SAN JOSE, CA, January 10, 2015 – On January 10, over one hundred and fifty years ago, as the new year of 1863 got underway, the American public was in a state of disarray and division – much worse than the nation is at this period in time. The United States of America was in the midst of the Civil War, and it was an incredibly terrible time as the nation was tragically ripped apart by the horrors of that warfare.
Only nine days prior, the new year was rung in with great uncertainty as people awaited word from their family and loved ones on the front lines. The war still raged on despite the best wishes or hopes of the people. Yet, nine days prior, on New Year’s Day, President Abraham Lincoln had signed an executive order that changed the war, and U.S. history. At the time, Lincoln had slipped away from the thousands of guests and the new year’s festivities in the White House to sign into law his Proclamation of Emancipation.
Lincoln’s presidential order was essentially an executive directive freeing the slaves in the rebellious states of the South that were actively fighting the Army of the Republic for the southerners “right” to withdraw from the Union and govern their states without federal infringement upon their sovereignty, or specifically without any interference in the institution of slavery. A superficial consideration of this incredibly divisive time in the U. S. may initially view the president’s Emancipation Proclamation as a form of tyranny.
Certainly, state’s sovereignty advocates could have viewed it in that light. Confederates criticized Lincoln as overstepping his authority as a leader of a democratic nation. Ironically, prior to and during the Civil War, white southern slaveholders and portrayed President Lincoln as a tyrant, and utilized an easily defensible argument that Lincoln would eradicate state’s rights, and the damn Yankees would be sticking their noses into the business of the southern states. Such a portrayal was important to take the fight to the North.
Ironically, the majority of the white population in the South did not own any slaves, and the greater majority of those who owned slaves only owned one or two. Lincoln’s naive belief was that the aristocratic Democrat power structure could not garner much substantial support among the poor white population. He was wrong. He seriously underestimated such political power.
When Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation it easily fit with the view that Lincoln was a tyrant. It was this portrayal of Lincoln that the political authorities in the South used to stir up the general white population to fight against the Army of the Republic. However, the argument was essentially the facade created by the Southern slave owners to cover their twisted logic of the “right” to own human beings, and the distraction to validate the institution of slavery.
Even though Lincoln was wrong about the strength of the hold of the Democrat aristocracy upon the southern population, he believed in the Constitution, and did comprehend that he was president of all of the United States and not just the North. He respected his limitations under the law of the land. Because of this, Lincoln could only implement the Emancipation Proclamation by way of the war powers vested in the president by the Constitution as the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military.
The reality that the Emancipation Proclamation was decreed in time of war must not be diminished. Normalcy did not have a place in this time. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation could only be enacted during the period of time the United States government was engaged in armed conflict with the Confederate States. Lincoln’s effort was deliberately measured and limited in so many ways, and due to Lincoln’s concerns as he hesitated to overstep his authority by restraining federal dictates to be directed only toward the defiant states.
In reality, the executive edict was never intended to free all slaves all throughout America. It could not. Because of that, it may not have made much sense to many Americans in the beginning of 1863. Actually, his decree seemed an impotent demand from a president with virtually no authority over the Confederate States of America. On the surface to the political elite in the South, it may have appeared as a futile attempt at freeing the slaves they held captive. To some, it may have even seemed as if Lincoln had lost his senses. But, Lincoln was respecting his limitations under the law of the land.
The proclamation certainly had little practical effect upon the Confederate government and leadership. President Jefferson Davis and the aristocratic slave owners ignored Mr. Lincoln’s initial pronouncement in September of 1862 that challenged the Confederate States to free their slaves as a foundation to re-join the Union. Despite what people perceived about the Emancipation Proclamation in those early days of January 1863, Lincoln’s decree proved to be brilliant statesmanship and actually accomplished much more than could be measured by the numbers of slaves set free in the heart of Dixie.
Looking below the surface, which is often harder to do for the greater general public, President Lincoln managed to accomplish three significant actions with a single effort of his pen. Actually, Lincoln’s edict did not technically free any slaves in the South other than those who managed to escape to the safety of Union troops.
One direct result of Lincoln’s mandate, which could not be easily measured, took place slowly but steadily within the black community as word of the president’s proclamation spread through the enslaved population. Although the decree outwardly stated that the slaves held captive as property in Confederate states were to be set free, no cooperation from the slave owners would have honestly been expected. However, Lincoln was able to demonstrate through such actions that he cared enough about abolishing slavery that he would take such drastic executive action.
Trust in Lincoln led slaves to begin to believe in the possibility of freedom. Lincoln’s decree encouraged the slaves throughout the country to become bold, and many determined to take matters into their own hands and break for Union lines while they had the opportunity. At the same time, Confederate leaders, especially President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Stephens slammed a fundamental premise of the United States as asserted in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal…” claiming Thomas Jefferson and the Founders as wrong. Many blacks saw an opportunity to escape such a nightmare and took it.
Another major result of the Proclamation was that the presidential action undermined the efforts of the Confederate government to secure official support and recognition as a legitimate nation. The words of the Proclamation challenged the international perception of the rebel Confederate States as justified in rebellion as they had tried t0 portray themselves as the victims of an oppressive federal regime whose sovereignty had been usurped by a dictator in Washington, D.C. Lincoln’s mandate revealed the Confederate States as a nation intent on perpetuating slavery. This derailed the efforts of the Jefferson Davis government to secure nation status.
A great fear of the Lincoln administration was that the French, under Napoleon III, were in a good position to aid the Confederacy after their invasion of, and eventual dominion of Mexico. France, as well as Great Britain were growing to favor the idea that the Confederate government should be recognized as a legitimate country. If the the Confederate States of America had been recognized as a true nation, the Civil War would have likely given way to an international war involving many interests. Such European recognition would have left a major impact upon the future of the United States of America. The Proclamation dismantled the international crisis.
A far more lasting result from the Emancipation Proclamation was that it established the foundation for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment for which Abraham Lincoln fought so hard. The Proclamation paved the way for the effort to push the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress and out to the states for ratification. Mr. Lincoln’s signature actually appears on the archival copy of this amendment which was approved on February 1, 1865. After the approval of Congress, it was then sent on to the state legislatures for ratification. Sadly, Lincoln was never able to witness the formal adoption of the amendment which essentially completed the abolition of slavery in the U.S.
Stephen Speilberg zeroed in on this slice of essential U.S. history in the movie Lincoln. The biopic depicts quite well the serious drama and intrigue behind Abraham Lincoln’s efforts in pushing for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But regardless of the latest effort to help Americans understand Lincoln’s greatness, Lincoln stands strongly against such a backdrop of political manipulation and self-centered motivation by what he did as president.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment demonstrate Lincoln’s greatness. He worked not for selfish personal gain, he stood strong on principles that he believed in, and principles that had been forged in blood by other selfless men – the Founding Fathers. He worked for others: for those of another race, for all Americans, for the ideals of the United States of America. Lincoln stands out as an example for all who aspire to public office – he not only put the good of the entire country first; he put the good of humanity first.