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.