SAN JOSE, CA, January 9, 2013 - One hundred and fifty years ago, as the brand new year of 1863 got underway, the United States of America was in the midst of the Civil War. It was an incredibly terrible time as the nation was tragically ripped apart by the horrors of warfare. Even so, on that New Year’s Day, President Abraham Lincoln slipped away from the thousands of guests and festivities in the White House to sign into law his Proclamation of Emancipation. The presidential order was essentially an executive directive freeing the slaves in the rebellious states of the South who were actively fighting the Army of the Republic for the southerners “right” to withdraw from the Union and govern their states without federal infringement upon their sovereignty.
Looking back carefully at that dark period of the nation’s history is the subject of the recent PBS documentary/drama, “The Abolitionists,” which premiered on January 8th. Created by “American Experience” and executive producer Mark Samuels, it is a substantial portrayal of this turbulent and most violent of times in the United States. The three part television special, which will be aired over three weekly segments, brings to life the controversies swirling around the institution of slavery: the people who defended it and particularly those who ardently opposed it. For those concerned with understanding the events of this period and the historical figures of this time, it is a worthy investment of one’s time, especially during this Sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War.
A superficial consideration of this incredibly divisive time in the America may initially view the president’s Emancipation Proclamation as a mandate that should have been easily accepted throughout the nation with the exception of the Deep South. Initially, it could seem as if this presidential proclamation was all quite a logical and simple solution to slavery, since so many people were against it at that moment in time.
To the contrary, as people become more familiar with this period, it is hard to believe that slavery, which many Americans were indifferent to, was able to be terminated at all. Looking at Lincoln’s edict, it is hard to understand that it had any real effect in the immediate moment.
Lincoln was only able to implement his proclamation through the war powers vested in the president by the Constitution as the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military. It could only be enacted during the period of time the United States government was engaged in armed conflict with the Confederate States. Lincoln’s effort was deliberately measured and limited in so many ways, and due to Lincoln’s concerns as he hesitated to overstep his authority by restraining federal dictates to be directed only toward the defiant states. Thus the Emancipation was not intended to free all slaves all throughout America. It could not and Lincoln respected his limitations under the law of the land.
On the surface, it may have appeared as a futile attempt at freeing slaves held captive in the South and may have even seemed as if Lincoln were quite desperate and a bit premature in his efforts to free the slaves since the Union Army was struggling to win significant battles against the Confederacy, to mention little of their ability to win the war. In the moment, his decree seemed an impotent demand from a president with virtually no authority over the Confederate States of America. It certainly had little practical effect upon the Confederate government and leadership as President Jefferson Davis and the large property owners ignored Mr. Lincoln’s initial pronouncement in September of 1862 that challenged the Southern States to free their slaves as a foundation to re-join the Union.
As confusing or seemingly meaningless as the Emancipation appeared on the surface of human events at the moment, it was brilliant statesmanship by Lincoln. Despite what people perceived about the Emancipation Proclamation in those early days of January 1863, this executive order actually accomplished much more than could be measured by the numbers of former slaves set free in the heart of Dixie. Actually, Lincoln’s edict did not technically free any slaves in the South other than those who managed to escape to the safety of Union troops. However, the President himself believed that the freedom of the slaves was a moral imperative and an action that had to be fulfilled in order for the Union to win the war.
One direct result of Lincoln’s mandate that could not be easily measured, took place slowly but steadily within the black community as word of the president’s action spread through the enslaved population. Although the decree was outwardly intended to free the slaves held captive as property on Confederate lands, Lincoln was able to demonstrate through his actions that he cared deeply enough about abolishing slavery that he would take such drastic executive action. It encouraged the slaves throughout the country to trust Lincoln and to sincerely believe in the possibility of freedom. This led to boldness and determination to take matters into their own hands and escape to the Union lines while they had the opportunity.
Another major result of the Proclamation of Emancipation was that the presidential action undermined the efforts of the Confederate government to attain substantial support from Great Britain. The words of the Proclamation challenged the international perception of the rebel Confederate States as justified in rebellion as they had attempted to portray themselves as the victims of an oppressive federal regime whose sovereignty had been usurped by a dictator in Washington, D.C. Lincoln’s proclamation revealed the Confederate States as a nation intent on perpetuating slavery. This derailed the efforts of the Jefferson Davis government to secure British financial support. Since Great Britain had outlawed slavery before the U.S., they would reject any such entreaties to send any foreign aid to such a government.
The more lasting result from the Emancipation Proclamation was that it established the foundation for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment for which Lincoln fought so hard and which is the subject of the recent movie “Lincoln.” The Proclamation paved the way for the effort to push the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress and out to the states for ratification. Mr. Lincoln’s signature actually appears on the archival copy of this amendment which was approved on February 1, 1865 and then sent on to the state legislatures for ratification. Sadly, Lincoln was never able to witness the formal adoption of the amendment which essentially completed the abolition of slavery in the U.S.
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