One hundred fifty years ago, in the summer of 1862, the Civil War was raging and President Abraham Lincoln was starting to scribble away at a document, an ultimatum to the rebellious states: Return to the Union, or your slaves will be freed.
Emancipation was a "military necessity," the president later confided to his Cabinet. Lincoln called it "absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves," Lincoln said, "or be ourselves subdued."
"He knew that emancipation would start the tidal wave of freedom and that it was irreversible once it started," says Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, "but he also knew that more work would be required."
Holzer offers a rethinking of the Emancipation Proclamation in his new book, Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. It's his 42nd book on Lincoln and the Civil War.
Though revisionist critics now say the proclamation was weak — "delayed, insufficient, and insincere" — Holzer disagrees. He says Lincoln very carefully calibrated the timing and delivery of this act.
"He did things in this run-up that are perplexing, sometimes unattractive, sometimes scary — to prepare the country for what in his mind would be a revolutionary moment," Holzer says.
Remember: The country was at war. The intractable culture of racism made a pro-freedom policy a perilous idea. Lincoln knew it could bring down his administration and the Union. Holzer says Lincoln had to fear a virulent backlash from conservative Northern Democrats opposed to racial equality. And he risked triggering secession from the border states — the slave-owning states that had not joined the Confederacy: Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and above all, his birth state, the crucially strategic Kentucky: "Lincoln worried that he wanted to have God on his side but he must have Kentucky," Holzer says.
So that was the context in August of 1862 when Lincoln hosted "a deputation of free Negroes" — prominent African-Americans — at the White House. His message to them? It was not, "you shall be free." It was: "It is better for us both ... to be separated."
"He blames them for the war," Holzer explains. "[He] says, if it wasn't for your presence here — as if it was voluntary in the beginning — this wouldn't be happening. Go where the ban is not upon you, he tells them. Go to the Caribbean, go to Africa. Yeah, they're cruel words, they're harsh words, they're unfriendly."
So how to understand this "bitter pill of prejudice," as Holzer calls it? Well, he says — it's telling that President Lincoln had summoned newspaper reporters to that meeting.
"He wanted this message out," Holzer explains. "What's important to keep in mind is that he had written the Emancipation Proclamation. It was languishing in a drawer or burning a hole in his pocket. He knew he was going to do this, but he wanted Northern Americans who were dubious about marching toward racial equality to be assured that he was not doing this for the black race. He was doing this for the Union, to reunite the country, to defeat the rebellion, and he had no concern about blacks, their feelings, their resonance. He does have his finger in the wind."
Lincoln was trying to mold public opinion, to make the proclamation palatable. And, Holzer says, the president was waiting for the right moment: a Union victory on the battlefield — which finally came at Antietam.
Within a week of that victory, Lincoln ordered the rebellious states to obey this ultimatum within 100 days: "Either return to your legal balance with the Union, end this rebellion, or your slaves will be then, henceforward and forever free."
There was an immediate backlash: Lincoln's Republican Party was punished at the polls in the 1862 elections. Then, on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln was to issue the final decree at the White House.
"It was New Year's Day and by tradition there was a party," Holzer says. "And Lincoln went downstairs early and began receiving guests, and the afternoon comes and goes and African-Americans are gathered in churches, telegraph operators are already keyed up to bring the glorious news to the church whenever it arrived, and nothing happens."
So why the delay? As Holzer tells it, Lincoln had found a mistake in the handwritten document brought for his signature. The whole thing had to be redone. Back it went to the scribe. It took hours. When the proclamation document finally came back to Lincoln, something strange happened: He picked up his pen and put it down several times. People in the room started to wonder if perhaps he wasn't going to go through with it after all. Then he began rubbing the fingers on his right hand. As Holzer explains:
"He said, I've been shaking hands for hours and my hand is almost paralyzed. If I sign the proclamation in a quaking hand even though my whole heart is in it, people will look at my signature in 100 years and think, he hesitated."
Lincoln massaged his hand a bit longer and then picked up the pen and signed his full name, as he did on official documents.
"Then he looked at the signature — Abraham Lincoln — very proudly and said, 'There, that will do,' " Holzer says. "He had said right before that, if my name ever goes into history it will be for this act. He sensed immediately that he had become one of the immortals."
One misconception about the Emancipation Proclamation is that once it was signed, immediately all the slaves were free. But that was far from the truth. Some areas of the South that had already fallen under Union control were not covered by the proclamation. Also exempt were the four border states that owned slaves but had not seceded, so nearly half a million people remained enslaved there. In fact, Delaware and Kentucky only freed their slaves after the war, in December 1865, when the 13th Amendment went into effect. And in the Confederate states, freedom came only as the Union soldiers advanced.
"Soldiers were armed with these tiny reproductions of the Emancipation Proclamation," Holzer says. "Lincoln had ordered hundreds of thousands of them printed. Suppose an officer gets to a plantation owner that might not understand what he had to sacrifice: 'Here it is. These guys are free. You've got to pay them or let them go.' And that's how it worked, mile by mile in Southern territory. It's a long, slow process. At the end of the war, in 1865, for example, slavery had never ended in Texas."
On the cover of Holzer's book is an engraving that shows a scene from April 4, 1865. It's President Lincoln, holding the hand of his young son Tad, as he enters Richmond, Va., just two days after Confederate forces had fled their capital.
Jubilant African-Americans toss their hats in the air as they greet him:
"They rushed over to him and cheered and knelt," Holzer says. "And Lincoln famously said — and there were witnesses there — 'Please don't kneel to me. You must kneel only to God and thank Him for your freedom.' ... This was Lincoln's real emancipation moment. This was a moment when the Union troops were occupying the capital of the Confederacy. And these black workers were actually, that moment, free under the terms of the proclamation.
