On May 20, the Mount Vernon Democratic Banner published the proclamation from Gen. David Hunter purporting to free all the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Editor Lecky Harper was, of course, appalled. But he was somewhat placated when President Lincoln overruled Hunter’s order. Lincoln’s proclamation was published in the May 27 Banner. It included the following key paragraph:
“I furthermore make known that whether it be competent for me as commander-in-chief of the army and navy to declare the slaves of any State or States free, and whether at any time or in any case it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the Government to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility I reserve to myself, and which I cannot feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field. These are totally different questions from those of police regulations in armies and camps.”
This is one of those areas where Lincoln’s political acumen shows up. He voids Hunter’s order, which placates those who will not support a war to abolish slavery, but he doesn’t rule out taking a similar step in the future in his role as the commander in chief.
He also makes it clear that army commanders are free to make decisions on slaves as a police issue. That includes refusing to turn escaped slaves over to Confederate authorities as Ben Butler did in Virginia, or paying them to work as laborers for the army, as many commanders did.
But the power to issue any general order of emancipation would be his alone.
Lincoln’s order gratified Harper. He wrote: “The President, we are now gratified to state, has very promptly issued his Proclamation declaring that the “order” of Gen. Hunter so far as it undertook to set the slaves of any State free, ‘is altogether void.’ If, in addition to this, the President had dismissed the Crazy abolitionist from the army, his act would have won the praise of all conservative men.
“There are some things in the President’s Proclamation which we do not approve of, especially that portion wherein he reiterates his old emancipation policy — advising the Southern State to initiate abolition measures, and promising the aid of the government ...
“But so far as the President has annulled Gen. Hunter’s Proclamation, he shall have our hearty support. The act is worthy of all praise. It has extracted a considerable portion of the brimstone and poison from the devil’s own agents here on earth, the Abolitionists.”
Harper may have thought all “schemes of emancipation ... whether they emanate from the President, Congress or army officers ... are all alike unconstitutional,” but did he really miss that what Lincoln was saying was that such an act was his decision to make, not an army officer’s?