A Spirit and Power Far Beyond Its Letter

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The scene was wild and grand. Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression, from shouts of praise to joys and tears.” That was how Frederick Douglass described the moment when the words of the Emancipation Proclamation first came over the nation’s telegraph wires on January 1, 1863.

But after studying the document more carefully, Douglass complained: “It was not a proclamation of ‘liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof,’ such as we had hoped it would be, but was one marked by discriminations and reservations.”

Such mixed reactions to what some contemporaries called “the second Declaration of Independence” were understandable—and typical. Lincoln’s document freed slaves only in the Confederacy, where Lincoln had no power to do so. As one New York sergeant noted, “The idea of giving liberty to bondsmen that are not within reach of his beneficences, and in the same article withholding the same from those that are within reach seems to me rather mixed.”

But its author was always aware of the constitutional limits on his authority to crush the institution he had hated all his life. Lincoln began writing the document in the early summer of 1862, and apparently he found it hard to compose from the beginning. One witness remembered him producing no more than a few words each day, “studying carefully each sentence.” On July 17 he read his cabinet officers the tepid result: a brief executive order that called emancipation “a fit and necessary war measure” to restore federal authority. Lincoln told the cabinet he had “resolved upon this step” and sought neither advice nor consent.

Yet no proclamation was issued that day, because Secretary of State William H. Seward counseled delay. With the war going so badly, he thought the country would view the order as “our last shriek on the retreat.” Lincoln put aside his draft and waited for military victory.

It came on September 17 at Antietam. Five days later, as promised, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Proclamation. “It is now up to the country and the world to pass judgment,” Lincoln nervously told a small crowd of serenaders a few days after its release. The first reactions justified his fears. A regiment from the president’s home state of Illinois promptly deserted, defiantly vowing to “lie in the woods until moss grew on their backs rather than help free slaves.” Illinois political leaders added fuel to the fire by declaring: “We will not render support to the present administration in carrying on its wicked abolition crusade.” As one angry New York soldier wrote home: “I sware I wish that all the abolissions sons of bitches had to come downe here and take the front . . . and all Git blowd to hell.”

To be sure, there was praise—“all that a vain man could wish,” Lincoln admitted—but even abolitionists were disappointed that the document offered an escape clause: 100 days’ notice for the Confederacy to end the rebellion, in return for which they could keep their slaves after all. Most Republican papers cheered, but Lincoln was distraught. “Stocks have declined, and troops come forward more slowly than ever,” he lamented. The worst political aftershock was to come. In the fall 1862 elections, Lincoln’s Republicans lost 29 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lincoln refused to waver. “We cannot escape history,” he told Congress on December 1.

The day he was scheduled to sign the final Emancipation Proclamation was devoid of ceremony. In the privacy of his White House office after a long New Year’s Day reception, Lincoln took up his pen, then paused and put it down, fingers quivering from hours of handshaking.