Do not look for a great celebration to break out on July 22.
Granted, the 22nd of July has never been much of a red-letter day. No great battles to commemorate, no horrifying cataclysms, no lily-gilding birthdays. The one event that does hang a laurel around July 22 will still go largely unnoticed — despite being at the heart of great battles, a national cataclysm, and a new birth of freedom — and that is Abraham Lincoln’s unveiling of the Emancipation Proclamation to the startled members of his cabinet, exactly 150 years ago this Sunday.
The Emancipation Proclamation did more, and for more Americans, than any other presidential document before or since. It declared that over 3 million black slaves (representing some $3 billion in capital investment) would “thenceforward, and forever, be free” (thus transforming that $3 billion into a net zero, overnight) and turned the Civil War from being a police action against the breakaway southern Confederacy into a crusade for freedom. It was, as Lincoln himself said, “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century.”
Still, there will be no federal holiday, no emancipation parades, no proclamation fireworks.
This will be, first, because the language of the proclamation is so stultifyingly and legally dull, full of whereases and therefores, that the whole thing leaves approximately the same impression on the spirit as a lump of coal. Who wants to celebrate a document that begins, “In pursuance of the sixth section of the act of Congress entitled ‘An act to suppress insurrection and to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate property of rebels, and for other purposes . . .’”?
But the uninflected detachment of the proclamation’s language is far less a problem for the proclamation’s reputation than the limitation clauses Lincoln insisted on inserting. The proclamation did not simply proclaim liberty throughout all the land; far from it, the proclamation expressly exempted the four slave states that had stayed with the Union (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and the counties and parishes in Virginia and Louisiana that had been occupied by Union troops and restored to civil order. If the proclamation was indeed about freeing slaves, then the slaves in those places must have had an interesting time understanding why they didn’t qualify.
Even worse, Lincoln specifically offered as the constitutional justification for this dramatic act of governmental taking nothing more Moses-like than his war powers as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” What should have been, by our lights, an opportunity for this most eloquent of presidents to wax more eloquent still is described by Lincoln as “a fit and necessary military measure.” No parting the Red Sea, no making the world safe for democracy. The proclamation is presented as nothing more than a military tactic for subduing the Confederacy.
But lurking behind these deflations of the proclamation is a more modern, but also more lethal, objection: that the proclamation is just one more self-righteous reminder to African-Americans that they have no agency of their own, but must rely on the goodwill of white folks, even for freedom. “I just can’t wrap my head around celebrating the fact that someone else freed my ancestors,” complains John McWhorter, much less that “freedom happened partly as the result of whites making other whites see the error of their ways. . . . I am always more interested in what we did rather than what somebody did to us.”
And so the Emancipation Proclamation has gone into eclipse as just another tardy, and empty, gesture of political manipulation, conceived by a Manipulator-in-Chief.
Or is this eclipse instead a bitter testimony to the shallowness with which we read a complex historical document, written by an unfathomably complex man, at the height of our most complex national crisis?
Is the proclamation legalistic in tone? Yes — but then again, it is a legal document, transferring the ownership of 3 million or more items of “property” from their owners to the “property” itself. One false step by Lincoln in the wording of the proclamation, one indulgent flight of anti-slavery rhetoric, and any slaveholders with access to the federal courts would have been on the courthouse steps the next morning, angrily demanding injunctions. And at the apex of those courts sat none less than Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, spoiling for a chance to put a stake into emancipation’s heart.
This is also why Lincoln zoned off the exempted areas from the proclamation’s application. Lincoln had no legal or constitutional way to lay hands on slavery apart from invoking “the war power of the government.” Since the exempted zones were precisely those that were no longer at war with the United States, or never had been, Lincoln had no “war power” to exercise there. If he had tried, he would have provoked the same train of federal litigation that led nowhere but to the lap of Roger Taney.
And is it really the case that the proclamation undermines black agency and pride, taking away with one hand what it purports to give with the other? Only a historical fool will deny that slaves took the opportunities presented by the Civil War to grab whatever pieces of freedom came within their reach, with or without a by-your-leave to Abraham Lincoln. They deserted the plantations whenever the Union armies marched by; they hid escaped Union prisoners-of-war; they guided Union generals through swamps; and they went north into the teeth of white northern hostility to find any kind of life they could, so long as it was free.
One thing they could not do, however, was emancipate themselves. The runaway slave would always remain, legally, a slave. And if the day ever came when the Union grew tired enough of war to open negotiations for some amicable settlement with the Confederacy, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that southern negotiators would not have made the rendition of those runaway slaves part of the settlement — or that war-weary northern whites would not have agreed to it. Emancipation had to be de jure, not just de facto, and that required a legal action. And the only man with the power, the authority, and the wisdom to do it so that it could never be undone was Abraham Lincoln.
Precisely because notions of self-emancipation are more a matter of sentiment and pride than of footnotes, they pose the most intractable resistance to restoring the honor of the Emancipation Proclamation. But to deny the proclamation its place in the history of all Americans repudiates the basic lesson of our tumbled past: that white and black owe each other far more than either can pay off. “Those of us engaged in this racial struggle in America are like knights on horseback,” wrote Langston Hughes in 1943, “the Negroes on a white horse and the white folks on a black.” There is no shame in admitting what we owe each other as Americans; the shame is only in repudiating that debt.