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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.

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.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  observed at a Centennial celebration in New York,
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.

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.

King concluded,
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.

Originally posted to rugbymom on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 04:33 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight, History for Kossacks, Slavery in the United States - History, and Black Kos community.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Fantastic Diary (10+ / 0-)

    There are so many misconceptions about the emancipation proclamation.. ranging from the belief it ended/made slavery illegal (it did not), to that it freed all slaves everywhere (also no)

    But what the proclamation really did was completely convince the British that this was a war that would not be publically acceptable if they joined with the South.

    It also was a major strike to put a moral face on the war and to unify a large group of Nortern war backers who had wanted this to be a prime cause from the beginning.

    But it had a lot of risks too - many Northerners didn't like this idea, and wanted a slower, gradual phasing out of slavery.. including some who felt as though complete deportation of a group was a viable idea.

    Lincoln's lasting lesson really is that the constitution should be viewed as a truly living, breathing document that could be changed even at it's most basic level to deal with the times.  Amendments would come that would move to make changes wholecloth to the text, to strike away the notion of the value of a man.

    And that lesson which started with the Emancipation Proclamation was unique.   Because instead of extending the constitution in ways that were not originally anticipated.

    The 11th and 12th amendments, which were procedural, did not refine or alter the body of the constitution.   Lincoln had opened up the groundwork amongst those in the North and Elsewhere to really view the constitution as a document that could, in fact, be wrong.. and that the method by which it would be altered (amendments) didn't need to be extensions only, it could be complete reversals of opinion or provisioning of new and unnamed rights.

    And that change altered the entire argument.

    Gandhi's Seven Sins: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Commerce without morality; Science without humanity; Worship without sacrifice; Politics without principle

    by Chris Reeves on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 07:48:07 AM PST

    •  There were also split feelings... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tmservo433

      ...amongst the common Union soldiers.  Many felt they were fighting to keep the union whole and put down secessionists.  Slavery may have been the driving force of the war but the actual act of secession was seen as traitorous.  Many soldiers that went to war to keep the union together were not very happy with the Emancipation Proclamation and saw it as changing the reason they were fighting.

      Don't piss off the women.

      by ThankGodforAtheists on Tue Jan 01, 2013 at 01:06:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great piece of history-telling. (5+ / 0-)

    What a treat!

    •  British reaction (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      radarlady, Ian Reifowitz
      But what the proclamation really did was completely convince the British that this was a war that would not be publically acceptable if they joined with the South.
      Public opinion in Britain was solidly against slavery, and the failure to make the war one against Slavery from the start greatly weakened the Union position.  Remember that there was little knowledge of how the US Constitution worked and little understanding of the limits on the Presidents powers.

      The Declaration cut away the Southern propaganda campaigns based on accusations of 'Union Hypocricy'.

      Sidebar: No modern neutral State would fail to be involved in a comparable Civil War today. Look at Syria. All the moves for mediation and humanitarian interventions. Rather what the Confederacy was hoping for in 1861...

       I suggest that the complete reversal of views on Neutrality since the 1860's are partially based on the accident that the heirs to the Confederacy (the Democrats) were in power when the First World War broke out...

      Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

      by saugatojas on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 11:24:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Watch night was mentioned (6+ / 0-)

    in today's Daily Devotional from the UCC:

    Reflection by Molly Baskette

    It's New Year's Eve, and doubtless you've made your plans already. Happy to have survived the predicted Mayan apocalypse, you’re going to celebrate another year of being a living, breathing earthling. Perhaps you’ll mark the feast in a quiet way at home, or a noisy way out and about. Or maybe you're going to church.

    Church? Wha'?

    Watch Night started as an alternative to rowdy New Year's Eve drinking among the temperant Moravians in the 18th century. Charles Wesley later popularized it, but it really started to gain traction in the late 19th century, when African-American churches made it a regular event, with a slight shift in focus.

    Legend has it that slaves sat up on New Year's Eve, 1862, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation was to take effect. They were waiting up to see if they really would become free.

    Christians to this day continue the tradition of Watch Night, a night dedicated to staying awake as spiritual preparation for the new year ahead:  a year of possibility and new freedoms emerging.

    I'd make the case that people who go out and get schnockered are seeking freedom, too. There is a sense in which every New Year's Eve is a Great Ending. I think this is what drives so many people to drink on New Year's Eve—in a happy way, at least some of the time. If this is the world's last night, what do you want to be doing? Some of us seek a different sort of freedom, longing to lose our inhibitions and do some sweaty, silly dancing, or kiss the closest person at hand at the stroke of midnight

    Of course, it would be great if we didn't need stimulants to get that free.

    So, what to do?  Go out and get wild, or get on your knees in prayer? What would Jesus have us do?

    Do we really have to choose? Why not have a crazy dance party in our churches, with candlelight and disco balls and safe space for folks in recovery, teens and families? With a great hugfest at the end, praying toward the time when all, all, all of God’s children will be free?

  •  Brilliant, informative diary. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WSComn, parsonsbeach, chantedor, radarlady

    It really puts all these "fiscal cliff" tensions in perspective, doesn't it?

    "Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis." -Ralph Waldo Emerson "YEAAAAAAARGH!" -Howard Dean

    by AtomikNY on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 10:13:47 AM PST

    •  and the debt ceiling (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      WSComn, parsonsbeach, radarlady

      Lincoln's legality was questionable, but his rightness was indisputable. Obama I hope will apply that lesson to the debt ceiling. It's constitutionality is questionable, and refusing to abide by it would also be constitutionality questionable, but getting rid of it is so clearly the right thing to do, that just the act might have its own momentum. Not on the scale of the Emancipation Proclamation of course, but maybe an applicable lesson.

  •  Word didn't get to Texas (4+ / 0-)

    Junteenth is a celebration of TX slaves "discovering" that they were free around June 19, 1865.

    It has been a TX holiday since 1980. It is celebrated variously in other States.

  •  Ken Burns' Civil War described the issuance very (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    parsonsbeach, radarlady

    well (esp. around the 5 minute mark):

    "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere ". C. S. Lewis

    by TofG on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 12:01:16 PM PST

  •  The abolitionists in Boston had their own Watch (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    parsonsbeach, radarlady

    Night that night as well.

  •  If you haven't seen the movie "Lincoln" yet... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z, radarlady

    GO!

    Daniel Day Lewis deserves an Oscar. I loved it.

    "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Matthew 5:11

    by parsonsbeach on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 04:32:50 PM PST

  •  Let's e-mail just this: (0+ / 0-)
    Lincoln's lasting lesson really is that the constitution should be viewed as a truly living, breathing document that could be changed even at it's most basic level to deal with the times.  Amendments would come that would move to make changes wholecloth to the text, to strike away the notion of the value of a man
    To every Constitution zealot who thinks its tenents have been carved in stone, never to be re-evaluated, adjusted, or improved according to the times we live in.

    If the plutocrats begin the program, we will end it. -- Eugene Debs.

    by livjack on Tue Jan 01, 2013 at 07:44:22 AM PST

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