Rhetoric of Freedom

"Emancipation is the demand of civilization," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in April, 1862. "That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue." Atlantic articles by Emerson and Frederick Douglass comment on Lincoln's greatest decision, and his greatest legacy.

Some speeches and proclamations by Lincoln:

The First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861)

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862)

The Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863)

The Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863)

The Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)

Since its inception in 1857, The Atlantic had been a proponent of abolition and a mouthpiece for the rhetoric of freedom. Throughout the late 1850s and 1860s, some of the nation's most respected and influential voices—Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell (two of the magazine's founders), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, Julia Ward Howe—contributed essays, poems, stories, and songs to The Atlantic, decrying the secessionist cause and the institution of slavery.

"Civilization depends on morality," Emerson wrote in "American Civilization" (April, 1862, Atlantic), and he went on to argue that America's special mission among nations, to seek "the greatest good of the greatest number," had been severely undermined by slavery.

We have attempted to hold together two states of civilization: a higher state, where labor and the tenure of land and the right of suffrage are democratical; and a lower state, in which the old military tenure of prisoners or slaves, and of power and land in a few hands, makes an oligarchy.... But the rude and early state of society does not work well with the later, nay, works badly, and has poisoned politics, public morals, and social intercourse in the Republic, now for many years.

The times put this question,—Why cannot the best civilization be extended over the whole country, since the disorder of the less civilized portion menaces the existence of the country? Is this secular progress we have described, this evolution of man to the highest powers, only to give him sensibility, and not to bring duties with it? Is he not to make his knowledge practical? to stand and to withstand? Is not civilization heroic also? Is it not for action? has it not a will?

Emerson conceded that the North's political and often moral ambivalence toward slavery had marked it with a large share of the guilt (a sentiment that would later be echoed, as Wills demonstrates, in Lincoln's Second Inaugural), and then went on to state unequivocally that emancipation would be the only remedy.

In this national crisis, it is not argument that we want, but that rare courage which dares commit itself to a principle....

We cannot but remember that there have been days in American history, when, if the Free States had done their duty, Slavery had been blocked by an immovable barrier, and our recent calamities forever precluded. The Free States yielded, and every compromise was surrender, and invited new demands. Here again is a new occasion which Heaven offers to sense and virtue. It looks as if we held the fate of the fairest possession of mankind in our hands, to be saved by our firmness or to be lost by hesitation....

Emancipation is the demand of civilization. That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue.

As though addressing Lincoln himself, tempting him with the promise of his place in history, Emerson concluded, "It is very certain that the statesman who shall break through the cobwebs of doubt, fear, and petty cavil that lie in the way, will be greeted by the unanimous thanks of mankind."

Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, signed on September 22, 1862, called for the "gradual abolishment of slavery within the respective limits" of the rebel states as of January 1, 1863. In "The President's Proclamation" (November, 1862, Atlantic) Emerson responded to Lincoln's act, instantly mythologizing it with these opening words:

In so many arid forms which States incrust themselves with, once in a century, if so often, a poetic act and record occur. These are the jets of thoughts into affairs, when, roused by danger or inspired by genius, the political leaders of the day break the else insurmountable routine of class and local legislation, and take a step forward in the direction of catholic and universal interests. Every step in the history of political liberty is a sally of the human mind into the untried future, and has the interest of genius, and is fruitful in heroic anecdotes.

Most important to Emerson was that the proclamation firmly set the North's political and military agenda, even as it showed the world that the United States would now pay more than mere lip service to the idea of freedom.

The force of the act is that it commits the country to this justice,—that it compels the innumerable officers, civil, military, naval, of the Republic to range themselves on the line of this equity.... It is not a measure that admits of being taken back. Done, it cannot be undone by a new Administration.... This act makes that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain....

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.

