The Right Opinion

Emancipation: January 1, 1863

By Ken Blackwell · Jan. 1, 2013

Editor's Note: This column was coauthored by Bob Morrison.

President Abraham Lincoln had been warned by Gen. George B. McClellan not to interfere with the institution of slavery. McClellan was a “War Democrat,” willing to fight to preserve the Union, but unwilling to do anything about the root cause of the rebellion that threatened the life of the nation.

Ironically, it was McClellan's victory at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, that had given Lincoln the opportunity he needed to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In that document, the President warned rebellious states in the South that they would have their slaves freed if they did not cease their insurrection against the federal government and once again obey the laws of the Union.

That hundred-day period had been a difficult one for President Lincoln. There would be political reverses in the mid-term congressional elections that fall. Democrats campaigned on the slogan “The Union as it was and the Constitution as it is.” That meant slavery would be secure in all the states where it then existed. They picked up congressional seats and won key state governorships.

And then, there was the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Thousands of Union soldiers died in thirteen fruitless charges against Marye's Heights. An extraordinary appearance of the Northern Lights on the night of that battle led people to say the very heavens were draped in mourning.

Now, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln proved true to his word on Emancipation. But, as he sat down to sign the engrossed copy of the historic document, he noted an error in the text. Lincoln knew that the U.S. Supreme Court was hostile to Emancipation. If there was a single error, Lincoln knew the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger B. Taney would strike down the Emancipation Proclamation. So he ordered it re-copied for signature later that same day.

Meanwhile, President Lincoln had to stand for hours shaking thousands of hands in the traditional New Year's Day reception at the White House. When he came back to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, his hand was shaking. As his puzzled colleagues looked on, he exercised his weary arm.

He explained: “If I am remembered for anything, it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.” He did not want future generations to see a feeble signature and say he hesitated. So he signed it “Abraham Lincoln.” He wrote out his full name, not signing it as he usually did, “A. Lincoln.”

January 1, 2013,  the National Archives places the Emancipation Proclamation on rare public display, the text is hardly legible, the victim of age and light. But Abraham Lincoln stands out clearly.

Some cynics today say Lincoln freed no slaves where he had power and all the slaves where he did not. Then, too, the London newspapers adopted a snarky tone: “The high principle of Mr. Lincoln's proclamation is that a man may not own a man unless he is loyal to Mr. Lincoln's government.”

That criticism was as ignorant as it was unfair. Lincoln was no despot. He knew that he could not constitutionally deprive loyal citizens of their slaves so long as they obeyed the laws. He pleaded and cajoled the congressmen from the loyal slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. They stubbornly refused his offers of compensated emancipation.

Lincoln was an able lawyer who new his brief. He had been a reader of Richmond newspapers for years. When secessionist editors boasted that the South could outlast the North because they could send all their young men into the army, while slaves would work the farms and factories, Lincoln took note.

Because the rebels themselves claimed slavery was a military asset, Lincoln knew he was on solid ground in freeing those slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation was a constitutional exercise of his powers as commander-in-chief of the army and navy. He justified it as an act of military necessity.

Abraham Lincoln is remembered as the Great Emancipator. He knew that the advance of the Union armies would bring freedom to millions.

Lincoln's bold black signature had done this. And he would do more. As the movie, Lincoln, so clearly shows, the president was the prime mover behind the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. That measure ended slavery in every state. It's a shame that the able writers and directors of this new movie did not show Lincoln signing that amendment, too. A president's signature is not necessary for a constitutional amendment, but Lincoln once again had his whole heart and soul in it.

This is the day, January 1, 1863, one hundred fifty years ago, that changed America forever. From that date onward, Father Abraham's armies, the armies of the United States, became armies of liberation. Those soldiers, black and white, carried freedom in their haversacks.

7 Comments

Howard Last in Wyoming said:

The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the states that seceded. Lincoln thought the freed slaves would form a 5th column. Surprise, many joined their states forces. Also if the Emancipation Proclamation applied to the northern states, Lincoln was afraid of a revolt by the white citizens. Do they teach any of this in govmint skools. So much for Lincoln being the great Emancipator.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 2:56 AM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

The South had some brilliant Generals, but dark-hearted plantation owners. Did Democrats have an Epiphany during the first civil war, or did it take years for the Holy Spirit to change their hearts and minds? Back then it was the Grand Army of the Republic verses Slave/secession States. Today's civil conflict: Makers verses Takers. Freedom/Liberty is always in my haversack--E pluribus Unum is my American Prayer for 2013!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 6:18 AM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri said:

Ken, thanks for this uplifting article about Lincoln. Even some people I admire greatly curse Lincoln as a tyrant, rather than an American patriot who did exactly what he was elected to do: hold the union together. I firmly believe had the south been allowed to pick up their marbles and go their own way, then every time a state got it`s panties in a wad they would have left the union and we would have wound up with 20 little countries on this continent none of which would have been worth spit. It would just have become Europe on the North American continent.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 2:17 PM

M Rick Timms MD in Georgia replied:

Or perhaps, Richard, after the Southern States left, the Northern States would have continued along nicely while reading the Constitution and recognizing that the States are indeed each valuable as distinct entities which should be banded together in a Union for Border Control and common defense - but that is all. If Lincoln had not violated the Constitutional Rights of any State to withdraw, and forced States to stay in the Union at the point of a gun we would have a less centralized and more Constitutional government that the defective Statist system that has evolved thru unrestrained abusive expansion of the Commerce clause and executive order.

To those of us who think the Constitution is more important than simply which States remain or become part of the Union, Lincoln was clearly a Tyrant. It is precisely his abuse of executive power that has presaged the current assault on the Constitution by President Obama and the progressive left.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 8:47 PM

Howard Last in Wyoming replied:

Richard, most times we agree, but not on this. Lincoln was elected to uphold the Constitution. That Constitution is silent on states seceding, therefore by the Tenth Amendment they have every right to secede. Also the Southern States followed the Constitution much closer than did Lincoln. Jefferson Davis should be on Mt. Rushmore instead of Lincoln.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:40 AM

VoR in Ohio replied:

Even if one were to agree that states had the right to secede, they had no right to attack a Federal military post. In doing so, they committed treason.

Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 7:19 PM

Rod in USA said:

I agree that slavery is a horrible institution and should have been abolished. I applaud the Emandcipation Proclamation for that reason. I also like the result: a preserved union.

That said, I agree with the principle that Lincoln ignored the states' rights to secede and brought the southern states back to the fold by force. In that then, though one result was positive, other results were negative. I mourn the death of the Constitutionally limited decentralized government that dies in large part at the end of the Civil War, and the rise of the tyrannical statist progressive government starting generally around the turn of the century.

I do agree that we could not have won World War II were it not for the strength of the Union. And I agree that we are stronger together than we would ever have been apart. However, the bad came with the good, in many ways.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 1:00 PM