The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice

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Thomas Bryan purchased it and presented it to the Soldiers' Home in Chicago, of which he was president. The home was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Fortunately, four photographic copies of the original had been made. The official engrossed document is in the National Archives and follows Lincoln's original copy.

It is worth observing that there was no mention, in the final draft, of Lincoln's pet schemes of compensation and colonization, which were in the Preliminary Proclamation of September 22, 1862. Perhaps Lincoln was about to give up on such impracticable propositions.

In the Preliminary Proclamation, the President had said that he would declare slaves in designated territories "thenceforward, and forever free." In the final draft of January 1, 1863, he was content to say that they "are, and henceforward shall be free."

Nothing had been said in the preliminary draft about the use of blacks as soldiers. In the summer of 1862 the Confiscation Act had authorized the President to use blacks in any way he saw fit, and there had been some limited use of them in noncombat activities. In stating in the Proclamation that former slaves were to be received into the armed services, the President believed that he was using congressional authority to strike a mighty blow against the Confederacy.

It was late afternoon before the Proclamation was ready for transmission to the press and others. Earlier drafts had been available, and some papers, including the Washington Evening Star had used those drafts, but it was at about 8 p.m. on January 1 that the transmission of the text over the telegraph wires actually began.

Young Edward Rosewater, scarcely 20 years old, had an exciting New Year's Day. He was a mere telegraph operator in the War Department, but he knew the President and had gone to the White House reception earlier that day and had greeted him.

When the President made his regular call at the telegraph office that evening, young Rosewater was on duty and was more excited than ever. He greeted the President and went back to his work. Lincoln walked over to see what Rosewater was sending out. It was the Emancipation Proclamation!

If Rosewater was excited, the President seemed the picture of relaxation. After watching the young operator for a while, the President went over to the desk of Tom Eckert, the chief telegraph operator in the War Department, sat in his favorite chair, where he had written most of the Preliminary Proclamation the previous summer, and gave his feet the proper elevation. For him, it was the end of a long, busy, but perfect day.

For many others in various parts of the country, the day was just beginning, for the celebrations were not considered official until word was received that the President had actually signed the Proclamation.

The slaves of the District of Columbia did not have to wait, however, for back in April 1862, the Congress had passed a law setting them free. Even so, they joined in the widespread celebrations on New Year's Day.

At Israel Bethel Church, the Reverend Henry McNeal Turner went out and secured a copy of the Washington Evening Star that carried the text of the Proclamation. Back at the church, Turner waved the newspaper from the pulpit and began to read the document. This was the signal for unrestrained celebration characterized by men squealing, women fainting, dogs barking, and whites and blacks shaking hands.

The Washington celebrations continued far into the night. In the Navy Yard, cannon began to roar and continued for some time.

In New York the news of the Proclamation was received with mixed feelings. Blacks looked and felt happy, one reporter said, while abolitionists "looked glum and grumbled…that the proclamation was only given on account of military necessity."

Within a week, however, there were several large celebrations in which abolitionists took part.

At Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, the celebrated Henry Ward Beecher preached a commemorative sermon to an overflow audience. "The Proclamation may not free a single slave," he declared, "but it gives liberty a moral recognition."

There was still another celebration at Cooper Union on January 5. Several speakers, including the veteran abolitionist Lewis Tappan, addressed the overflow audience. Music interspersed the several addresses. Two of the renditions were the "New John Brown Song" and the "Emancipation Hymn."

A veritable galaxy of leading literary figures gathered in the Music Hall in Boston to take notice of the climax of the fight that New England abolitionists had led for more than a generation. Among those present were John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Parkman, and Josiah Quincy.

Toward the close of the meeting, Ralph Waldo Emerson read his "Boston Hymn" to the audience. In the evening, a large crowd gathered at Tremont Temple to await the news that the President had signed the Proclamation. Among the speakers were Judge Thomas Russell, Anna Dickinson, Leonard Grimes, William Wells Brown, and Frederick Douglass.

Finally, it was announced that "it is coming over the wire," and pandemonium broke out! At midnight, the group had to vacate Tremont Temple, and from there they went to the Twelfth Baptist Church at the invitation of its pastor, Leonard Grimes. Soon the church was packed, and it was almost dawn when the assemblage dispersed.

Frederick Douglass pronounced it a "worthy celebration of the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thraldom of the ages."

The trenchant observation by Douglass that the Emancipation Proclamation was but the first step could not have been more accurate. Although the presidential decree would not free slaves in areas where the United States could not enforce the Proclamation, it sent a mighty signal both to the slaves and to the Confederacy that enslavement would no longer be tolerated.

An important part of that signal was the invitation to the slaves to take up arms and participate in the fight for their own freedom. That more than 185,000 slaves as well as free blacks accepted the invitation indicates that those who had been the victims of thraldom were now among the most enthusiastic freedom fighters.

Meanwhile, no one appreciated better than Lincoln the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation had a quite limited effect in freeing the slaves directly. It should be remembered, however, that in the Proclamation he called emancipation "an act of justice," and in later weeks and months he did everything he could to confirm his view that it was An Act of Justice.

And no one was more anxious than Lincoln to take the necessary additional steps to bring about actual freedom.

Thus, he proposed that the Republican Party include in its 1864 platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment. When he was "notified" of his renomination, as was the custom in those days, he singled out that plank in the platform calling for constitutional emancipation and pronounced it "a fitting and necessary conclusion to the final success of the Union cause."

Early in 1865, when Congress sent the amendment to Lincoln for his signature, he is reported to have said, "This amendment is a King's cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up."

Despite the fact that the Proclamation did not emancipate the slaves and surely did not do what the 13th Amendment did in winding things up, it is the Proclamation and not the 13th Amendment that has been remembered and celebrated over the past 130 years.

That should not be surprising. Americans seem not to take to celebrating legal documents. The language of such documents is not particularly inspiring, and they are the product of the deliberations of large numbers of people.

We celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but not the ratification of the Constitution. Jefferson's words in the Declaration moved the emerging Americans in a way that Madison's committee of style failed to do in the Constitution.

Thus, almost annually—at least for the first hundred years—each New Year's Day was marked in many parts of the country by a grand celebration, replete with brass band, if there was one; an African-American fire company, if there was one; and social, religious, and civic organizations.

African Americans of the community would march to the courthouse, some church, or the high school. There, they would assemble to hear the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by an oration by a prominent person.

The speeches varied in character and purpose. Some of them urged African Americans to insist upon equal rights; some of them urged frugality and greater attention to morals; whereas still others urged their listeners to harbor no ill will toward their white brethren.

This is the last of a series of excerpts from Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Part One: Celebrating African-American Culture
Part Two: How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy
Part Three: Understanding Slavery in Terms of Black and White
Part Four: America's Cultural Roots Traced to Enslaved African Ancestors

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