When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, the nation sought to begin, however uncertainly, the difficult process of healing and rebuilding. Tragically, Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, sent any plan for a peaceable antebellum reconstruction and reconciliation into political oblivion. Andrew Johnson benefitted neither from Lincoln's political and moral wisdom nor from the wartime powers Lincoln had held. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in December of 1865, officially freed African-Americans from bondage, but the battle for equality had only begun. As Garry Wills writes, noting Johnson's overt racial hostility, "The executive mansion was a darker place in every way when Lincoln was removed from it, and from us. The Second Inaugural is the towering measure of our loss."

Frederick Douglass had told Lincoln that the Second Inaugural was "a sacred effort," and in "Reconstruction" (December, 1866, Atlantic), Douglass made an appeal to the Thirty-ninth Congress to live up to the high purpose Lincoln had sketched.

Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so victoriously ended shall pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results,—a scandalous and shocking waste of blood and treasure ... or whether, on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, based upon loyalty, liberty, and equality, must be determined one way or the other by the present session of Congress.

Douglass warned Congress of the potential for the de facto reenslavement of blacks should the South's antebellum political system remain intact, and he exhorted the lawmakers to pass a civil-rights amendment affirming the equality of blacks and whites in the United States.

Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation.... Custom, manners, morals, religion, are all on its side everywhere in the South; and when you add the ignorance and servility of the ex-slave to the intelligence and accustomed authority of the master, you have the conditions, not out of which slavery will again grow, but under which it is impossible for the Federal government to wholly destroy it, unless the Federal government be armed with despotic power, to blot out State authority, and to station a Federal officer at every cross-road. This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it could. The true way and the easiest way is to make our government entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise,—a right and power which will be ever present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection.

One month later, in "An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage" (January, 1867, Atlantic) Douglass reaffirmed and strengthened his argument that the only way to bring order and peace to the South and the nation as a whole was to deliver the freedman the vote.

The fundamental and unanswerable argument in favor of the enfranchisement of the negro is found in the undisputed fact of his manhood. He is a man, and by every fact and argument by which any man can sustain his right to vote, the negro can sustain his right equally. It is plain that, if the right belongs to any, it belongs to all.

Showing that a stark realism underlay his eloquence, Douglass wrote, "If black men have no rights in the eyes of white men, of course the white can have none in the eyes of the blacks. The result is a war of races, and the annihilation of all proper human relations." In a brilliant rhetorical performance, Douglass coolly suggested that African-Americans should be granted suffrage if for no other reason than their past sufferings and service to the nation, and then went on to add: "But no such appeal shall be relied on here. Hardships, services, sufferings, and sacrifices are all waived." He continued,

It is true that [the negroes] came to the relief of the country at the hour of its extremest need. It is true that, in many of the rebellious States, they were almost the only reliable friends the nation had throughout the whole tremendous war.... Impartial history will paint them as men who deserved well of their country.... But upon none of these things is reliance placed. These facts speak to the better dispositions of the human heart; but they seem of little weight with the opponents of impartial suffrage.

Instead, Douglass went on to argue, the "appeal for impartial suffrage" must address itself "to the darkest, coldest, and flintiest side of the human heart" and must "wring righteousness from the unfeeling calculations of human selfishness." If the nation would not listen to the appeal of humanity, Douglass concluded, it might at least follow the counsel of self-interest.

For in respect to this grand measure it is the good fortune of the negro that enlightened selfishness, not less than justice, fights on his side. National interest and national duty, if elsewhere separated, are firmly united here. The American people can, perhaps, afford to brave the censure of surrounding nations for the manifest injustice and meanness of excluding its faithful black soldiers from the ballot-box, but it cannot afford to allow the moral and mental energies of rapidly increasing millions to be consigned to hopeless degradation....

Will you repeat the mistake of your fathers, who sinned ignorantly? or will you profit by the blood-bought wisdom all round you, and forever expel every vestige of the old abomination from our national borders?

More than a hundred years later, In "Lincoln's Greatest Speech?" (September 1999), the historian Garry Wills looks closely at Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address—and at the political context in which it was delivered—and reminded readers of the masterly language with which Lincoln again exhorted his fellow Americans, this time as the Civil War neared its end, to honor the better angels of their nature.