Slavery & Emancipation

    Fremont's Proclamation  " 'The Pathfinder' As Dictator"  August 30, 1861

John C. Fremont, explorer of the West in the 1840s who became known as "The Pathfinder", was the first Republican candidate for president in 1856. In July 1861, Lincoln appointed him commander of the Western Department in hopes that his popularity would strengthen Union support in the Trans-Mississippi territories. This was an especially difficult command, because within its area lay volatile Missouri, a border state that was held in terror by secessionist guerillas.

In late August 1861, Fremont placed all of Missouri under martial law. He believed that slavery aided the guerillas and that a direct strike at that institution would crush them. On August 30, he issued his own "emancipation proclamation", declaring Missouri's slaves "forever free", without informing President Lincoln. This act, of course, far exceeded the authority of his position.

When he found out what Fremont had done, Lincoln asked him to modify his proclamation to conform to official policy, which under the Confiscation Act of 1861, freed only those slaves used by Confederates to aid the war effort and did not extend to general abolition. Fremont refused.

This placed the president, who later called Fremont's act "dictatorial", in a very difficult political position. He could not risk alienating the conservatives in this crucial border state; yet he did not to upset the Radical Republicans who were pressing for abolition. The president felt he needed to be cautious; at this stage of the war, Union victories were not numerous enough to justify bold political actions. Within weeks, Fremont was relieved of his command and his proclamation was revoked. Although this incident helped to sharpen the nation's focus on the need for abolition, Lincoln's slow-but-steady course was politically wiser.

Fascinating Fact:  After her husband was relived of his command, his loyal and high-tempered wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln and plead her husband's case. Her stormy and antagonistic meeting with the president probably harmed her husband's cause.

Back to index page