“… Thenceforward, and Forever Free …”: The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Happy New Year. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the implementation of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Although I have noted at length elsewhere the significance of this document and how it changed the goals of the U.S. Civil War, it is still fitting to acknowledge this noteworthy day in U.S. history.

Lincoln issued the preliminary preliminary proclamation on  Sept. 22, 1862, when  it served as a warning to those states in rebellion that if they did not return back to the Union within 100 days, all the slaves in those states would be set free. It also issued an invitation to black Americans to join the Union Army and Navy. This two-pronged economic and military strategy that targeted slavery’s importance to the Confederacy as “the engine of war” (as Lincoln put it) ultimately became one of the chief reasons the North was victorious. With its issuance, both Northern Copperheads and Southern Democrats claimed Lincoln had transformed the Civil War into a race war. Black Americans celebrated its practical effect: More than 50,000 slaves in territory under Union control were immediately freed, despite the obvious fact that the Confederacy would ignore the war-time order and millions remained in bondage. Yet, slaves escaped from the South by the tens of thousands, bound to cross Union lines and join the republic’s military in a fight for their freedom.

Traditionally, the Emancipation Proclamation has fared poorly when estimated by many historians. Richard Hofstadter famously and bluntly stated the document “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading and did not in fact free any slaves.  Surprising no one who knows Howard Zinn’s work, the late Howard Zinn called it a sop given by a racist Lincoln to Radical Republicans in order to maintain unity in a fractious Republican Party. Despite the renown of both scholars, their assessments miss the mark. Lincoln, a man who repeatedly embraced Jeffersonian principles in his personal struggle for success and his political development during public life, issued what Allen Guelzo called the last great Enlightenment political document of 19th century America. Lincoln would expand his understanding of Jeffersonian liberty further in the Gettysburg Address, a rhetorical explanation of the Civil War’s role as bloody midwife during the country’s new birth of freedom.

The Emancipation Proclamation was no empty gesture, no piece of political wheeling and dealing.  “When the Proclamation was issued,” one former slave told a congressional committee, “that was when I decided to flee my master.”  Another said, “I have been a slave from my childhood up to the time I was set free by the Emancipation Proclamation.” As one Union officer noted, the slaves then had “a spirit of independence—a feeling they are no longer slaves.” You cannot enslave a people who know they are free.


Filed under Commentary, Scholarship and Historians

3 responses to ““… Thenceforward, and Forever Free …”: The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

  1. Thanks for a great analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation and its effects. Abraham Lincoln has been a fascinating study for me for years now, and I’ve always appreciated his masterful use of language. It’s interesting that he embraced Jeffersonian principles – I find Jefferson and his writing rather enigmatic, requiring many readings to fully appreciate, while Lincoln’s style hits the mark more directly and forcefully. Two great men with lasting contributions to our country and society, both with their own stamp.

    • paulrhuard

      Deanne, thank you for stopping by and reading my post. Both Jefferson and Lincoln obviously were masters of rhetoric, although Lincoln was the superior public speaker. If you are interested, I recommend two studies of their use of language: “The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence,” by Stephen Lucas (an on-line version is here: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_style.html) and Ronald C. White Jr. “The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words” (a review essay from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association is here: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0027.106?rgn=main;view=fulltext). Lincoln’s debt to the ideas of Thomas Jefferson are well examined at the Lincoln Institute’s Web site “Mr. Lincoln and the Founders (http://www.mrlincolnandthefounders.org/). Your own musings on the use of language are always fascinating and I enjoy visiting your blog. Please accept my best wishes for the new year.

      • Hi Paul-
        Thank you, thank you for the great links. Anytime I can learn more about either the Founding Fathers or especially Lincoln, I’m thrilled. I’ll be sure to check these out – getting more background on these interesting men adds a great depth to my understanding of our nation’s history. I have several books of Lincoln’s speeches that I’ve delved into, both for learning and inspiration.
        Thanks for your kind comments – keep visiting and my best wishes for a great 2013 to you, too!

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