January 1, 1863 (Thursday – New Years Day)
The last week in December brought a parade of guests into Abraham Lincoln’s office. Senators and abolitionists, as well as senators on behalf of abolitionists, kept tabs on the President, making sure he didn’t back out of his promise to issue an proclamation to free the slaves of the South.
Lincoln, much to the chagrin of each caller, refused to give a straight answer. “Well, I don’t know,” he said to a lawyer friend, “Peter denied his Master. He thought he wouldn’t, but he did.” On the 31st, to a fire and brimstone abolitionist, all he could say that “tomorrow at noon, you shall know – and the country shall know – my decision.”
These were hardly encouraging words, keeping everyone on the edge of their seat. Well, not everyone. The abolitionists sort of figured Lincoln would wiggle out of it, while most of the South figured this was his plan all along. Only his Cabinet knew for sure as they had been reading draft after draft the entire week.
One major sticking point was the promise that the Federal government would not repress the slaves “in any effort they may make for their actual freedom.” Some in the Cabinet saw that as tantamount to supporting a wild Nat Turner-inspired revolt. In an attempt to placate, Lincoln changed the wording to “any suitable effort,” but that was still found unfitting.
In the final draft, the whole thing was cut. The Federal government would simply “recognize and maintain the freedom” of the slaves.
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase suggested a verbose preamble that was actually longer than the Proclamation itself, as well as a tidy closing paragraph. Lincoln declined the wordy intro, but kept the ending, paying lip service to both God and justice.
He, perhaps without help from the Cabinet, made one final change. The promise that all persons held as slaves “are, and henceforward forever shall be free,” was silently altered. The word “forever” was removed, though it had appeared in all previous drafts. Lincoln understood that what he was making was a military decree. He had no real Constitutional right to declare slaves forever free. That would take an Amendment.
On the morning of this date, Lincoln wrote out the Emancipation Proclamation, and waited for it to be officially copied. When the official copy arrived, it contained a technical error and had to be redone. While this task was being performed, Lincoln and his wife greeted White House guests for the traditional New Years Day levee.
By the time the friends and well wishers left (around 2pm), Lincoln was exhausted. Thankfully, Secretary of State William Seward returned with a corrected copy of the Proclamation. Reading over it again, it met with the President’s approval.
Maybe it was due to the weight of the moment, or maybe he was simply worn out after a morning of welcoming guests, but as he picked up his pen to sign, his hand began to tremble. He tried again, and again his arm shook uncontrollably.
No stranger to mild superstitions, Lincoln gave a passing thought that maybe this was a sign that he should not issue the Proclamation. But then, thinking back to how he spent the morning shaking hands with every Washingtonian drawing a breath, he reaffirmed his will and affixed his full name to the document.
The next day, word would spread throughout the country, both North and South. Church bells were rung and blacks, free and slave alike, rejoiced. As word filtered through the Union Army, such rejoicing was the exception. Many, like those of the 51st Pennsylvania Regiment [in which one of my ancestors served], refused to fight under an administration who would issue such a Proclamation. Many thousands of soldiers deserted, and at least one regiment (the 109th Illinois) had to be disbanded due to their own rebellion.
Politicians were split via party lines, as was predictable, and the rhetoric was as ridiculous as one might expect. One Illinois Democrat openly feared for the poor widows and orphans would “become prey to the lusts of the freed negroes who will overrun our country.”
Some so-called historians, mostly belonging to some estranged lunatic schools of thought (estranged from reality, I mean), have put forth the notion that the Emancipation Proclamation freed not a single slave. Lincoln, they thoughtlessly assert, freed only the slaves in the South – a land over which he had no control. This simply isn’t true.
Though some counties in Virginia and Louisiana were exempted from the Proclamation, the Union Army controlled much of the coast along North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Slaves were freed in the Shenandoah Valley, now that Stonewall Jackson was no longer an issue. In the Mississippi River areas, where Grant and Sherman were fighting, slaves were also immediately freed. This amounted to probably around 20,000 slaves – no small number, and definitely greater than the ignorantly-asserted “zero.”
Lincoln had no Constitutional right to free the slaves. He found what amounted to a loophole, allowing it to be done as a military necessity. As the Union Armies advanced, reclaiming more and more of the South, more and more slaves would be freed.
Additionally, once word slid into the slave states, many of those in bondage simply left their homes. Though it may have been the only home they knew, they understood that the only choice they had was to run away. Under slavery, it was their only right. This amounted to another 20,000 or so.
By the end of the war, before the 13th Amendment was passed, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed as many as 400,000 humans that their fellow humans (if such things as slave owners can truly be called “humans”) had kept in bondage.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the evening of January 1st, Lincoln found himself sitting in the telegraph office waiting for news from General Rosecrans and the battle of Stones River, Tennessee. There, he whiled away the time telling stories and reminiscing with his feet up on a table. It had been a long day.
((Sources: Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation by William K. Klingaman; Lincon’s Emancipation Proclamation by Allen C. Guelzo; The Lincolns, Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel M ark Epstein.))