“If my name goes into history, it will be for this act…”

January 3rd, 2013

Earlier this week marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln signed on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation declared that the roughly 3.1 million slaves held in bondage in the “States and parts of States wherein the people thereof […] are this day in rebellion against the United 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.”

Writing in the New York Times, Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, explains the progression and significance of the Proclamation:

[T]he Emancipation Proclamation was the crucial turning point in this story. In a sense, it embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life. […]

The hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his combination of bedrock principle with open-mindedness and capacity for growth. That summer, with his preferred approach [of gradual emancipation and colonization for former slaves] going nowhere, he moved in the direction of immediate emancipation. He first proposed this to his cabinet on July 22, but Secretary of State William H. Seward persuaded him to wait for a military victory, lest it seem an act of desperation.

Soon after the Union victory at Antietam in September, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a warning to the Confederacy that if it did not lay down its arms by Jan. 1, he would declare the slaves “forever free.”

Lincoln did not immediately abandon his earlier plan. His annual message to Congress, released on Dec. 1, 1862, devoted a long passage to gradual, compensated abolition and colonization. But in the same document, without mentioning the impending proclamation, he indicated that a new approach was imperative: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” he wrote. “We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our country.” Lincoln included himself in that “we.” On Jan. 1, he proclaimed the freedom of the vast majority of the nation’s slaves. […]

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.

In it, Lincoln addressed blacks directly, not as property subject to the will of others but as men and women whose loyalty the Union must earn. For the first time, he welcomed black soldiers into the Union Army; over the next two years some 200,000 black men would serve in the Army and Navy, playing a critical role in achieving Union victory. And Lincoln urged freed slaves to go to work for “reasonable wages” — in the United States. He never again mentioned colonization in public.

Having made the decision, Lincoln did not look back. In 1864, with casualties mounting, there was talk of a compromise peace. Some urged Lincoln to rescind the proclamation, in which case, they believed, the South could be persuaded to return to the Union. Lincoln refused. Were he to do so, he told one visitor, “I should be damned in time and eternity.”

Read the rest of Foner’s essay here, and check out these related teaching resources on the Emancipation Proclamation:


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