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.

“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.”