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The Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation

by William H. Benson

December 27, 2018

     Jill Lepore, Professor of history at Harvard, published this fall her most recent book, These Truths, A History of the United States. In it, she writes a most riveting account of the days leading up to Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

     On September 22, 1862, Lincoln announced that “he would free nearly every slave held in every Confederate state in exactly one hundred days—on New Year’s Day 1863.” Later, Lincoln explained to his cabinet. “I said nothing to anyone, but I made the promise to myself and to my maker.”

     Like a prairie wildfire, word spread south and west, to those bound in chains, stuck in bondage. Jill Lepore writes, “Across the land, people fell to their knees. A crowd of black men, women, and children came to the White House and serenaded Lincoln, singing hosannas.”

     Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, said that “in all ages there has been no act of one man and of one people so sublime as this emancipation.”

     Some wondered if Lincoln would keep his promise. The former slave Frederick Douglass said, “The first of January is to be the most memorable day in American Annals. But will that deed be done? Oh! That is the question.”

     In December, Lincoln spoke to Congress and said, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” On Christmas Eve, day ninety-two, a concerned Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts, visited Lincoln at the White House, and asked, “Would the president make good his pledge?” Lincoln assured the worried Senator that, yes, he would keep his word.

     On December 29, 1862, day ninety-seven, Lincoln read his draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet and invited their comments. Salmon Chase, secretary of the the Treasury, suggested a different ending, “I invoke the considerate judgment of all mankind and the gracious favor of almighty God.” Lincoln adopted Chase’s words. 

     “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight. Ninety-nine: New Year’s Eve 1862, watch night.”

     That night an overflow crowd gathered at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church to hear the black abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnet, preach. “At exactly 11:55 p.m., the church fell silent. At midnight, the choir broke the silence: “Blow Ye Trumpets Blow, the Year of Jubilee has come.”

     Day one hundred. At 2:00 p.m., in the White House, President Abraham Lincoln picked up his pen, and said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” He signed the document. The deed was done.

     Near the document’s conclusion, Lincoln cautions the former slaves. “ And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defen[c]e; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”

     Lincoln understood human nature. If a laborer works for a landowner, then he or should expect to receive “reasonable wages.” It is a terrible to thing to work hard and receive nothing back.

     “In South Carolina, the Proclamation was read out to the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of former slaves. At its final lines, the soldiers began to sing, quietly at first, and then louder: My Country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing!

     Jill Lepore writes, “American slavery had lasted for centuries. It had stolen the lives of millions and crushed the souls of millions more. It had cut down children, stricken mothers, and broken men. It had poisoned a people and a nation. It had turned hearts to stone. It had made eyes blind. It had left gaping wounds and terrible scars. It was not over yet. But at last, at last, an end lay within sight.”

     As Union troops advanced, and the Confederacy’s power dwindled, black men and women dropped their rakes, shovels, and hoes, and began leaving the fields where they had labored for so little.

     Lepore writes, “The American Odyssey had barely begun. From cabins and fields they left. Freed men and women headed north, south, or west, searching. They were husbands in search of wives, wives in search of husbands, mothers and fathers looking for their children, children for their parents. Some of their wanderings lasted for years. They sought their own union, a union of their beloved.”

     January 1, 1863, the day Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves.