Thursday, July 4, 2013

Celebrating Freedom: Understanding the Emancipation Proclamation

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we rightfully embrace the Declaration of Independence. However, the freedoms that we cherish are only partially enshrined in that document. Without the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, our liberties would be particularly constricted. Citizenship and its rights were also more clearly defined during American Civil War era and its aftermath, although clearly the Civil Rights Movement was indispensable for guaranteeing these rights to Americans who had long been denied them.

After the Civil War had ended, three Amendments to the Constitution were necessary to abolish slavery (13th), define citizenship (14th), and prohibit barriers to voting (15th). However, Congressional resolutions, such as the Crittenden Compromise, establish that the principal initial goal of the war was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. As the war continued and thousands of lives were invested in establishing a “more perfect Union,” the goal of firmly dealing with slavery as a legal institution and ending its practice in the states in rebellion became equally prominent.

Even before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress had sent him at least four acts significantly affecting the practice of slavery. The D.C. Emancipation Act ended slavery in the Capitol on April 16, 1862. On June 19, 1862, a law ended slavery in all current and future U.S. territories. In addition, two confiscation acts were passed to seize property from Confederate supporters in the South and emancipate their slaves who came under Union control. The Emancipation Proclamation broadened this effort and established the end of slavery as a wartime measure directed against the Confederacy.

Although limited in scope, the Emancipation Proclamation provided an additional foundation for national changes brought about by the constitutional Amendments ratified during Reconstruction. Because 2013 is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the issuance of the Proclamation, it and its preliminary version have received much attention. Even as significant as the Proclamation is in American history, it is often misunderstood and Lincoln's language “henceforward shall be free” is frequently misidentified as the provision that ends slavery.

Exhibit at the N.C. Museum of
History in 2013 included a copy
of the Preliminary Proclamation.
The exhibit Freedom Coming, Freedom for All at the North Carolina Museum of History in mid-2013 brought the preliminary Proclamation for public display. When I visited, only three others were present, and I wished more people were interested in seeing this historic document because few Americans have actually read the Proclamation. If they had, they would observe limitations of the document, unusual exceptions that significantly limit “henceforward shall be free,” different language than that typically associated with Lincoln such as his poetic Gettysburg Address, and the opportunity for Confederate states to avoid the authority of the Proclamation. In fact, reviewing the reaction of critics to the Proclamation also helps to place it in better focus.

Stamp issued in 2013
for the Proclamation's
sesquicentennial anniversary.
Much of the misunderstanding is caused by a tendency to reduce important and sometimes complex documents to only a few words or a catchy phrase such as “All men are created equal” as in the Declaration of Independence. The Emancipation Proclamation is often reduced to “henceforward shall be free,” as the U.S. Postal Service did when it issued a stamp in 2013 to mark the sesquicentennial of the Proclamation. (However, contrast the assertive language of this stamp with the plain stamp issued in 1963.)

First and importantly, the Proclamation did not apply to all states. Exempt were the border states of Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia where slavery remained legal. In addition, areas of states that had seceded were also except such as parts of Virginia and Louisiana. In fact, the entire state of Tennessee was excluded. Also lost in the passage of time is the irony that the effective date of the Proclamation was known in the South as “Hiring Day.” Many owners “rented out” enslaved workers who were three to five times more likely to be hired out than bought or sold. Throughout the South, New Year’s Day serving as “Hiring Day,” and hiring contracts ran from January 1 to December 25. Thus, the Proclamation became effective on the day that new hiring contracts were also effective.

The stamp issued in 1963 for the
Proclamation's centennial celebration
did not include the assertive language
of the 2013 stamp.
Even though the Proclamation is often interpreted as specifically making the end of slavery a goal of the war for the United States on the level of the aim of preserving the Union, it clearly offers a state in rebellion “an out,” as explained by Prof. Reginald Hildebrand at a lecture on “The Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation” that I attended. Specifically, a seceded state had 100 days to rejoin the Union, and if a state ended its part in the rebellion, the Proclamation no longer applied to it. In addition, the Proclamation lacks the authority of law. The other limitations on slavery were enacted by Congress, but the Proclamation is only an executive branch policy.

Page 1 of the
Preliminary Emancipation
Further, reaction was particularly less than positive by some critics of Lincoln. If slavery is such a moral issue, how can a 100-day delay be justified? Much of the world had already eradicated slavery, at least officially. In the Western Hemisphere, every nation except Cuba and Brazil had outlawed slavery. The diary of Adam Gurowski, a Polish writer in exile in the United States, establishes what could be viewed as contempt for the Proclamation. When Lincoln issued the preliminary Proclamation, Gurowski wrote on Sept. 22, 1862 that the delay of 100 days and allowance for a state to end its rebellion — and thus keeping slavery intact — was “the last desperate effort made by Mr. Lincoln” to save slavery. Gurowski was equally critical of Lincoln’s language. He wrote that the Proclamation “is written in the meanest and most routine style; not a word to evoke a generous thrill, not a word reflecting the warm and lofty comprehension and feelings of the immense majority of the people on this question of emancipation.”

The Declaration of Independence was indispensable for starting a revolt against King George III, but it only partially explains the freedoms of Americans “created equal ... with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Other documents are equally central, and we need to view all of them carefully and objectively to appreciate their meanings. 

Note: The lecture by Prof. Hildebrand was part of the program "Old and New: Studying the South in the 21st Century" that I attended as a recipient of the Bushing Humanities Fellowship from Sandhills Community College.

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