their rights are, and will, where opportunity offers, prepare to take them. Instantly, the armies that now confront you must run home to protect their estates, and must stay there, and your enemies will disappear …

There can be no safety until this step is taken … We have too much experience of the futility of an easy reliance on the momentary good dispositions of the public. There does exist, perhaps, a popular will that the Union shall not be broken,—that our trade, and therefore our laws, must have the whole breadth of the continent, and from Canada to the Gulf. But, since this is the rooted belief and will of the people, so much the more are they in danger, when impatient of defeats, or impatient of taxes, to go with a rush for some peace, and what kind of peace shall at that moment be easiest attained: they will make concessions for it,—will give up the slaves; and the whole torment of the past half century will come back to be endured anew.

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