President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 – exactly 150 years ago.
There is no greater evil in U.S. history than slavery, with the possible exception of the genocidal policies against Native Americans.
But there are other evils that exist today from which we could be emancipated. It is therefore worth reading the proclamation in its entirety (reprinted below) – for what it says, and for what it doesn’t say — and learning of the history behind it.
The United States government was declaring free the three million or so slaves who resided in the Confederacy (in other words, beyond the Union’s control), not the roughly 425,000 slaves who lived in the four “border states” — Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri — nor some 300,000 more slaves who lived in counties in Confederate states that were under Union control. Legally, the President was invoking the powers the United States Constitution gave to the chief executive in times of war or rebellion, and he felt he did not have the constitutional authority to override slavery in the loyal states. Politically, the representatives of those states feared that freeing the slaves in them would drive those states into the Confederacy.
It was also a practical maneuver, for the Proclamation also directed the United States Army to allow black men into their ranks. Ultimately, almost 200,000 of them served in the Union Army.
Lincoln had written the Proclamation in July, 1862, and read it to his Cabinet, a meeting celebrated by a famous painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter in 1864, which hangs today in the U.S. Capitol over the west staircase in the Senate wing.
Lincoln waited to make the Emancipation Proclamation official (on the advice of his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward) until the Union had won a major battle. This happened with the Battle of Antietam.
So-called Radical Republicans were afraid that President Lincoln wasn’t sufficiently committed to the freeing of the slaves and might retract the Emancipation Proclamation. They viewed him as conservative and dilatory. The timing of the proclamation was another example of Lincoln’s “exceptionally sensitive grasp of the limits set by public opinion,” writes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (the book that inspired the curent movie “Lincoln” which depicts the events leading up to the ratification of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery everywhere in the U.S. for good, which occurred in December 1865, nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation.) Lincoln himself wrote: “It is my conviction that, had the proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.”
But once written, Lincoln never had any intention of retracting the Proclamation. “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Exhibition Hall,
515 Malcolm X Boulevard
To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Schomburg presents 80 pre– and post– Civil War era photographs of enslaved and free black women, men, and children. The images record the presence of black soldiers and black workers in the American South and help the 21st century viewer reimagine a landscape of black people’s desire to be active in their own emancipation.
First Steps to Freedom, exhibition curriculum guide (pdf)
In Washington D.C., The National Archives will commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with a free special display of the original document January 1, 2013. The Emancipation Proclamation is displayed only for a limited time each year because of its fragility, which can be made worse by exposure to light, and the need to preserve it for future generations.
January 1, 1863
By the President of the United States of America:
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
Update: Historian Eric Foner writes in an Op-Ed today of how the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated Lincoln himself in a way — marked a turning point in his views:
“A military order, whose constitutional legitimacy rested on the president’s war powers, the proclamation often disappoints those who read it. It is dull and legalistic; it contains no soaring language enunciating the rights of man. Only at the last minute, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, did Lincoln add a conclusion declaring the proclamation an “act of justice.”
“Nonetheless, the proclamation marked a dramatic transformation in the nature of the Civil War and in Lincoln’s own approach to the problem of slavery. No longer did he seek the consent of slave holders. The proclamation was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of compensation for owners, and made no reference to colonization.”