160 years ago tomorrow — on Sept. 22, 1862 — President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Although celebrated by some, it was condemned by others for not doing enough, and still others for doing too much.
It was the last resort on a circuitous journey that began when Southern states seceded, continued when border states refused to sell their slaves to the federal government, persisted when freed Black men rejected Lincoln’s appeal for a mass exodus overseas, and was unveiled to optimize the optics for a Union inexplicably losing a war that once seemed entirely winnable.
The Proclamation is also emblematic of the limits of presidential power. Lincoln was forced to walk a razor-thin line. Freeing all slaves would be undone by a Supreme Court guided by Dred Scott. Freeing slaves in border states likely would lead to the immediate secession of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky to the Southern cause, perhaps forever severing the United States. Lincoln was bound by the limits of his Constitutional authority. Rather than defy that authority, he applied it in the most forceful way he could.
Rarely in our nation’s history has something so hated by the privileged been so embraced by the subjugated and maligned. Rarely has something so lofty been so limited. And rarely has something so limited been so necessary.
The Proclamation was the brainchild of a man who hated slavery personally, who was elected president after vowing not to end slavery, and who evolved as a human and as a president.
“Evolution” has been a fraught term in our country for more than 100 years. Many Americans still reject it on biological terms. Many more believe changing perspectives is a sign of weakness. But one of Lincoln’s strengths — imbued in our nation these last 160 years — was the courage to choose right over wrongheadedness, even when the latter was more popular.
Political untenability stalled the advancement of civil rights, of human rights. Once those political extremes reached their breaking point, splitting the country in two, the calculus changed. This new reality, guided by military laws rather than congressionally or Constitutionally approved laws, freed Lincoln to establish an initial framework for freeing the enslaved.
The Proclamation is both symptomatic and symbolic of the United States’ often painfully slow bend toward justice. Our aspiration for a more perfect union begins with imperfection. We are Zeno’s “Achilles and the Tortoise,” coming ever closer to an ideal that can never be fully realized.
Frederick Douglass heralded the Proclamation as the “first chapter” in a new national narrative. And 160 years later, we’re still awaiting the writing of the final chapters, because fighting for a Constitutional democracy over the competing forces of tyranny and anarchy are never-ending. Neither the Proclamation, nor the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, nor the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nor any other marker for progress has fully cured our country of the ills that necessitated these efforts at the outset.
On this anniversary of a Proclamation that was paradoxically toothless and sublime, we are reminded of the imperfect union of noble causes and measured steps. Of compelling chapters yet unwritten, and the hesitation of would-be authors. Of governments and humanity. Of right and wrong.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.