156 years ago today, sitting in The White House, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In a swipe of a pen, he freed* 3 million people from rape, torture, forced labor and government-supported denial of their humanity.
It would come to be called The Day of Days.
I spent a lot of 2018 thinking about our place in what will become the history of our country. Our place in the history of progress.
Today I’m thinking about a ray of light in a long and dark part of our country’s history and a the dark parts of our country today.
I’m also thinking about progress and perfection. Lincoln was an imperfect man who was not born into this position on slavery.
“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong … And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling … I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
My hope for this year is that we find ways to push things forward and remember that progress is progress even if it is imperfect.
A lot of my thinking was spurred by a book called “These Truths” by Jill Lepore. A history of the United States that I binge-read and then immediately binge-read again.
Here’s her chapter on The Day of Days. I hope you find it meaningful too.
The Civil War was a revolutionary war of emancipation. The exodus began even before the first shots were fired, but the close the Union army drew, the more the people fled. The families who lived on Jefferson Davis’s thousand-acre cotton plantation, Brierfield, with its colonnaded mansion, in Mississippi, just south of Vicksburg, began leaving in early 1862. Another 137 people left Brierfield after the fall of Bicksburg and headed to Chickasaw Bayou, a Union camp. Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs had boasted that the Confederacy would win the war and that he would one day call a roll of slaves at Bunker Hill. Wrote on newspaper reporter, after the arrival of Davis’s former slaves at Chickasaw Bayou, “The President of the Confederate States may call the roll of his slaves at Richmond, at Natchez, or at Niagara, but the answer will not come.”
Lincoln announced on September 22, 1862, in a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, that he would free nearly every slave held in every Confederate state in exactly one hundred days— on New Year’s Day 1863. He’d planned the announcement for a long time, wrestling with his conscience. “I said nothing to anyone, he later told his cabinet, “but I made the promise to myself and to my maker.” Across the land, people fell to their knees. Frederick Douglass said that the war had at least been “invested with sanctity.” In New York, Horace Greeley declared that “in all ages there has been no act of one man and of one people more sublime as this emancipation.” The New York Times deemed the Proclamation as important as the Constitution. “Breath alone kills no rebels,” Lincoln cautioned. But a croud of blac men, women, and children nevertheless came to the White House and serenaded him, singing hosannas.
The announcement set the South on fire. The Richmond Examiner called the promised Emancipation Proclamation the “most startling political crime, the most stupid political blunder, yet known in American history.” Fifteen thousand copies of the Proclamation having been printed, the news made its way within days to slaves, whispered through windows, shouted across fields. Isaac Land swiped a newspaper from his master’s mail and read it aloud to every slave he could find. Not everyone was willing to wait as long as one hundred days. In October, men caught planning a rebellion in Culpeper, Virginia, were found to have in their possession pewspapers in which the Proclamation had been printed; seventeen of those men were killed, their executions meant as a warning, the reign of a different hell.
Frederick Douglass, who had led his people to the very gates of freedom, worried that Lincoln might abandon the pledge. “The first of January is to be the most memorable day in American Annals,” he wrote. “But will that deed be done? Oh! That is the question.” The promised emancipation turned the war into a crusade. But not all of Lincoln’s supporters were interested in fighting a crusade against slavery. As autumn faded to winter, pressure mounted on the president to retract the promise.
He held fast.
”Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” Lincoln told Congress in December. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” On Christmas Eve, day ninety-two, a worried Charles Sumner visited the White House. Would the president make good on his pledge? Lincoln offered reassurance. On December 29, Lincoln read a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Cabinet members suggested an amendment urging “those emancipated, to forbear from tumult.” This Lincoln refused to add. But Salmon Chase, secretary of the Treasury, suggested a new ending, which Lincoln did adopt: “I invoke the considerate judgement of all mankind and the gracious favor of almighty God.”
On day ninety-six, Douglass declared, “The case of human freedom and the cause of our common country are now one and inseparable.” Ninety-seven, ninety-eight. Ninety-nin: New Year’s Eve 1862, “watch night,” the eve of what would come to be called the “Day of Days.”
In the capital, crowds of African Americans filled the streets. In Norfolk, Virginia, four thousand slaves paraded through the streets with fifes and drums, imitating the Sons of Liberty. In New York, Henry Highland Garnet, the black abolitionist, preached to an overflow crowd at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church. At exactly 11:55 p.m., the church fell silent. The parishioners sat in the cold, in the stillness, counting those final minutes, each tick of the clock. At midnight, the choir broke the silence: Blow Ye Trumpes Blow, the Year of Jubilee has come.” On the streets of the city, the people sang another song:
Cry out and shout all ye children of sorrow,
The gloom of your midnight hath passed away.
On hundred. On January 1, 2863, sometime after two o-clock in the afternoon, Lincoln held the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand and picked up his pen. He said solemnly “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing the right thing that I do in signing this paper.”
In South Carolina, the Proclamation was read out to the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of former slaves. At its final lines, the soldiers began to sing, quietly at first, and then louder:
My country, ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing!
American slavery had lasted for centuries. It had stolen the lives of millions and crushed the souls of millions more. It had cut down children, stricken mothers, and broken men. It had poisoned a people and a nation. It had turned hearts to stone. It had made eyes blind. It had left gaping wounds and terrible scars. It was not over yet. But at last, at last, an end lay within sight.
The American Odyssey had barely begun. From cabins and fields they left. Freed men and women didn’t always head north. They often went south or west, traveling hundreds of miles by foot, on horseback, by stage, and by train, searching. They were husbands in search of wives, wives in search of husbands, mothers and fathers looking for their children, children for their parents, chasing word and rumors about where their loved ones had been sold, sale after sale, across the country. Some of their wandering lasted for years. The sought their own union, a union of their beloved.