This week marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of those pivotal historical documents far more widely referenced than actually ever read. Setting the Proclamation in its proper historical context so as truly to understand its importance, however, requires more than just a quick read-through. Understanding the backstory that led to its promulgation as official policy on January 1, 1863, in fact, requires understanding a complex story rooted as much in religion as in politics…and as much in the divide between agrarian and urban society that had developed in the course of the first ninety years of our country’s history as in the one that separated North from South. It is also possible to interpret the importance of this week’s anniversary not specifically in terms of the Proclamation and its immediate effect, but in terms of the way societies in general (and American society in particular) grow morally and slowly develop, if they do, into ever-finer iterations of their own earlier versions.
The question regarding the degree to which the Civil War was “about” slavery remains contentious. On the one hand, the slave trade itself was banned by Congress in 1807, more than half a century before the acts of secession that led to the Civil War. On the other, it was not the slave trade per se that was still being debated by Americans at mid-century, but the “peculiar institution” (as slavery was known) itself. And it is surely also relevant that the various attempts at compromise—the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 (which included, among other provisions, the Fugitive Slave Act), and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 foremost among them—were all about slavery, which makes it feel reasonable to posit that it was precisely the failure of all of these efforts to reach a real accord between the states that led to secession. Indeed, the famous “Cornerstone Speech” delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in Savannah on March 21, 1861, took specific issue with Thomas Jefferson’s deathless assertion that the cornerstone of American society was to be the belief that all are created equal and instead asserted that the Confederacy was founded “upon exactly the opposite [idea]” and that its cornerstone would thus rest “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” That being the case, it seems odd to argue that the war was “about” secession rather than being “about” slavery. One cannot go to war against a house without also going to war against its foundation!
And so did President Lincoln announce on September 22, 1862, that he would—acting solely on the authority constitutionally vested in him as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the United States—go to war with the foundation as well as the house by emancipating all slaves in any state that had joined the Confederacy that failed to return to the Union by January 1, 1863. None did. And so, on the first day of January exactly 150 years ago last week, Lincoln made good on his promise (or rather, his threat) and formally granted all slaves living in the ten states that had seceded from the Union their freedom. The importance of the proclamation cannot be gainsaid: even though fewer than 50,000 slaves were actually present in areas of the Confederacy under the control of Union forces on New Year’s Day in 1863, Lincoln’s proclamation promised freedom to 3.1 million of the four million slaves living at that time in the United States as the Union army advanced. (It is also worth noting that the almost 900,000 slaves living in slave states that were not in rebellion—Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Tennessee, and in its own unique situation, West Virginia—were not affected at all by the Proclamation. Missouri, Maryland, and Tennessee abolished slavery on their own in the course of the war. West Virginia was admitted to the Union on the basis of its commitment to end slavery. The slaves of Kentucky and Delaware, about 40,000 in number, were only finally freed when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.)
Slavery, of course, was an ancient institution. The Bible presumes its reasonableness at the same time it presents legislation intended to ameliorate its worst excesses. Rabbinic tradition wanders further down that path, attempting to create a more just society both for the free and the enslaved, but without ever declaring slavery to be morally reprehensible per se and thus forbidden, if not quite de jure, then at least de facto. Nor were the Jews of antiquity alone in their failure to recognize the odiousness of slavery and its consequent unacceptability: the New Testament too presumes the reasonableness of slavery in several passages, going so far in one as to recommend that slaves accept their status humbly rather than begrudgingly. Church leaders, including several popes, owned slaves. So did a dozen presidents of the United States, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. About a third of Southern families owned slaves, constituting about 8% of all American families. There were even black slave owners in the United States—almost four thousand of them owning about three times that many slaves in 1830, 80% of whom lived in Louisiana. So you could say that slavery was a pervasive feature of American life, if not a universal one.
What interests me the most, though, is the ability of an idea to gain momentum and eventually to transform a society. Things seem set. Everybody believes certain truths that appear indisputable. The status quo becomes identified with societal equilibrium, with the public weal. Rocking the boat feels wrong, or at least inimical to the smooth functioning of the world as it is. But there are always people who can rise up over that sense of wellbeing that conforming to the norm engenders in most. These were the irritating people who began to denounce slavery not merely as peculiar, but as wicked, as wrong. These people—people like William Wilberforce in the U.K. and William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass in the U.S., plus countless others—did not become popular. They were going against the simple meaning of biblical legislation. They were condemning people who were held in the highest repute. They appeared to be making shaky the foundation upon which the castle rests without caring exactly who might be hurt if this or that part of one turret or another fell to the ground. Slowly, though, what seemed arbitrary became more the norm, more what “regular” people believed. And so society ended up choosing a new course based not on the inevitability of moral growth, but on the willingness of those visionaries among us to speak up and to insist that they can see more clearly than many normally considered their betters.
There was a time when interracial marriage was forbidden at one time or another in forty-one of our fifty states. (When the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967, sixteen states still had such laws on their books.) There was a time when women were not permitted to vote in our country. There was a time when discrimination against various minority groups was considered reasonable, when one of any citizen’s civil rights was widely understood to include the basic right to refuse service to black people or to Jews in a shop or a restaurant or a hotel. Or to women. Or to disabled people or to gay people or to the members of any disliked minority group. All of these practices, plus countless others I’ve left unmentioned, were normal features of daily life in these United States, the kind of things that the large majority of people hardly noticed, let alone protested, let alone protested vigorously. Some still are. But there are always some among us who have the moral insight to look out at the world and to see not what is but what should be or what could be. Most find such people irritating. When some first begin to ask challenging, game-changing questions, there are always others who feel personally under attack. The smooth functioning of society appears to many to rest on the willingness of its members to accept its rules without complaining too forcefully or too loudly. But, in the end, the natural path forward for societies is to grow, including intellectually, morally, and spiritually. And those who lead a society forward towards moral growth generally end up not as its wreckers but as its saviors.
The anti-slavery movement grew slowly in the United States. The first formal call for an end to slavery dates back to 1688, when a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, created a petition calling for an end to human bondage in Pennsylvania. The first abolitionist society, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was founded in 1775 in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780. Strong voices slowly joined the cause, men like John Jay, Thomas Paine, and Henry Clay. Eventually most northern states followed suit, some very slowly. (New York State only freed its slaves in 1827.) In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison and some other founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, which became a major abolitionist organization. Slowly, society began to see that what had once seemed a benign peculiarity that could be tolerated was actually a grotesque evil that had to be eradicated if a society founded on moral principles could endure in this place. Seen within context, the Emancipation Proclamation was a major step in a long parade forward, one that began in antiquity and will eventually forward to the abolition of slavery in all places and for all people.
The struggle is hardly over, however. The State Department released a report in 2007 that suggested that there may be as many as 27 million people held in the world today as slaves, which figure includes one million children held against their will by international sex traffickers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these slaves originate in 127 different countries and live in 137 different ones. And this is despite the fact that every one of those countries has laws on its books prohibiting slavery. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see these and other, even more upsetting, statistics regarding slavery in the world today. I also would like to recommend the essay on slavery in the modern world by Louis P. Masur, a professor of American history at Rutgers University, that the New York Times published on New Year’s Eve. If you can, click here to see Professor Masur’s essay.
The work that remains to be done notwithstanding, we should rightly celebrate this anniversary as an important milestone in the moral progress of American society. If we also resolve, as individuals and as a nation, to try to find slightly less irritating those among us who insist on imagining what none can yet see—that too would be a worthy way to acknowledge the anniversary of President Lincoln’s single greatest act of faith in his and our country and in its future.