We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth

Fort William in Anamabu

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

by Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865)
from his Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862
available in Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings
image – Stig Nygaard

We cannot escape history

On September 22, this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The final version was issued January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves in Confederate states, though enforcement would take a while. Lee did not surrender to Grant until April 9, 1865, and the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery was not ratified until December 6th, 1865.

The details of emancipation were not clean or certain, and Lincoln did not start with strictly abolitionist views. Between preliminary and final versions of the Proclamation, Lincoln lobbied and brainstormed for proposals like “colonization,” “renumerative emancipation,” or gradually phasing out slavery by the year 1900 – ideas that are counter-intuitive to today’s understanding of a sudden declaration of freedom for slaves. “Colonization” would have enforced segregation, even banishment, by encouraging freed slaves to start their own communities elsewhere, presumably Africa. Border states that had not declared a secession from the Union were originally exempt from the Proclamation. Eventually, we adopted an uneasy and desperate consensus that ending slavery on all American soil was a necessary part of preserving the Union: having different laws for different parts of the country could not unify us as a nation.

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