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Why Celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation?

On New Years Day, 1863, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and countless other abolitionists across the nation waited anxiously for word on the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In grade school, I learned that it freed the slaves. But when I later read the document, I realized that it was not that simple: Lincoln only freed the slaves on Confederate soil, exempting those states under Union occupation and those fighting for the Union. Why, then, on January first, 1863, did abolitionists celebrate the news of partial emancipation as if it fulfilled the very core of their mission?

Lincoln was no abolitionist. Up to the moment he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the stated goal of the War was the reunion of the states, with no mention of emancipation. Lincoln bent over backwards to leave the door wide open for any state wanting to reenter the Union. In a meeting with representatives from the slave-holding Border States in July of 1862, he proposed the colonization of black Americans to South America, compensation for any slave-owners who emancipated their slaves, and gradual emancipation by the turn of the century (Medford, 13-15). From the moment Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation till the night before he signed the final draft, abolitionists had every reason to believe Lincoln would backslide. But he didn’t.

After decades of fighting slavery with virtually no response from the federal government, the abolitionists could breath a sigh of relief. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall on that day. Imagine William Lloyd Garrison, who had been gripped by the struggle since 1829, sitting in Boston Music Hall and seeing the word “emancipation” in the President’s handwriting; Frederick Douglass, who carried the scars of slavery on his back, welling up with joy at the prose; and the group of Virginia runaways who gathered in the nations capitol to hear the news, only to find that they were now free (Weekly Anglo-African).

The abolitionists knew this was the beginning of the end. No one understood this better than Douglass, who saw the document as the start of a journey that would inevitably abolish slavery:

“…we were thenceforward willing to allow the president all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.” (Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 484)

They had a type of foresight and perspective that is hard for me to fathom.

Just as the abolitionists predicted, Lincoln did not stop after the Emancipation Proclamation but began moving closer towards full emancipation. He started by opening the Union Army to black troops and, after heavy protest by black service members, passed an equal pay bill for the troops. In the 1864 elections, he encouraged the inclusion of an anti-slavery amendment on the Republican Platform. Only weeks before his death, on a trip to Richmond, freed blacks streamed into the streets to greet “the Great Emancipator” (Medford, 36). I believe he deserved the title.

There is something momentous about the Proclamation that I completely missed when I first read it. I did not understand the decades of hard work put forth by the abolitionist community, the political tightrope Lincoln walked by signing the document, and the millions of slaves who sensed that the nation had embarked on a path to freedom. On January first, 1863, the movement had been given its due, and the throngs of activists had every reason to party. Not only did they believe in the Proclamation, but they also believed in their president.

I’m starting to feel a little less skeptical about the version of history I learned in elementary school. My teachers gave me the precise truth: the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, albeit eventually. If I wanted to truly understand the document, I should have looked no further than the accounts of that joyous night.

“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the Emancipation Proclamation” (Douglass, 592). 

Ned Porter is a student at Skidmore College and an intern for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. 

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