Emancipation Act Transforms Conflict, Nation; Abraham Lincoln's Legacy Includes Homestead Law and Colleges, as Well

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 8, 2003 | Go to article overview

Emancipation Act Transforms Conflict, Nation; Abraham Lincoln's Legacy Includes Homestead Law and Colleges, as Well


Byline: Edward Steers Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Feb. 12 marks the 194th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. It was a bitter cold Sunday in 1809 when the baby was born to young Nancy Hanks Lincoln and her husband, Tom. Among the first to visit the Lincoln cabin that morning was 10-year-old Dennis Hanks, the new baby's cousin. Years later, he described the newborn Lincoln as "looking like red cherry pulp squeezed dry." After pausing a few seconds, Hanks added, "Abe was never much for looks."

Lincoln's birth went unnoticed that cold February except by the few neighbors living along the wilderness road where Tom and Nancy had their cabin. His presence would go mostly unnoticed for another 49 years until 1858, when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln burst onto the national scene in a series of debates with Douglas by arguing whether the Declaration of Independence meant to include all men or just some men when it spoke of equality.

Lincoln lost his bid for the Senate but emerged as a national candidate whose forceful words caught the country's attention.

Two years after his senatorial defeat Lincoln became president of the United States, in large part due to the debates with Douglas. His election, however, proved to be sectional. While winning only 39 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln won 63 percent of the electoral vote, none from the slave states. He was not even listed on the ballot in the deep South.

His election brought about a bloody civil war testing whether the Founders' promise for equality would become part of the American dream. It did, thanks to Lincoln, who never lived to see the ultimate fruit of his labors.

Five weeks into Lincoln's second term, John Wilkes Booth abruptly ended the president's life. Like Moses, Lincoln had led his people to the Promised Land only to be denied entry for himself. His dream of a better America would go forward without him.

From time to time historians like to poll themselves asking each other to rank the presidents in order of their greatness. Between 1948 and 1998, six of these surveys have taken place and in every one of them Lincoln has been the winner. While the rest of the pack has fought over the remaining positions, Lincoln has left his fellow presidents in the proverbial dust. The question is why?

Most people associate Lincoln's greatness with his role as a war president, crediting him for saving the Union in its hour of greatest peril. Lincoln's legacy, however, goes well beyond this most important accomplishment. Of the handful of greatest acts adopted by Congress during the past 200-plus years, three occurred as a result of Lincoln's presidency - and all three dramatically changed America for the better.

On Sept. 22, 1862, five days after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's failed invasion of Maryland at the battle of Antietam, Lincoln released his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring that "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; ...."

The issuance of the proclamation created a firestorm in many circles. Lincoln was forced to issue his proclamation as a war measure since slaves were protected property under the Constitution. Confiscating the enemy's property was sanctioned under the war powers of a president. Lincoln justified the proclamation as a war measure using his authority as commander in chief. His proclamation would have effect only as a measure aimed at hurting an enemy in time of war.

Thus slaves within the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Delaware were excluded from Lincoln's proclamation since these states remained in the Union. Modern pundits have trivialized Lincoln's proclamation, pointing out that because it was limited to those areas under Confederate control, it freed few if any of the 4 million slaves. …

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