January 1, 2013, the National Archives places the Emancipation Proclamation on rare public display, the text is hardly legible, the victim of age and light. But Abraham Lincoln stands out clearly.
Some cynics today say Lincoln freed no slaves where he had power and all the slaves where he did not. Then, too, the London newspapers adopted a snarky tone: “The high principle of Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation is that a man may not own a man unless he is loyal to Mr. Lincoln’s government.”
That criticism was as ignorant as it was unfair. Lincoln was no despot. He knew that he could not constitutionally deprive loyal citizens of their slaves so long as they obeyed the laws. He pleaded and cajoled the congressmen from the loyal slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. They stubbornly refused his offers of compensated emancipation.
Lincoln was an able lawyer who new his brief. He had been a reader of Richmond newspapers for years. When secessionist editors boasted that the South could outlast the North because they could send all their young men into the army, while slaves would work the farms and factories, Lincoln took note.
Because the rebels themselves claimed slavery was a military asset, Lincoln knew he was on solid ground in freeing those slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation was a constitutional exercise of his powers as commander-in-chief of the army and navy. He justified it as an act of military necessity.
Abraham Lincoln is remembered as the Great Emancipator. He knew that the advance of the Union armies would bring freedom to millions.
Lincoln’s bold black signature had done this. And he would do more. As the movie, Lincoln, so clearly shows, the president was the prime mover behind the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. That measure ended slavery in every state. It’s a shame that the able writers and directors of this new movie did not show Lincoln signing that amendment, too. A president’s signature is not necessary for a constitutional amendment, but Lincoln once again had his whole heart and soul in it.
This is the day, January 1, 1863, one hundred fifty years ago, that changed America forever. From that date onward, Father Abraham’s armies, the armies of the United States, became armies of liberation. Those soldiers, black and white, carried freedom in their haversacks.