The Emancipation Proclamation

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September 22, 2009 by D Stack

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.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

Emancipation Proclmation, President Abraham Lincoln, September 22, 1862 (Excerpt, full text at National Archives)

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom…. Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

– Booker T. Washington

Today marks the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, By high school, most American students should know (I hope they do at least) that the statement “Lincoln freed the slaves” is an exaggeration. The Emancipation Proclamation, many will correctly point out, did not immediately free a single slave, given it only applied to slaves in rebelling territory. An equally valid point is that Lincoln was slow to come around to abolition. For example, he famously stated:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by 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 slavery, 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 to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

Frederick Douglass addressed this contradiction of Lincoln at an oration he gave at a dedication for a monument in memory of Lincoln in 1876. The Ashbrook Center reproduces it in its entirety. Find below a portion, discussing Lincoln’s slow evolution to an emancipator.

When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full, and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.

I think Douglass was quite accurate in his assessment. At the same time, as far as documents go, I think the Emancipation Proclamation is underrated as a historical document. Slavery would not be formally abolished in the entire nation until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But I do believe that Lincoln was on the stablest legal authority in the manner he freed slaves in the rebelling territories. Despite the reach attempted by advocates of an “imperial presidency”, a president’s powers, while great, are limited. To our nation’s eternal shame, slavery was indeed legal prior to the Thirteenth Amendment. It would have been beyond Lincoln’s power as president to make slavery illegal. But what he did do with the Emancipation Proclamation was use his powers as commander-in-chief against states and territories that were in open, armed rebellion against the government of the United States. Since military operations were required to end this rebellion, he was well within his rights as commander-in-chief to free those slaves in rebelling territories. As the Union armies advanced into Confederate territory, the Proclamation did indeed have a concrete effect, as slaves in retaken territory were then set free.

The Proclamation most certainly was calculated to have a political effect. It provided encouragement for border regions to come back to the Union prior to January 1, 1863,  without the emancipation of their slaves. It also made it practically impossible for European nations to support the Confederacy, transforming the Civil War into a war of liberation.

Abolitionists, Lincoln among them by this point, were concerned, probably justly, that there was no guarantee preventing slavery from being reinstated after bringing rebelling states back into the Union. Therefore they supported the Thirteenth Amendment which finally abolished slavery from the United States (followed shortly by the 14th and 15th Amendments to guarantee citizenship and voting rights, though it would take the 20th century civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s for these to be fully and universally realized).

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


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