Thenceforward and Forever Free

It's the most important American political document scarcely anyone remembers a word of. Scott McLemee reports on a new book putting the Emancipation Proclamation in context.

June 10, 2015

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time is an unforgettable experience. Nothing prepares you for how dull it turns out to be. Ranking only behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in its consequences for U.S. history, the document contains not one sentence that has passed into popular memory. It was the work, not of Lincoln the wordsmith and orator, but of Lincoln the attorney. In fact, it sounds like something drafted by a group of lawyers, with Lincoln himself just signing off on it.

Destroying an institution of systematic brutalization -- one in such contradiction to the republic’s professed founding principles that Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal” initially drew protests from slave owners -- would seem to require a word or two about justice. But the proclamation is strictly a procedural document. The main thrust comes from an executive order issued in late September 1862, “containing, among other things, the following, to wit: ‘That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free….’”

Then -- as if to contain the revolutionary implications of that last phrase -- the text doubles down on the lawyerese. The proclamation itself was issued on the aforesaid date, in accord with the stipulations of the party of the first part, including the provision recognizing “the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

In other words: “If you are a state, or part of a state, that recognizes the union enough to send representatives to Congress, don’t worry about your slaves being freed right away and without compensation. We’ll work something out.”

Richard Hofstadter got it exactly right in The American Political Tradition (1948) when he wrote that the Emancipation Proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” It is difficult to believe the same author could pen the great memorial speech delivered at Gettysburg a few months later -- much less the Second Inaugural Address.

But to revisit the proclamation after reading Edna Greene Medford’s Lincoln and Emancipation (Southern Illinois University Press) is also a remarkable experience -- a revelation of how deliberate, even strategic, its lawyerly ineloquence really was.

Medford, a professor of history at Howard University, was one of the contributors to The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (Louisiana State University Press, 2006). Her new book is part of SIUP’s Concise Lincoln Library, now up to 17 volumes. Medford’s subject overlaps with topics covered by earlier titles in the series (especially the ones on race, Reconstruction and the Eighteenth Amendment) as well as with works such as Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton, 2010).

Even so, Medford establishes her own approach by focusing not only on Lincoln’s ambivalent and changing sense of what he could and ought to do about slavery (a complex enough topic in its own right) but also on the attitudes and activities of a heterogeneous and dispersed African-American public with its own priorities.

For Lincoln, abolishing the institutionalized evils of slavery was a worthy goal but not, as such, an urgent one. As of 1860, his primary concern was that it not spread to the new states. After 1861, it was to defeat the slaveholders’ secession -- but without making any claim to the power to end slavery itself. He did support efforts to phase it out by compensating slave owners for manumission. (Property rights must be respected, after all, went the thinking of the day.) His proposed long-term solution for racial conflict was to send the emancipated slaves to Haiti, Liberia, or someplace in Central America to be determined.

Thanks in part to newspapers such as The Weekly Anglo-African, we know how free black citizens in the North responded to Lincoln, and it is clear that some were less than impressed with his antislavery credentials. “We want Nat Turner -- not speeches,” wrote one editorialist; “Denmark Vesey -- not resolutions; John Brown -- not meetings.” Especially galling, it seems, were Lincoln’s plans to reimburse former slave owners for their trouble while uprooting ex-slaves from land they had worked for decades. African-American commentators argued that Lincoln was getting it backward. They suggested that the ex-slaves be compensated and their former masters shipped off instead.

To boil Medford’s succinct but rich narrative down into something much more schematic, I’ll just say that Lincoln’s cautious regard for the rights of property backfired. Frederick Douglass wrote that the slaves “[gave] Mr. Lincoln credit for having intentions towards them far more benevolent and just than any he is known to cherish…. His pledges to protect and uphold slavery in the States have not reached them, while certain dim, undefined, but large and exaggerated notions of his emancipating purpose have taken firm hold of them, and have grown larger and firmer with every look, nod, and undertone of their oppressors.” African-American Northerners and self-emancipating slaves alike joined the Union army, despite all the risks and the obstacles.

The advantage this gave the North, and the disruption it created in the South, changed abolition from a moral or political concern to a concrete factor in the balance of forces -- and the Emancipation Proclamation, for all its uninspired and uninspiring language, was Lincoln’s concession to that reality. He claimed the authority to free the slaves of the Confederacy “by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.”

Despite its fundamentally practical motivation and its avoidance of overt questions about justice, the proclamation was a challenge to the American social and political order that had come before. And it seems to have taken another two years before the president himself could spell out its implications in full, in his speech at the Second Inaugural. The depth of the challenge is reflected in the each week's headlines, though to understand it better you might want to read Medford's little dynamite stick of a book first.


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