BY DR. BERNARD E. POWERS JR.
While the beginning of a new year is frequently the cause for reflection, the start to this year was uniquely significant as the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, despite the momentous impact of the Proclamation, this important occasion received far less attention than it deserved.
While our contemporaries were concerned about going over a “fiscal cliff,” there was little talk about the dangerous “cliff” the country faced when the Proclamation was issued. Yes, there were a few special celebrations across the nation calling attention to the occasion, the Proclamation was read aloud and in churches special “Watch Night” services were held, leading up to the anniversary. The U.S. Postal Service also designed a new Emancipation Proclamation stamp.
Nevertheless, all too quickly in most places the document, the occasion and its meaning will fade into distant memory, perhaps to be revived on the next quarter-century anniversary. This phenomenon says much about us and the things we choose to remember in our civic culture.
The question we ought to ask in 2013 as Americans and especially in the South is, why don’t we annually and officially honor the Emancipation Proclamation and the events surrounding it, with the obeisance we show towards other nationally significant days, such as Independence Day or even Constitution Day? Certainly it is an occasion worthy of equal treatment.
During the Civil War the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862, declaring slaves in the Confederate states to be free as of Jan. 1, 1863. It was a key turning point in the war for multiple reasons, including the fact that it changed the war’s perception domestically and internationally from one fought merely to preserve the Union, to one also fought to liberate enslaved people. This development was important as a factor dissuading Britain and France from extending diplomatic recognition and greater cooperation to the Confederacy.
The Proclamation also provided for the enrollment of black men in the Union military forces, thus enabling them to fight for their own freedom.
In America, not surprisingly, emancipation has in the main only been celebrated by Southern black communities. This is unfortunate because it sends the erroneous message that emancipation only benefitted African-Americans, and it also obscures important national democratic values that were intimately bound up with the war.
To fully appreciate this we only need examine President Lincoln’s Annual Address to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862. There and then, just one month before the Emancipation Proclamation was to take effect, the president told Congress that it knew “how to save the Union.” The way forward was clear and “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”
With those words Lincoln did something unprecedented in American history. He joined the destiny of the slave to the destiny of the nation’s democratic traditions. The choices could not have been more stark nor the stakes higher.
According to Lincoln, the decision for emancipation offered the best means to “nobly save ... the last best, hope of earth” for democratic government.
Almost a year later at Gettysburg, President Lincoln again referred to the Civil War as a trial of whether democracy could stand the test of time. He also pledged that “this nation ... shall have a new birth of freedom,” later resulting in passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed the national scourge of slavery.
Lincoln had great respect for the Founding Fathers and believed his actions consonant with their vision for America’s future. At a recent exhibit in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the Emancipation Proclamation was compellingly displayed along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. As Americans the Fourth of July commemorates our democratic struggle for independence from colonialism and monarchy. Constitution Day reminds us of the great document which undergirds our political institutions, serving as a counterweight to despotism.
The Emancipation Proclamation emerged from the darkest chapter in the nation’s history and helped preserve its democratic institutions, while laying the groundwork for a broader definition of freedom.
As an important step toward fulfilling the highest ideals of America’s revolutionary traditions, we should elevate it to the stature of our most important national celebrations.
Bernard E. Powers Jr., Ph.D, is a professor of history at the College of Charleston.