Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted on January 2, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War | Tags: , , , |

It was with trepidation that I tuned in to my local NPR station today to hear the show On Point’s discussion of the EP, passed January 1, 1863. The host Tom Ashbrook opened the show with the usual uninformed spiel about whether the EP and Lincoln himself were good or bad, praiseworthy or contemptible.

But Ashbrook was saved from himself by his guests, particularly Edna Greene Medford of Howard University, and the hour was spent truly and accurately assessing and appreciating the EP and the man behind it. Dr. Medford gave listeners a valuable analysis of the EP and Lincoln’s goals in writing it, as well as the political and legal considerations that hampered him from achieving all he would have wanted (he would have to do so with the 13th Amendment).

My only small quarrel with Dr. Medford was that she said the EP only freed enslaved people in the Confederacy because it was about property, and only in the Confederacy were people held as property. This is not the real heart of the matter. As I point out in my series on the EP, Lincoln could not free enslaved people in the North because there weren’t any, and he could not free enslaved people in the border states because that would have caused them to join the Confederacy, and because slavery was not illegal in the U.S. He could only free people enslaved in the Confederacy.

Each state in the North had made slavery illegal, so there were state laws in place to stop slavery, but there was no federal law prohibiting slavery in the nation. So if Lincoln freed enslaved people in the border states, still technically part of the U.S., he would not have any force of law to back that up with; it would have been a wartime-only action that would have been quickly overturned once the war ended and slavery was still legal in the U.S.

So Lincoln realized he had to first outlaw slavery in the Confederacy, just to prove once and for all that if the Confederacy was defeated it would not be allowed to keep slavery when it returned to the U.S., then he had to get a Constitutional Amendment passed banning slavery in all of the U.S. Only this way would the abolition of slavery be permanent and safe from legal challenges that it was just a wartime measure.

The On Point guests seemed to say that the EP was just a wartime measure meant to hurt the Confederacy’s ability to make war, but it was so much more than that. All Americans are right to celebrate the EP, on its anniversary and every day.

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2 Responses to “Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation”

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Wasn’t it Lincoln’s desire to relocate all African colonists away from these United States, as revealed in his second State of the Union Address?
Also, it is a little misleading to say there were no slaves in the North. Most northern states held slaves until the early 1800’s, which agreed dates them prior to the proclamation, it is my understanding that New Jersey held slaves until 1865.

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Hello Ken. I see nothing in the Second Inaugural address that refers to colonization. Lincoln wanted to send formerly enslaved black Americans “back” to Africa even as he became president, but after he realized there would be no way to convince slaveholders to stop holding people as slaves, and after he met with black leaders who said they would never leave their country to go to Africa, Lincoln completely dropped the colonization plan. He worried, with good reason, that it would be very hard for black Americans to live freely with the white Americans who had enslaved them, and thought it would be easier to let those black Americans who wanted to leave America go to Africa. He never advocated forced relocation. But by the time he wrote the EP, there is no mention of colonization, and he had no intention of pressing it.

New Jersey introduced gradual abolition in 1804. The complications are well-put here (http://www.slavenorth.com/newjersey.htm): “Females born of slave parents after July 4, 1804, would be free upon reaching 21 years of age, and males upon reaching 25. Like New York’s, this law held a hidden subsidy for slaveowners. A provision allowed them to free their slave children, who would then be turned over to the care of the local overseers of the poor (the state’s social welfare agency in those days). The bill provided $3 a month for the support of such children. A slaveowner could then agree to have the children “placed” in his household and collect the $3 monthly subsidy on them. The evidence suggests this practice was widespread, and the line item for “abandoned blacks” rose to be 40 percent of the New Jersey budget by 1809. It was a tax on the entire state paid into the pockets of a few to maintain what were still, essentially, slaves.” Slavery was permanently abolished in 1846.

This is awful, but a far cry from the unapologetic, un-hidden slavery industry of the south.

Let’s end on this quote from the Second Inaugural: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

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