150 Years Young

There are so many major anniversaries around the events leading up to, and of the Civil War these days. Many of them commemorate important, but tragic events. Today we commemorate, but also celebrate, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

We all know the name, we all remember something about it, depending on how long we are out of grade school. But the name says it all, right? This is when the slaves were set free, when President Lincoln forever ended this terrible institution with the stroke of a pen. Right?

Of course not. The proclamation had, in fact, little or no force of law. It spoke only of slaves in the rebellious southern states, where Lincoln’s edict was unrecognized as having any authority. And yet, for all that it had little or no legal force, it had tremendous symbolic, and moral, force. It was, arguably, the point at which a terrible and exhausting war that had to then been fought for mostly political and economic reasons, gained a higher, moral purpose.

Newspaper articles, radio and TV stories abound today on the subject of this 150th anniversary. Professor Eric Foner, of Columbia University, writing in the New York Times, does a good job of tracing the history of Lincoln’s own evolution on the issue of slavery and and how it should be addressed. Starting from a policy of gradual change, of compensating slaveholders for the loss of their “property,” and repatriation, really deportation, of slaves back to Africa (most of whom had been born and raised in America and knew no other homeland) — and ending with passage of the 13th Amendment to the constitution which, once ratified, did, indeed, end slavery — was quite a journey.

It’s been said that when Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe after the war, he said “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started the Great War.” For long before Lincoln himself championed the moral cause of abolition, it was Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that did so much to shift the national conversation about slavery from one of economics and state’s rights, to one of humanity and justice; the very terms on which the war, if perhaps not first begun, was certainly ended. And in the spirit of which the Emancipation Proclamation was penned.

As Foner writes in the Times:

“And then there was his magnificent second inaugural address of March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln ruminated on the deep meaning of the war. He now identified the institution of slavery — not the presence of blacks, as in 1862 — as its fundamental cause. The war, he said, might well be a divine punishment for the evil of slavery. And God might will it to continue until all the wealth the slaves had created had been destroyed, and “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.” Lincoln was reminding Americans that violence did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861. What he called “this terrible war” had been preceded by 250 years of the terrible violence of slavery.

In essence, Lincoln asked the nation to confront unblinkingly the legacy of slavery. What were the requirements of justice in the face of this reality? What would be necessary to enable former slaves and their descendants to enjoy fully the pursuit of happiness? Lincoln did not live to provide an answer. A century and a half later, we have yet to do so.”

Indeed, we have yet to do so. And with major studio movies as wildly different as “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” in theaters throughout the nation, there is no doubt that these questions and issues remain as fresh to us today as tomorrow’s news. And that historical documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” remain as important and relevant today as they were a century and half ago.