One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Here’s the money quote:
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
The proclamation was limited, as the National Archives’ online exhibit on the document (linked above) makes clear:
It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.
It was, however, critical:
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.
Lincoln faced criticism at the time for the proclamation — from the Confederacy, of course, who threatened all kinds of terrors for any captured black soldiers and their officers, black or white — and also from some of his own supporters, for whom the cautious limitations of the document seemed weak in the face of an obvious moral imperative. Most famously, in the autumn of 1862, Lincoln himself disavowed overt abolitionism in the most public of possible ways in a letter to Horace Greeley, the great abolitionist publisher and editor of the The New York Tribune. Historian Eugene Berwanger writes:
Between the cabinet meeting in July and the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Lincoln sought to prepare the citizenry for its impact. Hence the letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, in which Lincoln offered ample justification of his views on slavery vis à vis the Union. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by Page [End Page 31] freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about salvery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.”…
Caution, constraint, a limited view of ends — all on display there, in what seems as clear as could be an indictment of the limits of Lincoln’s moral universe. Except, of course, that Lincoln was no Elijah, a prophet alone, with no duty but to the compulsion within. Berwanger continues:
However, when the letter is given proper chronological context, showing that Lincoln had already formulated the Emancipation Proclamation and was merely awaiting the propitious moment for its announcement, the statement takes on a different tone. It was Lincoln’s own way of softening the blow of military emancipation for the conservative elements. In a sense, he was preparing the public for what he knew was to come. By stressing the Union as his primary concern, Lincoln hoped to make emancipation more palatable for those opposing it. And, of course, the best way to reach as wide an audience as possible was through the New York Tribune, the largest newspaper in the nation. Even as he issued the final document to the nation in 1863, Lincoln continued to stress the theme of military necessity for emancipation.
And what of the actual limits of the Proclamation, most notably the refusal to free slaves already under Union authority? Here’s a reminder of the circumstances in which Lincoln constructed his document:
… Lincoln, ever the careful lawyer, knew that his presidential `war powers’ only ran as far as actual warfare ran, and neither the border states nor the occupied districts were at war with federal authority on January 1, 1863. Making the proclamation legally challenge-proof forced him to restrain “my oft expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free,” as well as muting any flights of eloquence about justice. Still, the Proclamation not only provided the legal title to freedom that slaves could claim once the Union armies arrived, it also opened the gates to the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. And once in the uniform of the Union, Lincoln could no longer keep up the pretense of denying blacks equal civil rights. “As I live,” Lincoln promised a crowd of jubilant blacks in Richmond in April, 1865, “no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.”
I’ll leave as a sermon unsaid the resonance Lincoln’s reticence in the face of political realities may have during the presidency of his first African-American successor. Better, I think, simply to celebrate the day when the United States took one step — a great one, but only one — towards its ideal of a more perfect Union.
A lagniappe: I heard on the radio today that Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society performed yesterday at the Museum of African American History in town, singing selections from their concert in 1863 celebrating the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation. According to the report I heard, the program included this piece.
(and yes — I know that this performance is not from H & H. I liked some of the other associations. Sue me.)
Images: Francis Bicknell Carpenter, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, 1864
Unknown artist, lithograph portrait of Major Martin R. Delaney, the highest ranking black officer in the Union Army 1865.