“I hope to have God on our side, but I must have Kentucky.” –Abraham Lincoln
This week (Aug. 30) in 1861, the Union’s military commander of the West, General John C. Fremont, issued an emancipation proclamation freeing the slaves of all “disloyal persons” in Missouri, one of the slave-holding border states that had not (yet) left the Union and joined the Confederacy. Fremont’s proclamation was celebrated by abolitionists throughout the North, including countless members of the Republican Party.
And then the head of that party, and leader of the Union North, President Abraham Lincoln, promptly reversed Fremont’s order, effectively putting those Missouri slaves back in bondage. He was reviled by abolitionists and Republicans throughout the North. He was called a hypocrite and moral coward for seeming to disavow his own previous position that slavery was an abomination and a sin against nature.
But let’s look at it from Lincoln’s standpoint. First, as president he was charged with upholding the Constitution, and the Constitution specifically protected slavery in those states, including Missouri, that were a part of the Union at that time. Lincoln had sought the presidency to prevent slavery from expanding into the new territories and states the nation was acquiring, which Lincoln believed the Constitution did not protect.
More to the point, had Lincoln not countermanded Fremont’s order, Missouri’s neighboring border state, Kentucky, which also was still in the Union and also still permitted slavery, might well have joined the Confederacy. Lincoln believed that a Confederacy that included Kentucky and Missouri would win the Civil War because its military power and its manufacturing capacity would have increased by one-third. Whatever Lincoln’s personal beliefs about slavery, his first duty as president was to preserve the Union, which meant winning the Civil War. As he once wrote to abolitionist Horace Greeley, the North’s most powerful newspaper publisher, whichever course of action would best save the Union — freeing all slaves, freeing no slaves, or freeing some slaves here and ignoring others there — that is what he would do.
Powerful, populous Kentucky was the key. Its citizens were split about 50-50 on whether to support the Union or the Confederacy. Therefore, as Lincoln knew, any radical act that Kentuckians perceived as threatening their interests and their sovereignty would tip the balance. And being a slave-holding state on Missouri’s border, Kentucky viewed Fremont’s radical emancipation order as a direct threat to its sovereign right to permit slavery if it wanted to.
And so Lincoln countermanded Fremont’s order, kept both Missouri and Kentucky in the Union, and won the Civil War. Soon afterwards all of the slaves were freed by an amendment to the Constitution, the 13th Amendment, whose leading proponent was — Abraham Lincoln.