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Charlotte, NC – 158 years ago this week, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to provide freedom to enslaved people in the Confederacy (CSA). The Proclamation guaranteed that all men and women, already borne as equals before God, would be “thenceforward and forever free.” Although the Proclamation is one of the most pivotal moments in the history of our country, a few essential details have been lost throughout the decades.
First, the Proclamation only strengthened the resolve of the CSA to gain independence and may have actually made life worse for slaves still held in the US. In his response to the proclamation, CSA President Jefferson Davis said: “We may leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their spheres, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to refrain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.” The argument made by Davis was that an edict from a foreign (at the time) government that encourages insurrection would inevitably lead to violence.
Second, the proclamation was received in the CSA as disingenuous because Lincoln, in his own words, had previously dismissed any desire to fight the institution of slavery. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had said: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” The perception of those in the CSA was that Lincoln did not care about slavery until it served his purpose of defeating the southern rebellion, which also strengthened the cause of the confederacy.
Third, slavery did not end with the proclamation. In fact, nearly three years would pass under Lincoln’s administration before the institution of slavery would be banned outright. The 13th Amendment, ratified on Dec. 6th, 1865, abolished slavery in the US and it’s territories.
The 13A reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” So, at the time of the proclamation, President Lincoln did not have the constitutional authority to abolish slavery, even if he did have the moral authority to do so.
Fourth, the proclamation would only take effect if the Union army won the war. The CSA was in open rebellion to the North and believed they were independent of the US. The successions began in South Carolina. In SC’s Declaration of Succession explicitly stated: “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of “The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.”
The CSA leadership, both on a national and local level, viewed themselves as independent and sovereign nations. In today’s world, the proclamation would seem as ludicrous to us as an edict coming to the US from Canada. They were geographically connected but politically independent.
The lesson we can glean from messy Civil War politics today is that hindsight is always 20/20. We can now clearly see that Lincoln was in the right and, as such, history has treated him favorably. At the time, however, most people were not as righteous or as forward-thinking as we tend to memorialize them.
Lincoln only did what he had to do to maintain the Union. Conversely, most people in the South were not slave-owners but rather citizens of states that happened to succeed. Just like today, most people in the 1860s were not political radicals.
The core aspects of everyday life have not changed in 150 years. We haven’t evolved. Slavery persists in the form of human trafficking and as slavery to debt and the penal system. People still do only what is necessary – right or wrong – for survival. Politicians still change their positions in order to secure their own futures. Those common human factors we share with our great-great-grandparents are not lost. We are still blinded today to the standards by which future generations will judge us.
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