Honoring Freedom, Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation 150 Years Later

January 2, 2013

by John Schachter

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has earned rave reviews, myriad award nominations and more than $132 million at the box office. All this for a 2½ hour movie about politics. While other films with government and politics at their core often struggle to draw sizable audiences, “Lincoln” has transcended the genre and demonstrated mass appeal. That’s likely because of the superb acting and script – and the moral force behind the film’s focus, the fight to end slavery in America once and for all..

Tuesday, January 1, marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document Fredrick Douglass praised as “the most important document ever issued by an American president,” according to historian Eric Foner (in his book The Fiery Trial).

Douglass was no Lincoln apologist; he recognized the great man’s flaws and imperfections. But Douglass also got to know Lincoln and appreciate the great pressures under which he operated. When it came to the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass understood the content, the context and the confines. In his “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Washington D.C. in memory of Lincoln, on April 14, 1876, Douglass said:

“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”

Though sectional conflicts over slavery certainly contributed to the war, ending slavery was not an initial goal. The National Archives notes that that “changed on September 22, 1862, when President Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that slaves in those states or parts of states still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would be declared free.” Just 100 days later, seeing no action from the rebelling states, Lincoln issued the official Emancipation Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious areas “are, and henceforward shall be free.” While the proclamation did not end slavery in the United States, it did fundamentally transform the character of the war and added moral force to the Union cause while strengthening the Union both politically and militarily.

Eric Foner wrote in The New York Times that to some extent the Emancipation Proclamation “embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life.”

Across the nation, celebrants have many opportunities to appreciate the value and meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Library of Congress is displaying Lincoln’s first handwritten draft, on display for six weeks starting Jan. 3 in "The Civil War in America" exhibit. And the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian has an exhibit called "Changing America," which recounts both the 1863 emancipation and the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights. The exhibit includes a rare signed copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery and is the centerpiece of the Spielberg film. What a great opportunity to see and appreciate the reality of what's been portrayed on the movie screen!