Thursday, December 11, 2008

Emancipation Part 6: Following Through

The overall reaction to Lincoln's announcement in September 1862 of the pending issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation was decidedly mixed. While many hailed the concept as right and necessary, there were negative reactions all over the political landscape. Radical Republicans who wanted to abolish slavery everywhere thought the Proclamation didn't go far enough. Conservative Democrats who wanted to end the war begrudgingly recognized the military necessity of depriving the Confederacy of its slave labor. Many feared it would demoralize the army. Indeed, commanding general George McClellan wrote to Lincoln that he could not bear the concept of fighting a war for "such an accursed doctrine" as Emancipation, which he considered a backhanded attempt to arouse a slave rebellion, which he viewed as undignified. Confederate authorities were of course especially critical, castigating the President for inciting a slave insurrection that would destroy their society.

Not a lot of commentary flowed from the White House after the announcement of the Proclamation. Many predicted that Lincoln would lose his nerve, and not follow through. The many military setbacks suffered by the North, particularly the disaster at Fredricksburg, seemed to indicate that pushing the issue of fighting slavery AND the war a difficult combination, if peace and leaving slavery intact was a possibility.

But Lincoln remained resolute. Even though the warning signs were there, that issuing the Proclamation could damage the Union's war effort, Lincoln refused to consider going back on his word.

And as he prepared to officially issue the Proclamation on New Year's Day, 1863, there was one major revision to the draft Proclamation that would be included. Lincoln was going to include a statement authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers for the first time in U.S. History.

Lincoln had hesitated to do this in the original draft. He feared that white soldiers in the Union ranks would not tolerate fighting beside blacks. He feared such a radical move would splinter the delicate coalition of conservatives who favored slavery, but also wanted to preserve the Union. But as the general public began to understand the requirements for waging a prolonged war, one thing was clear -- thousands of men were fighting and dying on any given day. There was a need for recruits. Lincoln felt the time was right for crossing this threshold.

On New Year's Day, 1863, Lincoln started his day in his office, making the final revisions to the historic document, and sent his hand written notes via messenger to the State Department, where it would be printed. He met with military leaders, and by 11 am was ready for the formal ceremony to execute the Proclamation. But as he took his pen in hand, he read over the printed page and realized there was a glaring typographical error. This would not due. It would have to be reset and reprinted. Because the traditional White House New Year's reception was about to begin, the execution of the Proclamation wold have to wait.

Its interesting to note that those who met the President at the reception noted he had a tired, worn look. He seemed preoccupied and distant. Many attributed this to Lincoln still being in mourning over the death of his son the previous year. But the members of his cabinet understood that Lincoln was anxious about the Proclamation.

At around 2 pm, having finished shaking thousands of well wishers' hands, Lincoln returned to his office. The Secretary of State appeared with the corrected Proclamation. Lincoln dispensed with his usual "small talk," and insisted he sign the document immediately. The parchment paper was unrolled, and Lincoln "took a pen, dipped it in ink, moved his hand to the place fo the signature," but then stopped. Those around saw that his hand trembled, and he put the pen down.

"I never in my life felt more cetain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper," Lincoln mused, "If my name goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it." He complained that his arm was nearly numb from shaking hands for the previous three hours. "If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation," he said, "all who examine the document hereafter will say, `He Hesitated.'" Lincoln therefore waited in silence for a minute or so, took up the pen again, and very "slowly and carefully" wrote his name. An assistant commented that the signature appeared "unusually bold, clear, and firm, even for him," which brought a laugh from everyone in the room. Secretary of State Seward then signed in his place, and the document was taken back to the State Department to be copied for the press.

The delay into the afternoon of issuing the Proclamation caused a lot of consternation for those waiting for its news. It was not until late in the evening that Abolitionist leaders in places like Boston, where Frederick Douglass was waiting for the news, would receive word that the Proclamation was law. An immediate celebration broke out all over the North, particularly in communities where free blacks resided.

There was criticism, yes. The immediate effect of the Proclamation was limited. It affected only the slaves in the Confederate States, behind enemy lines (the exact language of the Proclamation even exempted territory in the South currently under the control of the Union Army, such as portions of Louisiana, Virginia and Tennessee). But the one thing the Proclamation did was effect a paradigm shift in the attitude of the North, and the way the national government treated the issue of slavery.

Up until this point, slavery had been the Union's "dirty little secret." Well, not a secret, but it was like the bad habit you have that you want to stop doing, but just can't. Or like the annoying relative you have to invite over for Christmas. It was part of the framework of American society, and even though most folks admitted it wasn't necessarily a moral, uplifting concept, it was defended, because such a huge segment of the country insisted it needed to be defended.

The Proclamation changed all that. The Fugitive Slave laws required that escaped slaves be returned to their rightful owners, even if the slave had escaped into a "free state." Now, not only were these laws inapplicable in the South, but the army that once was required to return these fugitive slaves would recruit them, arm them, and use them to help secure the freedom of other slaves. A Boston newspaper editor expressed what most of the country was now realizing -- "Slavery from this hour ceases to be a political power in this country." Lincoln knew all too well -- once this bridge was crossed, there was no return. In his annual address to Congress in December, Lincoln had noted "We cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."

I have gleaned most of the information on the Proclamation which I share with you in these entries from the book "Team of Rivals," by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Ms. Goodwin connects the speech Lincoln gave in December of 1862 to the Proclamation, even though Lincoln didn't mention it in the speech. For later, Lincoln was visited by an old friend from Illinois who had known him from the beginning. Lincoln, as a younger man, had suffered through a severe depression after the death of a woman he had planned to marry, and from a sense that his life was worthless, because he "had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived." Recalling those darker days, Lincoln noted to his friend that in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, "my fondest hopes will be realized." Indeed, preserving the Union was a very high ideal. But even if the war failed, Lincoln had followed his conscience. When asked about what he felt was his life's greatest accomplishment up to that point, in his remaining years, Lincoln would remember that New Year's Day in 1863, and note that he could not have done a greater thing.

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