I’m haunted by the sense that I’ve written this post, or something very much like it, already. Worse still, I’m almost certain that what I wrote before was much better than what I’m about to write this time. But I can’t find the old post. So I guess I’d better do this again. My mind truly is a funhouse filled with mirrors. Anyway…

On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The document did not free any slaves; instead it warned the Confederacy that the consequences of continuing the rebellion were about to change. The previous July, Lincoln had explained that: “This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.”

After first floating another in a long series of proposals for compensated emancipation — slaveholders rejected the offer out of hand — Lincoln embraced emancipation. On July 22, he informed his cabinet that he would soon issue a proclamation freeing the slaves. Secretary of State Seward suggested that Lincoln should wait until Union troops enjoyed a victory in the field. Seward argued that Lincoln’s proclamation would then have more weight, rather than looking like “the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help.” Lincoln agreed.

Then he waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, on September 17, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed at Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the war, abruptly ending Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. Five days later, Lincoln again called his cabinet together. He explained that he had struck a deal with the Almighty: if the army could drive the rebels out of Maryland, he had promised God that he would issue his Emancipation Proclamation. “I wish it were a better time,” he worried. “I wish that we were in better condition.” He proceeded anyway.

The Proclamation stated that unless the Confederate states returned to the Union before January 1, their slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” That sounds good in theory. But in practice, the document was pretty weak tea. Its conditions would only apply to those states still in rebellion when the New Year began. Which is to say, territory where federal authorities had no ability to enforce it. As the London Times explained: “Where he has no power Mr. Lincoln will set the negroes free; where he retains power he will consider them as slaves.”

True enough. But that characterization partly missed the point. Lincoln believed that the Constitution bound his authority. In his capacity as Commander in Chief, he could seize property in territory rebelling against the government. But in areas loyal to the Union, or those occupied by Union troops, he had no such power. More than that, the Proclamation revealed that Lincoln’s view of the war had shifted. As he explained: “The character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation. The South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.”

As for the details of the Emancipation Proclamation, like Lincoln’s war aims, they evolved over time. But that’s a story we’ll take up in the New Year. Hey! Wait just a second! I think I know where to look for that missing post. Yup, there it is.