"I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator," Obama said. "As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African-American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a military document than a clarion call for justice."Well, d'uh. Of course it was a military document. Lincoln made no bones about that. Lincoln firmly believed that he didn't have the Constitutional authority to free the slaves. He feared that if he did so by executive action or even through a bill in Congress then the Supreme Court, which a few years previously had ruled in the Dred Scott decision that Congress couldn't even legislate about slavery in the territories, would strike down any such emancipation. The cause of abolition would have been set back even further with such a Supreme Court decision. Remeber that Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice and author of the Dred Scott decision didn't die until 1864. The Emancipation Proclamation was initially issued in the Fall of 1862 and went into effect New Years Day, 1863. So Lincoln had a very legitimate Constitutional concern. Even back then, presidents had to worry about a contrary Supreme Court. What would happen to freed slaves after the War, if the Supreme Court had struck down such a non-military emancipation. Lincoln feared that they would be re-enslaved.
So, how could he free the slaves? He decided that he could only do so using his authority as Commander in Chief. That is why it had to be a military decision. That is why he only freed the slaves in the territory that was still in rebellion rather than in the border states or in places where the Union army had already defeated the Confederates. His only legitimacy for emancipating the slaves lay in using the action to weaken those areas still fighting, not areas that had already surrendered or never seceded. Those who criticize Lincoln for not doing more to emancipate the slaves don't understand his very real Constitutional worries.
So how did the Southern slaves get freed? By Union armies going into the South and defeating Confederate armies. There would have been no freedom for slaves without that military action. And Union success wouldn't have meant emancipation without Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Finally, the 13th Amendment in December 1865 freed all the remaining slaves. And that would have been impossible without the Union victory which gave the Congress the stick to hold over the Southern states and force them to ratify the Amendment in order to come back into the Union. No Union victory, no emancipation. No Lincoln, no Union victory.
Barack Obama should stop bragging about his erudition and do a bit more reading. I recommend the sublime book, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by Allen Guelzo, the 2005 winner of the Lincoln Prize. Guelzo does a superb job of detailing all the efforts that Lincoln made during the war to try to get the border states to free their slaves voluntarily and all the reasoning behind the eventual Proclamation. If you live in Illinois, perhaps you'd like to send a copy to your junior Senator.