As December of 1862 drew to a close, all eyes were on Washington, just as they are this year. After eighteen months of bloody fighting, pressure was building on President Lincoln to take action on slavery.
On September 22, after Union troops chased Confederate General Robert E. Lee back across the Potomac River at Antietam, the President had announced that if the Confederate states did not lay down their arms by January 1, 1863, he was prepared to issue an Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in the rebel areas. This Preliminary Proclamation was published widely.
But would he actually do it?
Both abolitionists and their opponents were skeptical. Abolition was not universally popular, even in the North. “I didn’t come here to fight for the N—-,” one Rhode Island artilleryman wrote home from the battlefield. A Presidential declaration would be politically risky; some said it exceeded the President's Constitutional authority and would be struck down by the conservative Supreme Court.
Abolitionists had pestered the White House with petitions begging Lincoln to end slavery. Although he had campaigned on an anti-slavery platform, he repeatedly responded to the petitions that if he could end the rebellion without touching slavery, he would do so. “It is useless to look for reform from politicians or government,” abolitionist Elizabeth Buffum Chace wrote in despair to her sister. On December 31, 1862, a group of New York abolitionists called on the President, looking for confirmation of his intentions; he would only say, “wait until tomorrow at noon.”
That evening, African-Americans around the nation, North and South, gathered for traditional "watch parties" to await the new year -- and the hoped-for emancipation. In New York City, as elsewhere, an African-American church held a “grand jubilee” vigil. At midnight, a telegram (that era's social media) arrived from Washington saying the Proclamation would indeed be issued the next day.
In Providence, Rhode Island, a committee of prominent African-Americans, including a number of clergy, planned a celebration for January 1. William J. Brown, grandson of a slave freed by the Brown family, was selected as President. As he described it, a “respectable number” of citizens gathered impatiently at Pratt's Hall at ten in the morning, again at two, and again at seven, waiting for the Proclamation. (As it turned out, the copy brought to Lincoln for his signature had several errors, and he, a lawyer, insisted on sending it back and waiting for a corrected copy.) Finally, Brown described:
At the hour of nine, when the bell was tolling, a man rushed into the room with a telegram from the President that the proclamation was issued. No one that was at the meeting can ever forget the sensation it produced. God was praised in the highest, and every heart swelled with gratitude. The meeting then closed, and thousands rejoiced that our prayers were heard and our country was free.Elizabeth Buffum Chace, despite her skepticism about Lincoln, wrote afterward that when the Proclamation appeared, “we rejoiced with exceeding great joy; and made no resistance to the honor it gave him, as the emancipator.” Most Northern newspapers printed the entire text of the Proclamation. The Providence Journal, noted in its headline and editorial comment that it urged negroes to abstain from violence and to work for wages if offered. “We believe,” the editors wrote, “that the first day of January, 1863, will stand through all time as one of the bright days in the history of our country, of the African race, and of humanity.”
In fact, the Proclamation changed very little on the ground, at least in the short run. Col. Elisha Hunt Rhodes (whose diary was used in Ken Burns' documentary), wrote from a camp near Falmouth, Virginia,
As I look back [at the year 1862] I am bewildered when I think of the hundreds of miles I have tramped, the thousands of dead and wounded that I have seen, and the many strange sights that I have witnessed. . . . The year has not amounted to much as far as the War is concerned, but we hope for the best and feel sure that in the end the Union will be restored. Good bye, 1862.As Secretary of State William Seward famously pointed out, the Proclamation was at best symbolic. “We show our sympathy with slavery,” he observed, “by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them [in rebel-held areas] and holding them in bondage where we can set them free [in areas under Union control].” Its authority rested, uneasily, on the President's wartime powers as Commander in Chief. It would take the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified at the end of 1865, to truly outlaw slavery throughout the nation.
But although the Federal government lacked the power to bring immediate freedom to all held in slavery, the Proclamation brought something else: dignity and self-respect. Throughout the South, enslaved people treated January 1 as their liberation day, even if they could not immediately realize freedom. Some told their masters that they would work only for wages; some showed up at courthouses to legally marry their partners; some walked away from plantations into towns and cities. The trickle of people arriving at Union encampments, on foot and in wagons, became a flood, as the Proclamation confirmed that the Union Army would not send them back into slavery. It also welcomed able-bodied men -- almost 200,000 of them by the end of the war -- into the new U.S. Colored Troops units.
On the 100th anniversary of the preliminary Proclamation, Civil War historian Bruce Catton reflected on the importance of the Proclamation:
Over the long pull, however, the proclamation had decisive importance. It changed the climate of the war, broadening its objectives and giving the Northern people reason to feel that the terrible sacrifices exacted by battles like Antietam would finally be justified. After all, a majority of Northerners — the majority that had elected Lincoln in 1860 — had deep anti-slavery convictions. This majority had been willing to tread softly as a matter of tactics; it had agreed that the central Government could not lawfully interfere with slavery in peacetime; but, in a showdown, it would support emancipation with everything it had. It might, in the end, have given up a fight solely for reunion; it would never give up a fight for reunion and for human freedom.Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed at a Centennial celebration in New York,
Overseas the effect was equally profound. The war had changed in a way that made British intervention impossible, and the change had come just in time. . . . .It was a different war, once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The words which ordained freedom for those who had been slaves could not be recalled once they had been spoken. They would go on and on, generation after generation, broadening the nation’s ideals and changing its life — then, thenceforward and forever.
The Emancipation Proclamation had four enduring results. First, it gave force to the executive power to change conditions in the national interest on a broad and far-reaching scale. Second, it dealt a devastating blow to the system of slaveholding and an economy built upon it, which had been muscular enough to engage in warfare on the Federal government. Third, it enabled the Negro to play a significant role in his own liberation with the ability to organize and to struggle, with less of the bestial retaliation his slave status had permitted to his masters. Fourth, it resurrected and restated the principle of equality upon which the founding of the nation rested.King concluded,
The Emancipation Proclamation shattered in one blow the slave system, undermining the foundations of the economy of the rebellious South; and guaranteed that no slave-holding class, if permitted to exist in defeat, could prepare a new and deadlier war after resuscitation.
There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.