"Here is the Emancipation Proclamation in action. ... This was Lincoln acknowledging, after all those years of struggle, with the end finally in sight, that this was going to be a different society, a society of mutual respect and not subjugation."
But that moment of quiet triumph was fleeting. Just 10 days later, Lincoln was assassinated.
Images Of Emancipation
The Emancipation Proclamation has been depicted in paintings, engravings, woodcuts and sculptures. Author Harold Holzer shares his research on some of the renderings of the historic event.
The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet
Engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie, painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864
"[Artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter] decided that he wanted to paint the moment at which Abraham Lincoln first told the Cabinet that he was determined to issue a proclamation. It's a pretty famous painting; it hangs in the Capitol, in the Senate stairway.
"... It looks to us today like just a group of old white guys sitting around a table. It's not the most inspiring picture in the world, but it had great power in its day. It was reproduced as an engraving [as shown above]. It became one of the best-selling engravings of the 19th century. ...
"The little regional irony here is that it actually doesn't show the moment when Lincoln was reading the proclamation. He set it in his lap. It shows Secretary of State [William H.] Seward [seated in front of the table, facing Lincoln] gesturing rather grandly. So it's really the moment when Seward tells him not to issue the proclamation: The timing isn't right. So why on earth did Carpenter do this? ... Well, Carpenter is from the suburbs of Auburn, N.Y., and William Seward is the hero of Auburn. So, you've got to get your local hero, your pride of place in this picture."
Proclamation of Emancipation
Woodcut engraving by Richardson (first name unknown), 1865
"There are many engravings and lithographs that are issued in the years to come, all of them showing Lincoln in this new guise. He's no longer the rail splitter; he's no longer the frontiersman. He is the statesman holding the document in his hands which had liberated a race, or begun the process. But, again, the artists get to dramatize things in ways that are not really measured in reality.
"Here is the most exaggerated of all ... a wonderful depiction of Lincoln supposedly manifesting in a black church. The worshippers are on their knees, they're praying; and Lincoln is holding his scroll, reaching toward the heavens. And as a useful echo, the hand of God appears, holding biblical passages. It says 'Holy Bible,' no doubt Deuteronomy, 'Let all the inhabitants be free.' And there is God and Lincoln acting together. And in case you need some enforcement, a soldier on horseback seems to be coming into the church as well — on a white horse, of course, a heroic white horse — to hand the document to a black soldier to get him to spread the word.
"... And if you are wondering what the impact of the proclamation will be, there's a little side vignette image of two African-American children reading a book. That's an important message, because one of the important aftereffects and promises of freedom is that it was going to educate people who were denied the right for years and generations to learn to read."
Statue by Vinnie Ream, 1871
"The proclamation is also seen in public sculpture. ... One is by a very young woman named Vinnie Ream. She's only 16 years old or so when she gets the opportunity to sculpt Lincoln from life. And then before Lincoln dies, she gets the commission to turn the bust portrait that she made into a statue for the Capitol. She has a lot of Senate friends; she's made busts of [Charles] Sumner and others, and she's fairly proficient."
"During the debate over whether she should get the appropriation ... Mary Lincoln — who didn't like young, pretty women hanging around her husband — found out that Vinnie had gone in the Senate gallery to watch the debate and wore a low-cut dress, and leaned over the Senate gallery rail provocatively. So, Mary Lincoln said, 'This woman has obviously won this commission by exposing her busts to the public.' ... A little play on words. Well, she got the commission."
Statue by Thomas Ball, 1871
"[Emancipation Memorial] is probably the most famous and the most controversial. It's the statue that Thomas Ball was commissioned to create for a park in Washington, D.C. It was entirely paid for by freed African-Americans — literally with pennies, nickels and dimes. The depiction was of Lincoln as a liberator raising a kneeling slave from bondage — literally freeing him, breaking the bonds of slavery. So this is the emancipation moment that never was. ..."
"Ulysses S. Grant unveiled it, but Frederick Douglass gave the dedicatory address. And it's probably the most famous speech ever pronounced about Abraham Lincoln and the proclamation. What [Douglass] says is: ... Whites were Abraham Lincoln's children; [African-Americans] were at best his stepchildren. We should honor him, but we should remember that what he did basically was to restore the Union, and we should take him at his word. And many times ... African-Americans thought he was slow, reluctant and coldhearted. But we should also remember that based on the overwhelming majority of the white people of his time, he was speedy, earnest and devoted to the cause of freedom.
"So that speech and that statue have remained controversial ever since. It's politically incorrect today, but it's still there in Washington."
Abraham Lincoln Entering Richmond
Drawing by L. Hollis, engraving by John Chester Buttre, 1865
"When [Lincoln] walked onto the shores of Richmond, he was either recognized by a group of African-American workers on this very hot April day, or someone in the party went over and said, 'Do you know who that is? That's your emancipator.' They rushed over to him and cheered and knelt. And Lincoln famously said — and there were witnesses there — 'Please don't kneel to me. You must kneel only to God and thank Him for your freedom.' ...
"This was Lincoln's real emancipation moment. This was a moment when the Union troops were occupying the capital of the Confederacy. And these black workers were actually, that moment, free under the terms of the proclamation. Here is the Emancipation Proclamation in action.
"We know also that one particularly wizened old man who was working on the dock was wearing a big straw hat — his reaction to Lincoln when he saw him was to doff his cap in this very grand way and bow to Lincoln. Lincoln took his cap off and tipped his hat to the black man. There were white women mostly — the men had fled — hiding behind curtains on the second floor of the homes surrounding the shoreline who were reported to have been looking on with horror at this simple, but deeply moving and meaningful gesture. This was Lincoln acknowledging, after all those years of struggle, with the end finally in sight, that this was going to be a different society, a society of mutual respect and not subjugation."