On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring free Africans Americans held as slaves in areas under Confederate control. This followed his September 22, 1862, preliminary proclamation, which warned those in rebellious states that they could save their “peculiar institution” by laying down their arms and renewing their allegiance to the Unites States within one hundred days. Reaction to the proclamation in Illinois—like that in the Union as a whole-varied from condemnation to approbation.Mass meetings to express opinions
Reactions of the two political parties came quickly. Political leaders from throughout Illinois gathered in Springfield for the January 5, 1863, opening of the new legislature. They soon followed the old practice of holding public meetings during the legislative gathering to develop and stake out their stands on emancipation.
Democrats condemn the president and his policy
Democrats, who held majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, called a public meeting for that very evening to condemn the Lincoln administration and its policies, especially the emancipation of African American slaves. Representatives Hall was reported to be filled, while “Hundreds came and went away, unable to obtain entrance.” A committee on resolutions met to develop an official statement of belief, while speeches were made condemning national war policy. The resolutions committee’s statement was enthusiastically adopted, laying out the Illinois Democratic position on emancipation. It condemned Lincoln’s action, charging him with changing the purpose of the war, creating radical and highly dangerous social change, and encouraging the kind of violent uprising of enslaved people envisioned by men such as Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown:
“Resolved, That the emancipation proclamation of the president of the United States is as unwarrantable in military as in civil law; a gigantic usurpation, at once converting the war, professedly commenced by the administration for the vindication of the authority of the constitution, into a crusade for the sudden, unconditional and violent liberation of three millions of negro slaves; a result of which would not only be a total subversion of the Federal union, but a revolution in the social organization of the southern states, the immediate and remote, the present and far-reaching consequences of which to both races cannot be contemplated without the most dismal forebodings of horror and dismay. The proclamation invites servile insurrection as an element in this emancipation crusade-a means of warfare, the inhumanity and diabolism of which are without example in civilized warfare, and which we denounce, and which all the civilized world will denounce, as an ineffaceable disgrace to the American name.”
Leading Democrats spoke again at a meeting on January 8. This time they generally condemned Lincoln’s management of the war and the arrest of administration opponents. Several advocated peace even if it included disunion. A single speaker spoke against the Lincoln administration but emphasized support for the struggle against rebels who would destroy the Union established by the Founders with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
Republicans stand with their leader
Republicans held their first public meeting in Representatives Hall on January 9. Again, the chamber was reported to be packed, with hundreds turned away for lack of room. “[P]atriotic Union ladies of Springfield and other parts of the State-those who are daily laboring with their hands for their brothers, relatives and friends in the field” composed a large part of the audience. A special level of patriotism and support from Illinois soldiers was suggested by decorating the front of the room with the bullet-riddled flags of several regiments.
The main feature of the evening was a speech by Major General Richard J. Oglesby, who had been nearly killed three months before at the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi. Oglesby’s speech emphasized the importance of supporting the war to preserve the Union, referencing the Emancipation Proclamation as a necessary action on the part of the Lincoln administration to preserve the Union.
“This proclamation is a great thing, perhaps the greatest thing that has occurred in this century. It is too big for us to realize. When we fully comprehend what it is we shall like it better than we do now.”
On January 15 Republicans held another meeting, this one to adopt formal resolutions supporting the actions of President Lincoln in fighting the rebellion. One of them touched upon the proclamation:
“Resolved, That the Constitution of the United States confers upon the Government of the same all the powers necessary to the effectual suppression of the rebellion… and to this end it may deprive them [those in rebellion] of life, liberty or property if required, in its judgment, and that an imperious necessity demanded of the President of the United States the issuing of his proclamation of freedom to the slaves in the rebellious States… and we pledge ourselves to sustain him in the same.”
Emancipation as a military necessity united Republicans, many of whom did not oppose slavery primarily on humanitarian grounds.Illinois troops respond
In his January 9 speech General (and later governor) Richard Oglesby, lately arrived from the war front, commented, “You want to know about the proclamation, and what the army thinks about it. I do not know the sentiment of the army. No man knows the sentiment of so large a body of men.” The sentiments of Illinoisans in the service began to trickle in, mostly through letters to friends and family, many of which found their way into local newspapers. Some condemned Lincoln’s proclamation and perceived evils that they saw arising from it, including racial mixing. Many more supported emancipation, not as a move toward human rights but as a blow against traitors who wished to kill them. Depriving rebels of slave property removed a source of labor that could be used by Confederates against Union troops. Practicality aside, emancipation also punished people who had turned against the nation.
How did Illinois African Americans note the day?
It is not possible to know exactly how Illinois African Americans reacted to the January 1 proclamation. Meetings likely were held in those towns that were home to a black population of any size. Certainly more concerned with emancipation’s meaning for its white readers, the press (an all-white institution in the Illinois of 1863) seems to have given such meetings very little notice. Frederick Douglass’ Monthly reported that “At Chicago, as our Western correspondent ‘PILGRIM’ reports, the colored people celebrated the gladsome New Year’s Day with appropriate public festivities-feeling sure of the coming of the Proclamation, before it was issued.”
Interested in learning more?
It is possible to get an idea of reaction to emancipation in Illinois towns by reading their locally published newspapers. A catalog of Illinois newspapers on microfilm available for loan through the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library can be found online at http://www.illinoishistory.gov/lib/newspaper.htm
Studies of the reactions of Illinoisans to emancipation include Bruce Tap, “Race, Rhetoric, and Emancipation: The Election of 1862 in Illinois,” Civil War History 39 (1993): 101-25. David W. Adams, “Illinois Soldiers and the Emancipation Proclamation,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 67 (1974): 406-21 can be found online at http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-1974sept/ishs-1974sept-406.pdf