Today marks the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation — revered today as a major milestone in America's long path of freedom but derided by many at the time of its implementation.
As millions of Americans this holiday season have flocked to Steven Spielberg's stunning film "Lincoln," they have been reminded it was not the Emancipation Proclamation that abolished slavery in the United States, but rather the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
But the 13th Amendment would not have been possible were it not for the measures undertaken by the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime executive order granting unconditional freedom to slaves who resided in those areas of the country still in rebellion and employment within the Union armed forces to able-bodied freedmen.
There was much to question about the Emancipation Proclamation at the moment of its signing.
For those critical of Lincoln as ineffectual, the proclamation was criticized as a purely symbolic gesture because it only tried to free slaves in those areas where the United States had no meaningful influence.
For those seeking swift reconciliation with the Confederacy it seemed an unnecessary provocation because of how it could fan the flames of violent slave rebellion.
And for ardent abolitionists it did not go far enough because it didn't address the practice of slavery in the Union slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri and specifically exempted regions of the South under Federal control.
But the order allowed for immediate emancipation of slaves held by Northern troops as contraband of war. Inasmuch as slaves continued to bolster production in the South, the rapid word-of-mouth news of the proclamation disrupted the Southern economy as slaves saw genuine hope for their own freedom from a Union victory. It provided an efficient means for fresh recruits into the Union armed forces. And it eviscerated French and British support of the Confederacy.
Most importantly, the Emancipation Proclamation united the cause of union with the cause of freedom. Although that melding of purposes was forged instrumentally in the heat of war and unveiled opportunistically by a besieged president, it nevertheless helped to transform a shiftless war for reunification into a resolute crusade for what Lincoln later described as "a new birth of freedom."
The Emancipation Proclamation was a controversial, partial, temporary wartime measure issued under the president's capacity as commander-in-chief. The plague of slavery would ultimately require a more complete and permanent cure. But that didn't keep Lincoln from acting when and how he could. He understood if the underlying principles are sound and the direction correct, partial and temporary are far better than nothing at all.
As this New Year dawns with the nation still awaiting final resolution of a long-foreseen fiscal crisis, how we yearn for national leaders who possess Lincoln's understanding of freedom's first principles, his vision and his willingness to let partial steps be the start of long-term progress.
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