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.