ABRAHAM LINCOLN, employing the Constitution's WAR POWERS, announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It had its roots in ABOLITIONIST CONSTITUTIONAL THEORY. Although Lincoln's swift rise in the Republican party was due in part to his outspoken opposition to the extension of SLAVERY, on the outset of the war he was bound by the Constitution (Article IV, section 2) and federal laws on FUGITIVE SLAVES that required federal officials to return runaways, even to disloyal owners. Politically ambitious Union general George B. McClellan, a conservative would-be Democratic presidential candidate, sternly enforced the 1850 law; generals BENJAMIN F. BUTLER and John Charles Frémont, by contrast, refused to return runaways in their commands and armed some against rebel guerrillas. Lincoln countermanded the latter's orders to dim the issue of arming Negroes and to keep policy in civilians' hands.
Negroes continued to flee to Union lines no matter what orders civilians or generals issued. Awareness grew in the Union army and among bluecoats' families and other correspondents that almost the only trustworthy southerners were blacks. Gradually, sentiment increased that to return runaways was indecent and illogical, for slaves were the South's labor force. In Congress, with few exceptions, Democrats remained uneducable on the runaway issue and damned as unconstitutional any mass emancipation whether by EXECUTIVE ORDER or statute and whether or not involving colonization of freedmen abroad or compensation to loyal owners. Republicans, from Lincoln down, altered their opinions on race matters. Some northern states softened racist BLACK CODE clauses in constitutions and civil and criminal laws; some made laws color-blind. Congress, in addition to the CONFISCATION ACTS and with Lincoln's assent, enacted laws in March, April, and June 1862, respectively, that prohibited military returns of disloyal owners' runaways without requiring a judicial verdict of disloyalty, ended slavery in the DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA with compensation to owners, and forbade slavery in the federal TERRITORIES, thus challenging part of DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD (1857). In effect, Republicans, retaining their basic view of the Constitution as an adaptable instrument, were adopting aspirations that abolitionist constitutionalists had long advanced.
Fearing conservative gains in the 1862 congressional and state elections, congressional Republicans...