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'Forever free'
The Emancipation Proclamation, 150 years old

Date published: 1/1/2013

I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.

Abraham Lincoln

Jan. 1, 1863

TODAY we face a New Year's Day full of concerns and difficulties--the fiscal cliff, Iran, tumult in Egypt, persistent economic woes, violence everywhere. But 150 years ago, the day brought something quite different, some positive news: On Jan. 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, setting the United States on the path that would eventually bring freedom to American slaves.

More than a generation of activism by abolitionists and three years of war had finally brought the nation to the point of striking a decisive blow against its most unjust institution. Still, the decision to issue the Proclamation was not clear cut, and even today, Lincoln's strategy sparks controversy. Was it a blow against injustice or a military maneuver designed to ensure Union victory in the Civil War? Was it a moral imperative or the heavy hand of a confiscatory federal government?

The Emancipation Proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." Note that only slaves in states that had seceded were released from bondage--3.2 million of the approximately 4 million held at the time. Because they were living in the Confederacy, Lincoln had little power to actually enforce his decree. What's more, the Proclamation did not make freed slaves citizens. It did, however, allow them to serve in the Union army and navy, and about 200,000 of them joined up to fight.

On Watch Night, Dec. 31, 1862, small groups gathered in churches and upper rooms to watch and pray that Lincoln would go through with his plans. In Boston, a veritable Who's Who of American literati--including John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Parkman, and Josiah Quincy--gathered to await news of the momentous event. The Washington Evening Star printed the text of the Proclamation after Lincoln signed it, and telegraphs everywhere buzzed with the good news. Declared abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher in Brooklyn, Lincoln's Proclamation gave "liberty a moral recognition."

Virginia had its own part to play in the drama: The Proclamation reached Southern ears for the first time in Hampton under a spreading oak tree, which stands today on the grounds of Hampton University. Under its limbs, slaves gathered to hear the words they'd been waiting for generations to hear. Free at last, free at last though still a long, long way from true equality.