November 1862 The Civil War

The President’s Proclamation

Seven months after his call to free the slaves, Emerson hails the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Lincoln, with his Cabinet, reading a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in July 1862. (F.B. Carpenter, painter/A.H. Ritchie, engraver


Over the course of 1862, President Lincoln became increasingly convinced, for pragmatic as well as moral reasons, that emancipating the slaves in the rebel states would help the Union cause—undermining the South’s economy, making former slaves available to replenish the Union’s decimated army, and perhaps finally spurring anti-slavery but cotton-dependent Europe to throw its support to the North. The Confederate army’s retreat following the clash at Antietam seemed a propitious moment to make the announcement. Five days after the battle, on September 22, Lincoln declared:

“On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforth, and forever free.”

In the November 1862 Atlantic, Emerson hailed the proclamation as the true purpose of the war and an act that would mean “the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain.”

—Sage Stossel

A day which most of us dared not hope to see, an event worth the dreadful war, worth its costs and uncertainties, seems now to be close before us. October, November, December will have passed over beating hearts and plotting brains: then the hour will strike, and all men of African descent who have faculty enough to find their way to our lines are assured of the protection of American law …

It is not a measure that admits of being taken back. Done, it cannot be undone by a new Administration. For slavery overpowers the disgust of the moral sentiment only through immemorial usage. It cannot be introduced as an improvement on the nineteenth century. This act makes that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain. It makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired. With a victory like this, we can stand many disasters. It does not promise the redemption of the black race: that lies not with us: but it relieves it of our opposition. The President by this act has paroled all the slaves in America; they will no more fight against us; and it relieves our race once for all of its crime and false position. The first condition of success is secured in putting ourselves right. We have recovered ourselves from our false position, and planted ourselves on a law of Nature …

Of course, we are assuming the firmness of the policy thus declared. It must not be a paper proclamation. We confide that Mr. Lincoln is in earnest, and, as he has been slow in making up his mind, has resisted the importunacy of parties and of events to the latest moment, he will be as absolute in his adhesion. Not only will he repeat and follow up his stroke, but the nation will add its irresistible strength. If the ruler has duties, so has the citizen. In times like these, when the nation is imperilled, what man can, without shame, receive good news from day to day, without giving good news of himself? What right has any one to read in the journals tidings of victories, if he has not brought them by his own valor, treasure, personal sacrifice, or by service as good in his own department? With this blot removed from our national honor, this heavy load lifted off the national heart, we shall not fear henceforward to show our faces among mankind. We shall cease to be hypocrites and pretenders, but what we have styled our free institutions will be such …

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