So there is a legitimate question, and it's a potent one: How do we understand what led to the moment of emancipation? How do we answer the question, who freed the slaves? Well, it's easy enough if we want to shift credit entirely away from Lincoln, to challenge that myth of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator who single-handedly liberated, by the end of the war, some four million enslaved souls. Time and again he declared he had no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery where it existed. He said that he would support the rights of states to order their own institutions; he would support the property rights of slaveholders; he would support the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act; he would support nearly any scheme, it seemed, that would remove the black presence from the United States. "The liberation of slaves," he said, "is not within the range of military law or government necessity." We could cite example after example, even before the war started, of ways in which Lincoln seems not to be willing to act toward emancipation.
For example, in February of 1861—of course the war starts in April—he supported a proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution. And most of us remember that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that we have is the amendment that abolishes slavery. Well, this was a very different 13th Amendment. This 13th Amendment, had it been ratified, would have guaranteed slavery against the interference of the federal government. Lincoln quietly, passively supported this as a last-minute effort to try and compromise prior to war erupting.
Early in the war, it seems, he not only made few moves toward abolition, but he rescinded the orders of military leaders who were taking it upon their own hands to say that the slaves who came into Union lines should be freed, orders declaring slaves who came into the lines free forever. In rescinding those orders, Lincoln said that "Such actions will turn Southern Union friends against us." And here is something else to look for when thinking about Lincoln: his preoccupation with Southern Union friends, particularly the slaveholding border states that remain tenuously in the Union. So he was concerned that any sort of action toward liberating the slaves would take Maryland and Kentucky and Missouri, all of whom had stayed in the Union, and immediately have them join forces with the Confederacy. That seems to be his preoccupation.