Appraising the Emancipation Proclamation





Louis P. Masur chairs the American Studies Program at Trinity College (CT) and is the author of the forthcoming “The Civil War: A Concise History.” He is currently writing a book on the debate over the Emancipation Proclamation.

The estate of Robert Kennedy has picked an opportune moment to auction one of its treasures—a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln.  Next month marks the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s election and inaugurates what promises to be four years of Civil War commemorations.  One culminating moment will take place on January 1, 2013—the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Kennedy purchased the document at a Sotheby’s auction in 1964.  He paid $9,500; it is now expected to sell for $1.5 million.  He was Attorney General at the time, and no doubt the decree served as a reminder of the importance of his work in defending and extending civil rights.  At a ceremony marking the Civil War centennial, Robert Kennedy declared, “We have had a great deal of talk in the past hundred years about equality. Deed, not talk, is what is needed now.”

Lincoln’s deed was some time in the making.  While being urged from the beginning to transform the rebellion into a war for abolition, he resisted until July 1862, when he decided finally to issue an Emancipation Proclamation.  Awaiting a Union military victory, on September 22, several days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln promulgated his preliminary Proclamation, pledging that slaves in those states or areas of states still in rebellion on January 1 would be set “forever free.”

The copy Robert Kennedy purchased is one of forty-eight originally printed in 1864 for the Philadelphia Great Central Sanitary Fair, held in June of that year to raise funds to aid sick and wounded soldiers.  Lincoln signed the folio broadsheets, and they sold for $10 a piece. It is believed that half of the forty-eight copies survive, fourteen in public institutions and as many as ten in private hands.

It wasn’t the first time the president used the Emancipation Proclamation to raise money for soldiers.  In October 1863, he donated the original draft of the document to Chicago’s Northwestern Fair for the Sanitary Commission.  “I had some desire to retain the paper,” he wrote the organizers, “but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers, that will be better.”  The manuscript was auctioned for $3,000, but perished in the Chicago fire of 1871.

At the Philadelphia Fair, Lincoln delivered an address June 16, 1864. He acknowledged, “war, at its best, is terrible, and this war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration, is one of the most terrible. . . .We accepted this war for an object, a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained.”

In the beginning, Lincoln’s objective was only to save the union; in time, he came to see abolishing slavery as a necessary means by which to save the union, and as an “act of justice” in its own right.  Opponents denounced the Proclamation as unconstitutional, unenforceable, and an invitation to slave insurrection.  Even some supporters criticized it, claiming it did not say enough or go far enough.  The governor of Massachusetts complained it was a “poor document,” but conceded it was “a mighty act.”

Others recognized its true value:  the Proclamation made the war a full-scale assault on slavery, it transformed the army into a force of liberation, and it committed the nation to freedom.  Many compared it in significance to the Declaration of Independence.  More would be needed, and Lincoln knew it. That is why, in celebrating Congressional approval of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, he declared it “a King’s cure for all the evils.”

Unfortunately, the Proclamation’s reputation has not fared well.  Following World War II, the historian Richard Hofstadter derided the document as “having all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.”  And in the 1960s, despair over the meaning and quality of freedom for blacks led to disparagement of President Lincoln’s course of action as too little, too late.  New generations of historians turned away from political leaders to study the actions of everyday people, including the slaves, who, by running away, clearly played a role in emancipating themselves.

But perhaps the sale of Robert Kennedy’s copy of the Proclamation will allow us to begin to reassess the document.  Lincoln’s actions demonstrate the role that a President can play in moving a nation toward reaffirming and realizing its ideals.  That he did so in wartime, under the most intense pressure any American president has ever faced, make his actions all the more remarkable.  He both led and responded to a revolution in public sentiment that made the Emancipation Proclamation possible at precisely the moment that he issued it.  “The step, taken sooner,” he was later quoted as saying, “could not, in my judgment, have been carried out.”

Timing is vital in politics as well as auctions, a lesson both Abraham Lincoln and Robert Kennedy knew quite well.


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