A new birth of freedom

By David Bulla

Statue of Lincoln and son Tad in Richmond, Va. -- Photo by David Bulla

On this day 147 years ago, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land. Few executive orders in our history have meant more than Lincoln’s proclamation. In essence, he changed the war cause from being only about reunion to being also about giving the nation’s slaves a new birth of freedom.

Certainly, he did not free the slaves in the border states that stayed in the Union, a sore point for many historians, including Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates — who makes the case in his book Lincoln on Race and Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2009) that the sixteenth president had a complex and confounding record on the issue. Lincoln was too much the political animal to go so far as universal emancipation at that point in the war. That would have to wait until later.

Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation shifted a century of American policy considering slavery. The peculiar institution would not survive if the North won the war. Although it was not clear that that would happen at the start of 1863, the western theater was generally going the way of the Union military and the eastern theater would see its great turning point in July of that year with Gettysburg.

And while it is certainly true that the South — indeed, the nation as a whole — did not began to change its attitudes on race until at least a century after the Civil War, Lincoln fired the first, most powerful shot in the American conflict that would lead to racial equality and a fuller understanding of freedom than the republic had ever known before.

So, on this New Year’s Day, as every other, we need to raise a glass not only to peace, prosperity, and brotherhood, but we also need to raise one for that quintessential American habitus, freedom.

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