Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted by Pete on Jan 1st 2021

Today in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed emancipation.

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, painted by Francis Carpenter in 1864

"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."

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.

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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,

“…the emancipation of the Negro is the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy. The South rave a great deal about it and profess to be very angry.”

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,

"Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be."

And the Mayor of Manchester – a Northern English town with a radical political tradition – wrote to Lincoln on behalf of his city,

"We joyfully honour you for many decisive steps toward practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders: ‘All men are created free and equal’."

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.

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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,

"God won’t let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing.”

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.

"There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation."

That remains as true and urgent today as it was when Dr King said it in 1962.

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