We approach today the 150th anniversary of one of the most important declarations ever penned by a political leader and embraced by a nation and a people in the history of humankind: Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln formally executed his proclamation that slaves still under the control of any states of the Confederacy were to be regarded as free by the U.S. Army and any other executive branch of the Union government. While it is true that the order technically freed perhaps only 50,000 slaves, in areas under Union control, by war's end Union victories over former Confederate territory freed 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the country. Complete abolition and citizenship for freed slaves would wait until passage of the 13th and 14th constitutional amendments.
But the significance of the Proclamation is, and was, at once far more symbolic than such technicalities suggest. It represented the commitment of a nation voluntarily to abolish slavery, and it was interpreted by the majority of whites in the North and the majority of slaves everywhere to mean exactly that. With the Civil War amendments - 13th, 14th and 15th - it compares favorably with Britain's Parliamentary abolition of slavery in 1833, which has been called "one of the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations" (W.H. Lecky, "History of European Morals," 1869).
Today we stand witness to a dramatic and consequential remaking of world society, informed by a revised idea of human equality, one far more personal and individual than ever before. At its heart this remaking rejects assumptions about gradations of ethnicity which obtained latently throughout most of human history and were raised temporarily to a false scientific absolutism - eugenics - at the end of the 19th and into the 20th centuries.
That remaking is impossible to imagine without the Emancipation Proclamation, for it started the United States on an evolution, painfully slow but inevitable, toward the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, and the maturation of that revolution we see around us now. The reconstituting of our idea of ethnic legitimacy is far from complete, but the progress that's been made cannot be undone. We live in a new world that will become still newer with each generation as young people take for granted a fundamental level of equality of all people that simply did not obtain before the 1960s.
There has been considerable historical debate on what the measure meant to Lincoln, and to the progress of the war, and his role in the onset of America's evolution has always been controversial. Though he early professed his abhorrence at slavery, his most severe critics have charged that Lincoln was as racist as anyone else in his America, and that the Proclamation was a sop that covered his and his contemporaries' unwillingness to endorse real racial equality.
Harry Jaffa has argued the contrary, that Lincoln understood and embraced the principles of abolition and equality, but could not practically implement them in the America in which he lived; such implementation would not have been tolerated. In this reasoning, Lincoln used arguments of military necessity - confiscating slaves to prevent their use by the Confederacy, and converting their labor and soldiering to the union cause - as an opportunity to move the country toward abolition and equality.
Eric Foner, perhaps the dean of current historians of the Civil War, argues that though Lincoln was not committed to abolition before the war, he manifested a remarkable capacity for both moral and political growth.
Historian Will Jacobs, late of the UAA History Department, is fond of asserting that history is "messy," that it is riddled with inconsistencies and illogical developments. Akin is the principle of unintended consequences, the phenomenon that human actions inevitably generate unanticipated results, both positive and negative. It is unlikely that many, if any, Americans who voted in the presidential election in 1860 imagined the abolition of slavery within three years; Lincoln himself probably did not.
But that is what happened. Moreover, the implications of the abolition continue to affect us today as the world is being remade, bringing to mind William Faulkner's insight that "the past is never dead; it's not even past."
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.