A Spirit and Power Far Beyond Its Letter


“My hand is almost paralyzed,” he explained to startled onlookers. “If my name ever goes down in history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document will say, ‘He hesitated.’” After a few moments, he took up the pen again, and, as one witness remembered, “slowly, firmly wrote that ‘Abraham Lincoln’ with which the whole world is now familiar. He looked up, smiled, and said: ‘That will do.’”

For African American men who had long wished to take up arms for their country, the Emancipation Proclamation lifted the barriers that had held them back. The document promised that “such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”

In August 1863 Lincoln prepared a speech to give to his old neighbors in Springfield, Illinois, defending the Emancipation Proclamation and the new corps of black soldiers it had encouraged. Ultimately the president did not travel to his hometown Union rally, but he asked a neighbor to read these tough words: There would be some black men, he warned, “who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”

Frederick Douglass, too, understood how important it was that African Americans could take up arms to defend their country.

Around the same time that Lincoln was writing his message to Springfield, Douglass was working to enlist black men in the Union army. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Douglass wrote. He knew that the proclamation would never stand the test of time as literature, line by line.

But Douglass read between the lines. Even though Lincoln’s most important piece of writing had been inspired, Douglass insisted, by “the low motive of military necessity,” he ultimately realized it was “a little more than it purported.” In that legalistic document Douglass sensed a “spirit and power far beyond its letter”—one that placed “the North on the side of justice and civilization, and the rebels on the side of robbery and barbarism.”