On this day a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln issued the first version of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of this nation’s most important political documents and the beginning of the official transformation of the Union’s wartime strategy to the goal of freeing enslaved Americans. His proclamation warned the Confederate states that if they remained in rebellion against the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln as commander-in-chief would on that day declare all slaves to be free in areas under Confederate control. Lincoln’s measure came just five days after the agonizingly costly Northern victory at Antietam, easily the bloodiest single day in American military history.
The decision to issue the proclamation may have been one of the most politically dangerous wagers ever made by an American president. An essay in yesterday’s New York Times by Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, points out that Lincoln received warning from fellow Republicans that he had just lost the upcoming elections for the Republican Party. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair warned that it would “endanger our power in Congress, and put the next House of Representatives in the hands of those opposed to the war, or to our mode of carrying it on.” Southerners would be outraged by the decision, seeing it as confirmation of every fear that had driven them to secession and war.
We often forget that Lincoln was an unpopular president, a plurality president elected with about 40 percent of the popular vote in an election with three other candidates, and a president during a controversial war killing more Americans than all of the nation’s other wars combined up to that time. With that in mind, I have often considered the Emancipation Proclamation, written as it is in the dull prose of a lawyer, the greatest and most principled statement of moral leadership by any president. Lincoln lived by the words of the Declaration of Independence and those words are ringing enough for all times. It was through that presidential proclamation, its twin issued in 1863, and the gutsy decision to fight a great war to purposeful victory that made the words of both documents matter for all Americans. Liberty is measured by results, not by the number of rhetorical flourishes in an executive order or the flowery prose displayed on a TelePrompter.