Lincoln felt strongly the injustice of slavery. “I am naturally anti-slavery,” he wrote in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Yet he was careful never to describe it as a sin: Southerners were the victims of their particular circumstances. During the first year of the Civil War, to avoid scaring slave-owning loyalists in Kentucky and other border states, he had to be especially cautious when addressing slavery’s future.
Federal setbacks during the first half of 1862 led Lincoln to take the radical step he called indispensable to national salvation. In the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 22 September, he pointedly used dry, legalistic language to declare—as commander in chief, guided by the Constitution—that on 1 January 1863, those held as slaves in still rebellious areas “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Lincoln thereafter crafted more refined language to place emancipation within the ethical rationale for the war. African Americans were implicit in his commitment at Gettysburg to “a new birth of freedom.” When, in 1865, states began to ratify the emancipation amendment to the Constitution, he lauded this “King’s cure for all the evils.”