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Class Year

2020

Abstract

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was a gamble. If it were to succeed, it could cripple the economy of the South, decimating its war effort, drive the border states to accept compensated emancipation, ending slavery as an institution in the United States, and accelerate the end of the war, ensuring the endurance of the United States of America. If it were to fail, it could spur the border states to secede, galvanizing the South, render Abraham Lincoln a political pariah with two years remaining in his term, deflating the North, and encourage European states to broker a two-state solution in North America, sending the concept of the American republic to the history books as a failed experiment. Lincoln appreciated these high stakes as he methodically built the case for emancipation during the first two years of his presidency, drawing on his decades of experience in Illinois courthouses to develop what would be the most consequential legal argument he would ever have to make. That Lincoln had long thought slavery was a moral wrong was insufficient justification to decree its demise; he had to build a case that could withstand scrutiny from an adversarial federal court system and avoid a legal challenge until after the war, when he could pursue the permanent recourse available only through a constitutional amendment. This paper explores the legal and political arguments Lincoln and his critics proffered and weighs the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation.

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