According to the standard narrative maintained by the North, Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation brought about a new moral aim that justified a particularly bloody conflict. The act is often described as a device that would usher in a new age where angelic Northerners suddenly abandoned their racist past in favor of a fair, more equitable course for enslaved men. From that point onward, the story goes, the highest Northern political officials were wholly devoted to the cause of abolition within the states.
However, written records from this timeframe demonstrate a starkly divergent reality. Several significant circumstances from 1863-1865 illustrate that the most prominent leaders within the Union government, including President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, were entirely willing to compromise on slavery. This case is most easily demonstrated by the events leading up to and including the Hampton Roads Conference of 1865.
The Union’s inclination to offer compromise on the issue of slavery truly began with the proposed Corwin Amendment of 1861, but resurfaced in the year prior to the conference. In late 1864, Seward opined that if the seceded states abandoned their quest for independence, the matter of slavery would fall entirely to “the arbitrament of courts of law, and to the councils of legislation.”
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