04/02/2012 02:42 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

At 'Big Tent' Politics, Lincoln Was the Best

Mitt Romney's travails in the Republican primaries and President Obama's constant sparring with Congress have helped my students appreciate how hard it is to stick to your guns if you're trying to lead either of the two main political parties. Succeeding at "big tent" politics requires a sense of timing and flexibility. Some refer to the latter as "flip-flopping," but only when their opponents do it.

Considering historical examples, the class decided no president or presidential candidate ever played this game for higher stakes, or better, than Abraham Lincoln. 2012 happens to mark the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's unveiling of a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which was a prototype of big-tent politics.

The president had avoided directly confronting slavery while in office, but increasing pressure from abolitionists, the need for a greater Union cause, and concern that Britain might side with the Confederacy finally spurred him to act. The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, shortly after a Northern victory of sorts at Antietam.

The first time my students read this very brief document, they took it to be what the title suggests -- a freeing of the slaves. After a second look, though, they noticed that only the slaves in states "still in rebellion" were declared free as of Jan. 1, 1863. And, as one student pointed out, Lincoln had little power to free slaves in states outside his control. After a third read, it dawned on the class that, as one student put it, "This is an offer to the Southerners to keep their slaves if they end the rebellion by January 1st, 1863."

They looked at each other. That couldn't be right: This was the Emancipation Proclamation. Yes, and this was big-tent politics -- little steps toward big goals.

Black leaders in the South understood exactly what Lincoln was doing. Two years later, a group of them discussed the war and the future of "the colored people in the rebel states" with Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Their spokesman, Garrison Frazier, who had been a slave until 1856, voiced his understanding of the proclamation: that if the Confederates "would lay down their arms and submit to the laws of the United States before the 1st of January, 1863, all should be well; but if they did not, then all the slaves in the rebel states should be free henceforth and forever."

The proclamation was phrased so that the fate of the slaves appeared to be in the hands of their rebel owners. Many abolitionists were angry that Lincoln had not gone further. Frazier and his colleagues were realists, however, and they knew that the president's loyalty was to the Union, not to them.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not directly free any slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, but it did change the focus of the war. What had officially been a struggle to preserve the Union also became a crusade to end slavery.

Lincoln's death secured his status as "the Great Emancipator" while others were left to sort out the legacy of slavery, including the legal status of the "freedmen." Ironically, his immediate successor, Andrew Johnson, failed so utterly as a big-tent politician that he was impeached by his own party in the aftermath of the war. Romney's problems pale in comparison.

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