Monday, December 15, 2008

Emancipation Part 7: Aftermath

The reality of emancipation as part of the Lincoln Administration's policy met with some stiff resistance. Lincoln had felt that the time was right for shifting the nation's policy towards slavery from tolerance of the concept as a "necessary evil" to a proactive push towards its eventual eradication.

Resistance to the concept of Emancipation sprung up everywhere. Those who favored peace with the Confederacy (the so called "Copperheads") saw this as evidence that the war wasn't about keeping the union together, but to free slaves. (As an aside, the rage over the Emancipation proclamation shows that modern apologists for the Confederacy have a difficult time justifying their argument that the Civil War was not about slavery). Lincoln's political opponents used it as an excuse to block other important legislation. When the lack of military success was also considered, it seemed that Lincoln's choice of tactics was backfiring on him.

But Lincoln bided his time. The people of the North were generally in favor of continuing the war, and recognized now that slavery, and the economics of slavery, were primary causes in the destruction of the Union. Public opinion was changing, and the Proclamation was the catalyst.

For those who argue that the Emancipation Proclamation technically set no slaves free, and that Lincoln himself was a racist, who viewed the black race as inferior, and that the Proclamation was a political ruse to use blacks as soldiers (while not offering them equality) and to incite slave rebellions in the south, I offer you the history of Lincoln's enforcement of the Proclamation and his ever evolving attitude towards slavery and the black race as repudiation.

First, amending the Constitution to abolish slavery became Lincoln's next primary goal. Because the Proclamation didn't apply to slave states that stayed loyal to the Union, and there was a question regarding its ongoing application in the event the war came to an end, Lincoln knew that legally, it was the only way to truly ban slavery. After Congress ratified the Amendment in January of 1865, Lincoln made it a primary component of his reconstruction plan. If any Confederate state was to be readmitted to the Union, it would have to adopt the 13th Amendment. It heartened the President greatly when the border states began to consider the measure, and Maryland, West Virgina and Missouri (all slave states that did not join the Confederacy) ratified the amendment through a vote of the citizenry by the end of February, 1865. Thus, three of the key slave union-loyal slave states themselves voted to make slavery illegal long before the war was over, or even had turned in the Union's favor. This could not have happened without Lincoln's leadership with the Proclamation.

What about Lincoln's view of African Americans? Hadn't he said during the Lincoln/Douglas Debates that he believed Negros could never be the equals of Whites, and didn't he favor the collective relocation of freed slaves to a new colony in Africa or Central America? Yes, those had been his views. But Lincoln was never one to cling to a wrong idea once he realized it was wrong.

First off, Lincoln had allowed for Black men to serve in the army. This was a major change. Frederick Douglass had recognized that if Blacks could serve in the army, it would be harder for White society in general to look down on men who had served their country and given their lives. Douglass was even involved in the active recruiting of free Blacks in the North. But there were issues that came out of the recruiting of Blacks. Congress had passed regulations approving of Black recruitment, but had established the pay scale of black soldiers at significantly lower rates than whites. Also, no African Americans were allowed to be promoted as officers. Finally, the Confederate authorities promised to treat black soldiers taken prisoner harshly, vowing slavery or death for any such soldiers captured. Douglass was so infuriated with these three injustices that he refused to continue with his recruiting efforts, and asked to meet with Lincoln to demand change.

When Lincoln met with Douglass, he assured him that all of these issues would be addressed. The pay scale would be equalized, worthy black soldiers would receive their commissions as officers, and their would be recriminations brought and similar punishment dealt to a Confederate prisoner for each mistreated black soldier. Lincoln explained that the reason he had delayed these measures was that he wanted the African American soldiers to prove themselves in battle first -- for "white society" had not been ready to accept them as equals. Now that Black soldiers had proved their mettle, it was time to elevate their status. Douglass saw tremendous wisdom in these tactics, and was thrilled with the President's openness and acceptance of both him as an individual, and for his race as a whole.

When Lincoln's re-election looked bleak, he took action to ensure the spirit of the Proclamation. Fearing that a Democratic 'Copperhead" might be elected in his place, he called together a group of free African American leaders, and laid out a "secret plan." In the even he was defeated, he would secretly authorize federal agents (many of them needing to be African Americans to accomplish the task) to infiltrate Confederate territory and convince and help as many slaves as possible to escape into Union held territory. This way, even if the policy of emancipation would be reversed, as many people as possible would acieve their freedom.

Finally, Lincoln's reconstruction plan included full citizenship for Negros. "Black laws," common in many Northern states, which prohibited blacks from serving on juries, or owning property, or testifying in court, would be struck down. His most controversial concept, announced in a speech Lincoln gave in the wake of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, would allow for freed slaves to have the right to vote.

By the time the war had come to an end, Lincoln's views had come full circle. He not only believed slavery was wrong, but believed it should be eradicated. He not only believed that African Americans should not be held as chattel, but that they deserved equal standing with all other American citizens.

I often wonder what would have happened had Lincoln not been killed by an assassin right as these policies were maturing. Had his sure hand and discerning mind shepherded our country through the reconstruction of the Union, would there have been the reverses in policy that allowed for institutionalized segregation and the limits of the rights of freed slaves? We will never know, but I can't help but think that Lincoln's leadership, proven and tested true in the eyes of the American people, would have helped make the civil rights movement a reality generations before it became a reality. And we might not have waited as long as the 2008 election to see our first African American President.

Emancipation is Lincoln's true legacy. The Emancipation Proclamation was just the beginning. And while the darker side of our society's soul has prolonged racial injustice far too long, the seed Lincoln planted has borne great fruit, despite ourselves. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln spoke of the concept of the "better angels of our nature." Freedom, emancipation, and equality sprang from that concept. And while it has been a struggle, it lives on today, stronger than ever.

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