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Lincoln's Attack on Property Rights

The other day we listed the Emancipation Proclamation as a bold economic event and not necessarily a bold civil rights event.

So here, on the 146th anniversary of the proclamation announcing the Emancipation Proclamation (that's not a typo; that's government), let's take a look at why we said that.

The biggest misconception about the proclamation is that it "freed the slaves." In fact, it only freed slaves who were laboring in the Confederacy, and furthermore, it freed slaves only in those areas that the Union didn't control.

To quote the proclamation:

That on the 1st day of January, A. D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

Slaves in states that didn't break away were not covered, so slaves in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri were not freed; nor were slaves in areas that the Union had control of, such as what would become West Virginia and the conquered Tennessee.

Nor did it give any of those who were to be freed any rights, other than the right not to be a slave. But it did give loyal folks who might lose their slaves under the proclamation some rights — specifically, the right to be reimbursed for their loss of property:

And the Executive will in due time recommend that all citizens of the United States who shall have remained loyal thereto throughout the rebellion shall, upon the restoration the constitutional relation between the United States and their respective States and people, if that relation shall have been suspended or disturbed, be compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves.

In short, the act told those in the Confederacy that when the Union triumphed, the rebels were going to take a huge economic hit, and Uncle Sam was not going to make them economically whole. (Historian James L. Huston has cited various contemporaneous estimates of slaves' value to the South, ranging from $2 billion in 1850 to $2.8 billion in 1860. Using various calculators, including this one, puts the value at $97 billion in current dollars, although that seems awfully low in these days of $85 billion bailouts and $700 billion recovery plans.)

And the entire decision was pitched as a war measure, not an appeal to a higher authority. In outlining his authority to emancipate rebels' slaves, Lincoln cited the Confiscation Act passed by Congress earlier in the year, which stated that in beating down the insurrection it was OK "to seize and confiscate the property of rebels." In that sense, the Union might just as soon confiscate someone's mules or plow as free his or her slaves.

Of course, having made our point, it's obvious that the proclamation nonetheless was a civil rights moment, one of the reasons Abraham Lincoln waited until after the "victory" at Antietam on Sept. 17 before issuing a document that all realized changed the war from a civil war to a moral crusade.

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