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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – As I sit here this morning, New Years eve of 2013, watching our first black President deliver a speech from the East Room of the White House, and having just seen the fantastic movie, Lincoln, this weekend, I am reminded of a special anniversary today that seems to have quietly slipped by under the radar screen.
It began with a somewhat unusual meeting of the cabinet, on July 22nd 1862, when President Lincoln presented to his team the first draft of what would come to be called the Emancipation Proclamation, which would free the slaves forever. Actually, that is quite the misnomer, because of course Lincoln had no legal authority to free anyone whatsoever, nor would his proclamation free “all the slaves.” Rather it existed as a somewhat nebulous executive order that would free the slaves only in states or parts of states currently in rebellion, as a military necessity and punishment against the rebel forces. He lived in fear however, that the Supreme Court would ultimately reverse his order, as they did with his illegal suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, but that’s a story for another day.
His fear was a very real one, of course, because as crazy at it may seem to us today, slaves were, at the time, considered the “property” of their owners, and the Constitution clearly contained an enumerated right against being “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process.” A freeing of an owners slaves, would almost assuredly have been ultimately reversed as being a violation of that very due process clause, which is why he fought so hard for passage of a Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery.
In any case, Lincoln presented his cabinet with this proclamation in July of 1862, expecting a round of applause from these devoted leaders, all of whom believed that the institution of slavery must be eliminated for the nation to survive. Sadly, he woefully underestimated their response, and instead of support, his idea was met with derision by a cabinet concerned that on the heels of what many felt was a”draw” in the battle of Gettysburg, and the steadfast inaction of soon to be ex-Union Commander McLellan, that it would be viewed by the nation as the Union’s last “shriek in defeat.” Instead they implored the President to table the issue in a drawer until it could be released at a time of strength following a Union victory.
Lincoln reluctantly assented to their demands, and the proclamation draft found a home in his desk, awaiting good news from the front lines. That came in September of 1862, after the Battle of Antietam, a horrific altercation on the banks of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. This was, at the time, the bloodiest day in American history, with over 22,000 killed, wounded or missing. Although the Union actually suffered more casualties, over 12,000 in all, the 10,000 lost by the Confederacy was a larger percentage of the forces present, and it was declared at the time to be a minor Union victory. As Lincoln said at the time, it might be “as close to victory as they would see while the ‘great tortoise,’ General McLellan remained in command.” His cabinet could hold him at bay no longer, and in late September he published his Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves, again only in parts of states then in rebellion, to take effect on January 1st, 1863, 150 years ago at midnight tonight.
Of course, this did not mean that slave owners just unshackled people at midnight and drove them to the train station, and multitudes of the 4 million held in involuntary servitude remained in captivity until those areas were ultimately liberated by Union forces. What it did do, however, as news percolated to the South, was to give many slaves the encouragement to flee to the North, in the knowledge that they would not be returned if captured. This was, of course still a highly dangerous adventure, as escapes slaves caught by southern troops were routinely killed as a deterrent to others. Nonetheless, the die had been cast, and gradually many had fled that South, even joining up with Union forces to fight for the cause.
As was often the case, Lincoln was correct, and this proved to be a turning point in the war. Thus the president who had predicted that the union “could not endure half slave and half free” marched us more confidently towards an ultimate peace, which would be achieved just 18 months later. Today, we are by no means a nation free of division, yet looking at how far we have come is certainly encouraging, and reflects upon the great things that we, as a country, are capable of achieving. One day, perhaps in the next generation, the color of a persons skin will be of no more consequence than the color of their eyes, and we will truly live in a color blind society where all are just merely, as King said, by the “content of their character.”
Below is an except from Lincoln’s text:
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of 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.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.