Today in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed emancipation.
First things first: Happy New Year!
What a relief it is to be out of 2020 – a feeling certainly not shared by Americans as they entered 1863.
The Civil War raged on with no sign of a Union victory on the horizon. Few, then, were experiencing relief.
But there was hope aplenty.
That’s because, on 1st January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his 'Emancipation Proclamation'.
Using the authority of his war powers as commander-in-chief, he declared forever free all enslaved people in areas of the US then in rebellion against the Union and encouraged escaped slaves to enlist in the Union army (which they did in huge numbers).
The Confederacy – and its dastardly sympathisers in the North – were enraged. General U. S. Grant reported from the frontline how,
Internationally, Lincoln’s Proclamation rallied popular support for the Union by firmly identifying the cause of its war effort with the abolition of slavery.
The Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi, wrote to the President,
And the Mayor of Manchester – a Northern English town with a radical political tradition – wrote to Lincoln on behalf of his city,
On the ground in the US, the immediate impact of the Proclamation was limited to somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 enslaved people – those in rebel territories held by the Union army at the beginning of 1863.
But as the Union advanced southward to victory, the Emancipation Proclamation became the legal basis on which around 3.5 million people were freed from slavery.
For this reason, it’s one of the most remarkable documents in the history of the US government.
The Proclamation was insufficient, of course, with the half a million slaves held in States loyal to the Union, like Maryland and Delaware, excluded. This is why a constitutional amendment was ultimately needed to do away with slavery in the US for good.
Still, the Emancipation Proclamation set America on the road to outright abolition – a truly radical development.
Indeed, it surprised many of Lincoln’s more conservative allies. Throughout 1861-2, the President had been repeatedly stressing that his fight was to restore the Union, not end slavery.
So, what pushed him over the edge?
Pressure from radical abolitionists was certainly part of it. Figures like Frederick Douglass and Thaddeus Stevens had been demanding Lincoln declare his support for full emancipation since the start of the war.
Referring to his continued refusal to endorse abolition in 1862, the heroic Harriet Tubman said,
Then there’s the question of Lincoln himself. Without doubt he was opposed to slavery, but there’s plenty of debate about his attitudes to abolition and race more generally.
How much did he walk and how much was he dragged to a more radical anti-slavery stance during the war?
In a sense, this doesn’t really matter.
The significance of the Emancipation Proclamation is less about what was going on in Abraham Lincoln’s heart and soul when he issued it than how it helped clear the road to freedom for millions of enslaved African Americans.
Nor is the liberating power of the document exhausted, even two centuries later.
That remains as true and urgent today as it was when Dr King said it in 1962.