American Elephants

I Goofed. by The Elephant's Child

I see that I have once again been mistaken. President’s Day is this coming Monday, and I thought it was connected to Lincoln’s birthday rather than Washington’s. My tradition has been to recall the birthdays of the two rather than to celebrate the federal day off.  I apologize.

Why Wasn’t Today a National Holiday? by The Elephant's Child

First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, by
Francis Bicknell Carpenter (U.S.Senate)

Unnoticed, uncelebrated, July 22 commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s unveiling of the Emancipation Proclamation to the startled members of his cabinet, 150 years ago.

Historian Allen C. Guelzo notes:

The Emancipation Proclamation did more, and for more Americans, than any other presidential document before or since. It declared that over 3 million black slaves (representing some $3 billion in capital investment) would “thenceforward, and forever, be free” (thus transforming that $3 billion into a net zero, overnight) and turned the Civil War from being a police action against the breakaway southern Confederacy into a crusade for freedom. It was, as Lincoln himself said, “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century.”

Still, there will be no federal holiday, no emancipation parades, no proclamation fireworks.

This will be, first, because the language of the proclamation is so stultifyingly and legally dull, full of whereases and therefores, that the whole thing leaves approximately the same impression on the spirit as a lump of coal. Who wants to celebrate a document that begins, “In pursuance of the sixth section of the act of Congress entitled ‘An act to suppress insurrection and to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate property of rebels, and for other purposes . . .’”?

But the uninflected detachment of the proclamation’s language is far less a problem for the proclamation’s reputation than the limitation clauses Lincoln insisted on inserting. The proclamation did not simply proclaim liberty throughout all the land; far from it, the proclamation expressly exempted the four slave states that had stayed with the Union (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and the counties and parishes in Virginia and Louisiana that had been occupied by Union troops and restored to civil order. If the proclamation was indeed about freeing slaves, then the slaves in those places must have had an interesting time understanding why they didn’t qualify.

Even worse, Lincoln specifically offered as the constitutional justification for this dramatic act of governmental taking nothing more Moses-like than his war powers as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” What should have been, by our lights, an opportunity for this most eloquent of presidents to wax more eloquent still is described by Lincoln as “a fit and necessary military measure.” No parting the Red Sea, no making the world safe for democracy. The proclamation is presented as nothing more than a military tactic for subduing the Confederacy.

But lurking behind these deflations of the proclamation is a more modern, but also more lethal, objection: that the proclamation is just one more self-righteous reminder to African-Americans that they have no agency of their own, but must rely on the goodwill of white folks, even for freedom. “I just can’t wrap my head around celebrating the fact that someone else freed my ancestors,” complains John McWhorter, much less that “freedom happened partly as the result of whites making other whites see the error of their ways. . . . I am always more interested in what we did rather than what somebody did to us.”

And so the Emancipation Proclamation has gone into eclipse as just another tardy, and empty, gesture of political manipulation, conceived by a Manipulator-in-Chief.

The Proclamation is a legal document, transferring the ownership of 3 million or more items of “property” from their owners to the “property” itself. Any false step in the drafting of the document would have had slaveholders on the courthouse steps in the morning. And Chief Justice Roger Taney was the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision.  Lincoln had no legal or constitutional way to deal with slavery apart from invoking “the war power of the government.”

Slaves took advantage of every opportunity presented by the war to grab whatever freedom came their way. They deserted the plantations whenever Union armies marched by, the hid escaped Union prisoners-of-war, they went north to find any kind of life as long as it was free. What they could not do was to emancipate themselves.  The runaway slave would always remain legally a slave. Emancipation, Guelzo explains, had to be de jure, not just de facto, and that required legal action.

Precisely because notions of self-emancipation are more a matter of sentiment and pride than of footnotes, they pose the most intractable resistance to restoring the honor of the Emancipation Proclamation. But to deny the proclamation its place in the history of all Americans repudiates the basic lesson of our tumbled past: that white and black owe each other far more than either can pay off. “Those of us engaged in this racial struggle in America are like knights on horseback,” wrote Langston Hughes in 1943, “the Negroes on a white horse and the white folks on a black.” There is no shame in admitting what we owe each other as Americans; the shame is only in repudiating that debt.

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