The Freedom of Said Persons

On this day in 1863, President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves held in the Confederate States of America free. While this edict would not have the force of law until ratification of the 13th Amendment nearly three years later, scholars believe it imbued the Civil War with a purpose far more noble than mere preservation of the adolescent Republic.

In the ramp-up to our Civil War, citizens and leaders of the North had been principally concerned with simply curbing the extension of slavery into Western territories which would eventually achieve statehood within the Union. Under the piss-poor antebellum administrations of Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, there was little if any earnest effort to improve the lot of the nation’s nearly four million African American slaves.

Often citing the Constitution itself as authority for inactivity, while each of these presidents swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend that document, it is plain they used it more as a barricade behind which they hid regarding the “slavery question.” Between 1854 and 1861, the bitter harvest of this amoral dithering manifested itself in the open war for and against slavery known as Bleeding Kansas, and in John Brown’s Rebellion.

With the election of Lincoln and the subsequent, near-immediate secession of the Southern states, the continued tolerance of Southern slavery by Northerners seemed no longer to serve any constructive and compelling political purpose. Emancipation thus quickly changed from a distant possibility to an imminent and feasible eventuality. Lincoln had previously declared that he meant to save the Union as best he could; by preserving slavery, by destroying it, or by destroying part and preserving part. The time had come to go further.

Following the Union’s modestly strategic success at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Lincoln issued an ultimatum calling on the rebelling states to return to their allegiance before the next year, otherwise their slaves would be declared free men. No state returned, and the threatened declaration was issued on January 1, 1863. Word for word, its most salient portion reads as follows:

“And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”—A. Lincoln, January 1, 1863

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.