the Emancipation Proclamation was unveiled exactly 150 years ago this Sunday 22 July 1862
Eric LaMont Gregory
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, to the startled members of his Cabinet - painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter
Why is there no federal holiday to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation?
The answer to that question lies in the long and continuing history of racial divide in America, our troubled past. As author Allen Guelzo suggests '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.
And, the thoughts of Langston Hughes, “Those of us engaged in this racial struggle in America are like knights on horseback, 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.
The Emancipation Proclamation was, as Lincoln stated, “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century.” This single act did more and for more Americans than any other presidential document before that time or since that time.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared that over 3 million slaves would “thenceforward, and forever, be free” and propelled the Civil War from a police action against the breakaway southern Confederacy into a crusade for freedom. In the twinkling of an eye, some $3 billion in capital investment vanished into iniquity.
The Emancipation Proclamation begins with these words, “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 . . .’
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery throughout the land, the proclamation expressly exempted the four slave states that had stayed with the Union i.e., Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. It also exempted the counties and parishes in Virginia and Louisiana respectively, that had been occupied by Union troops and restored to civil order.
In addition, Lincoln soberly offered as the constitutional justification for this act of government his war powers as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” The proclamation sublime in its presentation but dramatic in its application was presented as a military tactic for subduing the Confederacy.
The Emancipation Proclamation is in essence a legal document, transferring the ownership of 3 million or more items of 'property' from their owners to the 'property' itself. Lincoln understood that the wording of the proclamation was critically important, and that to err, would allow slaveholders with access to the federal courts the right to seek injunctions. Injunctions would have given slaveholders access to the justices of the highest federal court with Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who authored of the infamous Dred Scott decision.
Lincoln thus had no legal, that is, constitutional basis to do other than to exempt areas from the proclamation’s application. Lincoln only remedy for slavery was invoking 'the war power of the government.' Since the exempted areas were precisely those that were no longer at war with the United States, or never had been, Lincoln had no 'war power' to exercise in those regions of the country.
Emancipation had to confer de jure, not just de facto, liberty and that required a legal action. And, the only man with the power, the authority, and the wisdom to do so, and to do so in a way that it could never be undone was Abraham Lincoln.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of warth are stored ...