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Our Lincoln

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Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free 4 million slaves with a stroke of his pen. A measure whose constitutional legitimacy rested on the "war power" of the president, the proclamation had no bearing on slaves in the four border states that remained in the Union. It also exempted certain areas of the Confederacy under Union military control. All told, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to perhaps 750,000 of the 4 million slaves.

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Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia...

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Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the proclamation contains no soaring language, no immortal preamble enunciating the rights of man. Nonetheless, it marked the turning point of the Civil War and of Lincoln's understanding of his role in history. The proclamation sounded the death knell of slavery in the United States. Everybody recognized that if slavery perished in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, it could hardly survive in Kentucky, Missouri and a few parishes of Louisiana.

In his annual message to Congress of December 1862, Lincoln pointed out that crises require Americans to rethink their previous assumptions: "As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." Lincoln included himself in that "we." The Emancipation Proclamation was markedly different from his previous statements and policies regarding slavery. It was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of monetary compensation for slaveowners and made no reference to colonization. Instead, it enjoined emancipated slaves to "labor faithfully for reasonable wages" in the United States. For the first time, it authorized the enrollment of black soldiers into the Union Army. The proclamation set in motion the process by which 200,000 black men in the last two years of the war fought for the Union. Putting black men into the military implied a very different vision of their future place in American society than earlier plans for settling freed slaves overseas.

Lincoln came to emancipation more slowly than the abolitionists and their Radical Republican allies desired. But having made the decision, he did not look back. In 1864, with casualties mounting, some urged him to rescind the proclamation, in which case, they believed, the South could be persuaded to return to the Union. Lincoln would not consider this. Were he to do so, he told one visitor, "I should be damned in time and eternity." Indeed, in the last two years of the war, he pressed the border states to take action against slavery on their own, and made support of emancipation a requirement for Southerners who renounced the Confederacy and wished to have their property other than slaves restored. He worked to secure Congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. This was another measure originally proposed by the abolitionists that Lincoln came to support. When ratified in 1865, it marked the irrevocable destruction of slavery throughout the United States.

Moreover, by decoupling emancipation from colonization, Lincoln in effect launched the process known as Reconstruction--the remaking of Southern society, politics and race relations. Lincoln did not live to see it implemented and eventually abandoned. But in the last two years of the war he came to recognize that if emancipation settled one question, the fate of slavery, it opened another: what was to be the role of emancipated slaves in postwar American life? The "new birth of freedom" ushered in by the war was one in which blacks for the first time would share. During Reconstruction this would entail a redefinition of American nationality--the rewriting of the laws and Constitution to embrace the abolitionist vision of a society that had advanced beyond the tyranny of race.

In 1863 and 1864, Lincoln for the first time began to think seriously of the role blacks would play in a postslavery America. In his "last speech," delivered at the White House in April 1865 a few days before his assassination, Lincoln announced his support for limited black suffrage in the reconstructed South. He singled out as most worthy the "very intelligent"--educated blacks who had been free before the war--and "those who serve our cause as soldiers." Hardly an unambiguous embrace of equality, this was the first time an American president had publicly endorsed any kind of political rights for blacks (this at a time when only six Northern states allowed blacks to vote). Lincoln was telling the country that the service of black soldiers entitled them to a voice in the reunited nation.

A month earlier, Lincoln had looked to the future in perhaps his greatest speech of all, the Second Inaugural Address. Today we tend to remember it for its closing words: "with malice toward none, with charity for all...let us strive to bind up the nation's wounds." But before that noble ending, Lincoln tried to instruct his fellow countrymen on the historical significance of the war and the unfinished task that lay ahead.

It must have been very tempting, with Union victory imminent, for Lincoln to blame the sins of the Confederacy for the war and claim the outcome as the will of God. Everybody knew, he noted, that slavery was "somehow" the cause of the war. Yet Lincoln called it "American slavery," not Southern slavery, underscoring the entire nation's complicity. No man, he continued, knows God's will. God might wish the war to continue as a punishment for the sin of slavery, "until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword." For one last time, he reiterated his definition of slavery as the theft of labor, now coupled with one of his very few public invocations of the physical brutality inherent in the institution (he generally preferred to appeal to the reason of his listeners rather than their emotions).

In essence, Lincoln was asking Americans to confront unblinkingly the legacy of bondage and to think about the requirements of justice. What is the nation's obligation for those 250 years of unpaid labor? What is necessary to enable the former slaves, their children and their descendants to enjoy the "pursuit of happiness" he had always insisted was their natural right but that had so long been denied them? Lincoln did not live to provide an answer.

Today we inhabit an entirely different world from Lincoln's. But the questions raised by emancipation continue to bedevil American society. The challenge confronting President Obama is to move beyond the powerful symbolism of his election as the first African-American president toward substantive actions that address the still unfinished struggle for equality.

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