- Historic Sites
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
For relief, turn to another treatment. In Lincoln and the Negro , Mr. Benjamin Quarles discusses one poignant aspect of the Civil War which cannot easily be reduced to terms of sea slugs: the business of the Negroes who lived just below the ladder’s bottom rung when the war began and who found in the war, in spite of all the odds, a chance to start climbing.
Mr. Quarles has a point of view of his own, the substance of which apparently is that what people think about an action taken—what they feel deep in their hearts, what they respond to with their blood and muscles and their dreams—may in the end mean even more than the action itself; may in fact transfigure the action and make it contain more than the actor himself originally meant. It may, finally, confound the mathematics of the pundit who adds two and two together and finds that the answer cannot possibly be anything greater than a meager four.
He concerns himself here, chiefly, with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Any way you look at it, here was a very odd document. It represented the very least that a wartime President (concerned, somehow, that the war which was costing so many lives ought to be a little bit more than a matter of one slug swallowing another) could do about the terrible issue of human slavery. It was a timid pronunciamento, an attempt to carry water on both shoulders, a politician’s halfhearted stab at seeming to do something without actually doing it. It ordained that slaves would be free in precisely those areas where the Federal government lacked power to enforce its edict; where the Federal government was in full control, with marshals and courts and great ranks of soldiers to make the writ good, slavery was left untouched. It even permitted the states which had seceded to retain their slaves if they would just come back into the Union in three months’ time. Altogether, as Mr. Quarles points out, it “sounded like a cross between a military directive and a lawyer’s brief.” It was an instrument of developing war policy, nothing more or less, coldly conceived and attaining eloquence only because its central paragraph ended with the words “forever free.” It would mean as much, or as little, as the government tried to make it mean.
A fraud, then, offering nothing of consequence to a luckless pawn? (To Mr. Wilson, the contemplated destruction of slavery was “the rabble-rousing moral issue which is necessary in every modern war to make the conflict appear as a melodrama.") It might have gone that way—except that the Negroes themselves, who after all had the most direct stake in the matter, believed it. Believing it, they turned the Emancipation Proclamation into one of the most powerful and significant utterances any American President has ever made.
Mr. Quarles emphasizes that the Negroes were not being deceived. They knew that the edict of September 22, 1862, was “little more than the declaration of an intention,” and that there was “nothing in custom or in law” that could force the President to follow it up. But they believed in it, and believed in it so fervently that—as Mr. Quarles puts it—the Proclamation “changed the whole tone and character of the war.” They saw it before Lincoln himself did, and their belief had much to do with the fact that it quickly took on “the evocative power reserved only for the halfdozen great charter expressions of human liberty in the entire Western tradition.”
Not the least of the people on whom this faith had its full effect was Lincoln himself. In the long weeks between his issuance of the preliminary Proclamation, just after the Battle of Antietam, and the final proclamation in January, 1863, Lincoln appears to have wavered. He was not quite sure, even then, or for that matter a good deal later. On July 31, 1863, after Gettysburg and Vicksburg had underlined his final authority, he wrote, broodingly: “I think I shall not retract or repudiate it,” quite as if the matter were still up for final decision. But he stayed with it, partly because the people in bondage had taken him at his word.
How could he do otherwise? Mr. Quarles recites the familiar story about the gang of ex-slaves who were working for the quartermaster corps at a Federal army outpost in South Carolina while the war was still on. They were talking about Lincoln and what he had done and might yet do, and one white-haired patriarch interrupted them sternly by saying: “What do you know ‘bout Massa Linkum? Massa Linkum be ebrewhere. He walk de earth like de Lord.” No man can swim against that sort of current. The doubt and hesitation which are only partly hidden beneath the long, lawyerlike phrases of the Proclamation at last fell away, and Lincoln finally confessed that his issuance of this document “was the one thing that would make people remember that he had lived.”
The thing of course had immediate practical effects. For one point, it got Negroes into the United States Army, which automatically made slavery a dead duck forever after. (You do not, after all, return to slavery—or even, permanently, to second-class citizenship—a man who has worn his country’s uniform and endured battle for it.) For another, it gave the Negro the feeling that he had a stake in America and in all that America might mean. “As the war moved toward its close,” says Mr. Quarles, “the Negro’s sense of identity with the land of his birth grew deeper, nourished anew by its source—Abraham Lincoln.”