Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War

By Howard Jones | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice, Warranted by . . . Military Necessity

On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

President Abraham Lincoln, January 1, 1863

The Emancipation Proclamation marked the defining moment in the Civil War because it promoted the president's central goal of preserving the Union and, after some more cause for alarm, further closed the door on foreign intervention. Critics who have attempted to denigrate the impact of that document by showing that it legally freed no slaves have failed to grasp the president's larger purpose. Those who blasted his words as hypocritical and amoral have missed their results. The proclamation became the heart and soul of a revolutionary action that soon established emancipation as an integral part of the administration's steady movement toward an even better Union.1

Only a constitutional amendment could end slavery legally and permanently, but Lincoln's pronounced assault on the institution set the revolution in motion that eventually assured the final demise of human bondage in the United States. "Great is the virtue of this Proclamation," the philosopher- poet Ralph Waldo Emerson keenly noted. "It works when men are sleeping, when the army goes into winter quarters, when generals are treacherous or imbecile." Once the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, the momentum began to build for supporting black freedom as an essential part of the struggle for a more perfect Union, making it extremely difficult for either England or France to consider any form of intervention that might prolong the life of slavery. Emancipation would at long last take its place with liberty and, with the Union, become one and inseparable.2

Especially critical to the ultimate warm reception accorded the Emancipation Proclamation was the absence of slave insurrections. Both Seward in

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