BY KIRKPATRICK SALE
On New Year’s Day 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln and officially issued 150 years ago today, the Government Printing Office ran off a two-page broadsheet, and that evening a leaked copy was printed in the Washington Evening Star and sent out on the wires.
Henry Raymond, editor of The New York Times, printed the document the next day with an approving editorial that asserted that “President Lincoln’s proclamation ... marks an era, in the history, not only of this war, but of his country and the world.”
Lincoln himself took an even broader view: “It is the central act of my administration,” he would say two years later, “and the great event of the nineteenth century.”
True, but not for the reasons he thought.
Reaction to publication of the final document was predictable. Abolitionists and the Radical Republicans hailed it, of course, though it is not always clear if they had actually read it or were only in favor of the idea behind it. Typical was William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist, who wrote in his paper, The Liberator, that the document “was a great historic event, sublime in its magnitude, momentous and beneficient in its far-reaching consequences.”
Similarly, abolitionist Moncure Conway saw that “a victorious sun appeared about to rise upon the New World of free and equal men.”
And of course Frederick Douglass, though he was careful to spell out its motivations: “Common sense, the necessities of the war, to say nothing of the dictation of justice and humanity have at last prevailed. We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.”
But in a great many places in the North, speeches and commentaries and editorials not swept up in the fervor of the abolitionists were critical of the decree. New York Gov. Horatio Seymour, who was elected as a critic of emancipation, called it a “bloody, barbarous, revolutionary, and unconstitutional scheme.” The Louisville Daily Democrat sputtered: “We scarcely know how to express our indignation at this flagrant outrage of all constitutional law, all human justice, all Christian feeling.”
And even many who were in general support of the principle of the proclamation pointed out several flaws. To begin with, many questioned whether there was any constitutional legitimacy for Lincoln’s presumed war powers — nothing of the kind appears in the Constitution, only a provision for the president as “commander in chief” — or for him to nullify and repeal valid laws passed by the states. For him to assert a “power of emancipation” from his “power to make war,” declared New Jersey Gov. Joel Parker, was in effect to assert “a power to change Constitutional rights” at his personal pleasure. Besides, trying to assert presidential rule over people “who held slaves under the State laws” would be as valid as if the president were to “notify Queen Victoria ... in what part of her Indian dominions the sepoys shall be emancipated.”
Then many noted that the whole question of compensation, which Lincoln had been at such pains to elaborate in his constitutional proposal to Congress the previous December, was entirely left out. (As Lincoln well knew, compensation had been used in emancipation throughout South America and in the British, French, and Danish colonies — and even in Washington City itself in 1862.) If it was true, as Lincoln had said, that slavery was a national project, then its abolition was also national, and the federal government had an obligation to pay the slaveowners something for the property it was taking from them — “an annihilation of property rights,” according to historian R.R. Palmer, “without parallel in the modern world.” Lacking such a provision, the proclamation could not possibly have any real effect in the South, except to arouse immediate opposition.
Also left out was the core question of what to do with former slaves if they gained their freedom, particularly if the Union was victorious, when there would be about 3.5 million people with no clear status and no provisions for economic or political integration into existing society. Lincoln’s favorite solution was colonization — “restoring a captive people,” as he once put it, “to their long-lost father-land, with bright prospects for the future” — but since he had made no headway with Congress on that score, he thought it best to keep it out of the Proclamation as being inappropriate in a strictly “war measure.”
As to the question of an economic future for the freedmen, Lincoln rejected the idea of providing them with land of their own to farm on — usually expressed as “forty acres and a mule” — and instead thought in terms, as he wrote in a letter eight days after the proclamation, of adopting “systems of apprenticeship for the colored people” and creating contractual agreements between whites and blacks “by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other.” Yet none of that was dealt with in the proclamation, either.
Lincoln’s flawed document ultimately did nothing to bring freedom to the black people of the South — who, as Martin Luther King said on the Washington Mall 100 years later, were “still not free.”
What it did was to set in motion a terrible chain of events that would lead to an increasingly savage campaign of war by the Northern army now endowed with a moral righteousness that permitted it to fight civilians as well as soldiers and pillage and burn and raze all in its path; to a military occupation of the South that brought freedom to no one and imposed a system of unjust Republican rule for 11 disastrous years; to a deliberate national policy of Southern subjugation after Union troops withdrew that brought impoverishment to vast swathes of both whites and blacks throughout the South; and by neglecting the fate and future of the former black slaves and turning the national back on the “Negro question,” to the creation of racial disparity and enmity that would last with varying degrees of severity for the next hundred years — or more.
That’s the tragedy.
Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 12 books, including “Emancipation Hell,” which will be published today and from which this is adapted. He lives in Mount Pleasant.