'I Claim Not to Have Controlled Events'

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When I heard Obama's invocation of the Proclamation last week, it immediately struck me as wrong -- but for different reasons. This letter, written to President Lincoln in 1864, has always stuck with me:


Belair [Md.] Aug 25th 1864 

Mr president It is my Desire to be free. to go to see my people on the eastern shore. my mistress wont let me you will please let me know if we are free. and what i can do. I write to you for advice. please send me word this week. or as soon as possible and oblidge. 

 Annie Davis

When I read this I was basically of Obama's view -- that the Proclamation was a necessary compromise, the sort of thing that is essential to American democracy. But I also thought it was important to always remember that compromise, whatever its virtue, isn't an abstract concept. It's the compromising of the lives of actual people. But in the course of researching the column I came to a somewhat different opinion -- that the Proclamation actually went further than I thought.

Better people here will know this, but my understanding is that there really was no constitutional mechanism by which Lincoln could -- with a wave of his pen -- emancipate the slaves of loyal owners. Thus there never really a choice between, say, ending slavery everywhere and ending just in disloyal states. The compromise was whether the Proclamation would cover all formerly rebel areas that had fallen under union control -- occupied areas of Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana for instance. And the Proclamation did actually exempt some of those areas.

But on the other side of the ledger there's the fact that Lincoln immediately affected the largest act of manumission in American history with a stroke of the pen. I haven't come across a precise number, in terms of who was immediately freed by the Proclamation. But it was in the thousands, and Foner estimates that it may well have ranged into the tens of thousands. Other states had emancipated slaves--but almost always gradually. Nothing like this -- an immediate grant of freedom to thousands of slaves--had happened before.

This is to say nothing of those slaves who were freed as the Union Army pushed South. To me, that really is the heart of the Proclamation's genius. Remember that it was not an act of kindness, but hard-nosed policy of belligerence put forth by a country trying to win a war. The Proclamation necessarily united that war for the Union with the destruction of slavery. It's almost impossible to imagine a Union in which slavery was destroyed in the deep South but somehow thrived in the border states. Finally, and least appreciated in my view, the Proclamation brought, at final count, almost 200,000 black men into the Union Army. 

It's worth considering that the Proclamation was not the act of Lincoln moving closer to the slave-holders, but to their opponents. From Eric Foner's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Fiery Trial:

The Emancipation Proclamation differed dramatically from Lincoln's previous policies regarding slavery and emancipation, some of which dated back to his days in the Illinois legislature and Congress. It abandoned the idea of seeking the cooperation of slaveholders in emancipation, and of distinguishing between loyal and disloyal owners. It was immediate, not gradual; contained no mention of monetary compensation for slaveowners, did not depend on action by the states, and made no reference to colonization (in part, perhaps, because gradualism, compensation, and colonization had no bearing on the "military necessity" that justified the document.) Lincoln had long resisted the enlistment of black soldiers; now he welcomed them into the Union Army. The Proclamation addressed slaves directly, not as the property of the country's enemies but as persons with wills of their own whose action might help win the Civil War.

I want to hammer down on Foner's point about arming blacks. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln said that he feared if he armed blacks "in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels." A year later, he was arguing that in military matters, black were...

...the greatest available, and yet unavailed of force for restoring the union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.

There is some bravado here, no doubt, But it's important to understand that this isn't just about the violence itself. It's difficult to understand, in today's society, what it actually meant to recognize another human's right to hold a gun. The right to bear arms was, in previous centuries, directly tied to citizenship, as was military service. To open the Army to men of all colors was to admit the possibility of expanding the franchise, and perhaps even political office, across the color line. It was to grant that America's broad aristocracy would not be forever color-bound.

This is exactly what happened. It may not come across in my writing, but I have deep roots in America's radical tradition, in general, and the black radical tradition specifically. Like a lot of people of that ilk, there was a tendency in me to write off the Proclamation as a weak-kneed compromise proffered by another racist president. By last week, I was past that point. Still the research really affirmed something for me -- those of us who are radicals, whether practicing or not, shouldn't downplay the Proclamation, we should take credit for it. As Douglass did. As Phillips did. The Proclamation and all that followed is a textbook example of what a dose of radicalism can do for democracy.

I started this letter musing about an enslaved black woman whom Lincoln's compromise left in limbo. She should be remembered--but she shouldn't be remembered alone. Again from Foner: 

Despite its palpable limitations, the proclamation set of scenes of jubilation among free blacks in the North and contrabands and slaves in the South. At Beaufort on the Sea Islands, over 5,000 African-Americans celebrated their freedom by singing what a white observer called "the Marseillaise of the slave"; "In that New Jerusalem, I am not afraid to die; We must fight for liberty in that New Jerusalem." In the North, blacks gathered in their churches. "I have never witnessed," the abolitionists Benjamin R. Plumly wrote to Lincoln from Philadelphia, "such intense, intelligent and devout Thanksgiving..." When one person suggested that Lincoln might pursue 'some form of colonization; a woman shouted, "God won't let him..."

Indeed God didn't. Finally, I think Lincoln's own words give some sense of how to handle such momentous events with humility--"I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

P.S. In addition to Foner's The Fiery Trial, his Free Soil, Free Labor Free Men and James Oakes' The Radical and The Republican were essential to all of my thinking. 

Know your history, as they say.

MORE: The author of The Radical and The Republican is James Oakes, not Stephen Oates. My sincerest apologies for the botch.



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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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