Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is 150 years old today

September 22 is American Business Women's Day, celebrated annually on the anniversary of the founding of the American Business Women's Association in 1949.

But we can wait to celebrate that until next year.

We can also postpone observation of Hobbit Day, that being the translated date of the birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

Instead, today, we wish to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the issuance of President Abraham Lincoln's preliminary emancipation declaration. Lincoln had been toying with the notion of issuing such a proclamation during the Summer of 1862 but his cabinet had dissuaded him from doing so, pointing out that, in light of the Union's bleak military situation, it might look like a futile act of desperation.

A battle that took place exactly 150 years ago this past Monday -- at Antietam -- gave Lincoln the opportunity to act. And he did.

The document issued 150 years ago today freed no one -- it merely threatened to release all slaves in those states still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. No state returned to the Union because of this threat. And the final Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, purported to free all the slaves only in those areas where the President had limited or no practical authority.

While some critical historians have criticized this as a slick, cynical maneuver, in the eyes of the world, the Emancipation Proclamation turned the Civil War into a war against the institution of slavery. Great Britain, which depended on Southern cotton for its factories, had been considering intervention on the side of the Confederacy or offering to mediate the dispute (which would almost certainly have resulted in a permanent separation) -- but the preliminary emancipation declaration made that politically impossible. This may not be the day on which Lincoln saved the Union, but it was surely one of the most important in that effort.

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