January/ February 2013 Thenceforward and Forever Free, Mostly

Deserving of neither blanket condemnation nor blind exaltation, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a brave compromise.

By Louis P. Masur

On the morning of January 1, Lincoln went to his office to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, but noticed an error in the formulaic superscription and returned the document to be corrected. After spending three hours at a public reception, he withdrew again to his study to sign the corrected copy. Frederick Seward, the assistant secretary of state, recalled that Lincoln’s hand quivered—perhaps from the exertion of the day, perhaps from the magnanimity of the moment. He remembered Lincoln pausing before he signed and saying, “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper… . If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” Later, Frederick Douglass spoke for many when he announced, “The fourth of July was great, but the first of January, when we consider it in all its relations and bearings, is incomparably greater.”

Emancipation, however, must be understood not as a moment—not as merely the first of January, 1863—but as the beginning of a long process. In the years following that first Day of Jubilee, Lincoln continued to defend the Proclamation and began working for a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery throughout the United States forever. That amendment, which Lincoln called a “King’s cure for all the evils,” finally won congressional approval on January 31, 1865, and was transmitted to the states for ratification. The president was so excited that he signed the joint resolution, even though his endorsement was not required by the Constitution. Lincoln began to think past emancipation and toward a more holistic life for former slaves. What would freedom look like? How would meaningful progress be achieved? He talked about the importance of wage labor and education, and in his final public speech he countenanced limited black suffrage. He acknowledged that measures would have to be adopted and support given, so that “the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other.”

But if the Emancipation Proclamation freed most slaves and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery as an institution, both stopped short of providing a viable path toward equality. The failure of Reconstruction led to nearly a century of crushing oppression, with freed slaves and their children mired in poverty, disfranchisement, racial violence, legalized segregation, and, in many cases, labor conditions that amounted to little more than de facto slavery. Only after World War II, with the rise of the civil rights movement, did these conditions begin to change.

In 1963, 100 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and praised the decree. King did not share young civil rights leaders’ willingness to criticize the document or demean Lincoln. Instead, King said that Lincoln’s “symbolic shadow” reached far and the Proclamation “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

But all was not optimistic that day. King went on to offer a searing indictment of American society. “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he said, his voice booming across the Mall. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”

The Emancipation Proclamation now stands alongside the Declaration of Independence as a foundation of freedom in America. Given the unprecedented pressures that he faced, Lincoln should be remembered for doing all that he could, for overcoming virulent political and social opposition, for balancing political compromise with military realities, and for advancing what he believed to be a moral and pragmatic path forward, despite, at times, his own misgivings. And while his work ended more than a century ago, our own work must continue today.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

Louis P. Masur is a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University and the author of "Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union."