A Mighty Act: The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

On Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Harold Holzer on Lincoln’s actions on that fateful day.


Like most Americans then and now, Abraham Lincoln began his New Year’s day 150 years ago by attending a party, in this case his own.

But it was no ordinary party, and certainly no ordinary New Year’s. While four million African-American slaves and thousands of white abolitionists waited anxiously for word that he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on this, its promised due date, Lincoln first hosted the annual reception for the diplomatic corps, military elite, and members of Congress. And when it was over, guards threw open the doors of the White House and admitted thousands more revelers—members of the general public eager to clutch the president’s hand and wish him a happy 1863 as well.

The delay—if it was not more than that—understandably alarmed tense freedom advocates gathered in churches across the North, many engaged in ardent prayer since midnight. It caused many pessimists to wonder whether Lincoln would in fact renege on the promise he had made when he issued his preliminary emancipation on Sept. 22: that if Confederate states did not return to the Union by Jan. 1, he would declare their slaves “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” In the hundred days since, anti-administration newspapers here and abroad had condemned Lincoln for fomenting “servile insurrection,” abandoning his “constitutional moorings,” and threatening the American social order. Disappointed, the president himself had acknowledged that his announcement had sent the stock market spiraling into decline, sped desertion from the armed forces and inhibited enlistment. “This, looked soberly in the face,” Lincoln understated at the time, “is not very satisfactory.”

In the midst of such widespread rebuke, New York lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong spoke for many when he wondered whether “Lincoln’s backbone” would “carry him through the work” he was “pledged … to do” on Jan. 1, ominously warning: “If he postpone or dilute his action, his name will be a byword and a hissing till the annals of the nineteenth century are forgotten.”

But the concern proved premature. As Lincoln had recently assured a delegation of Union men from his native Kentucky, “he would rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom.” By Christmas, abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was convinced that the president “would not stop the Proclamation if he could, and could not if he would.”

Besides, Lincoln had not intended to make America’s freedom community wait those tense extra hours while he attended his annual holiday reception. A typographical error made him do it. Earlier that day, the president had unrolled and meticulously proofread the official copy of the final proclamation, as painstakingly “engrossed” on a vellum scroll by a professional scribe. Unfortunately, a dismayed Lincoln spotted a tiny error within the boilerplate language at the bottom of this initial copy—the “hereunto set his hand” phrase had been mistakenly transcribed as “set his name.” Insisting that the document must be absolutely perfect because it would be so closely scrutinized, he ordered that the scribe create a new version—holiday notwithstanding. Not until mid-afternoon was the revised scroll finally ready. As soon as the annual reception ended, Lincoln quickly headed from the East Room upstairs to his private office, where he commenced patiently inspecting it. This time, he found no mistakes at all. But another delay—albeit a brief one—would now follow.

As the three witnesses in the room watched in almost breathless silence—Secretary of State William H. Seward, his son and private secretary Frederick, and Lincoln’s own secretary John G. Nicolay—the president picked up his pen, dipped it in an inkwell, but then unexpectedly put the pen down, offering nothing by way of explanation. Then he picked up the pen again, held it over the document as before, but once more set it back on the table without comment. What did it mean? Could he in fact be uncertain after all? Was he prepared to blink?

Breaking the quiet, Lincoln finally looked up and explained: “I have been shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, and my right arm is almost paralyzed. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’”

Rather than risk creating a “tremulous” signature, Lincoln instead commenced massaging his giant hands together. Only when he felt the sensation in them return did he take up his pen one more time, and “slowly, firmly, write “that ‘Abraham Lincoln’ with which the whole world is now familiar,” as a contemporary testified. “Then he looked up, smiled, and proudly declared: “That will do.”

What the proclamation did—and did not do—has been a matter of debate ever since. Many still stubbornly insist that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no one—that it proved utterly and cynically toothless, applying only to a region in which Lincoln had no authority to proclaim anything. It was meant only to keep England from recognizing the Confederacy, go these arguments. Lincoln had no real compassion for slaves; only for restoration of the Union.

The truth is, some 50,000 enslaved people in Confederate territory immediately gained their freedom on Jan. 1, most along the coast of the Carolinas. In the years that followed, moreover, Union troops, armed with miniature copies of the proclamation printed for distribution to dubious Southern slave owners, liberated tens of thousands more wherever they marched. And emboldened by word of the official imprimatur, yet tens of thousands of additional slaves bravely abandoned their bondage on their own, offering their services to the Union when they reached federal lines.

Was it effective? Even the slaves Confederate president Jefferson Davis had left behind at his Mississippi plantation used it as a means of escape—soon after Ulysses S. Grant’s forces began their siege of nearby Vicksburg. What better proof of the proclamation’s impact could there be than its ability to deprive its author’s counterpart of his own enslaved property?

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Most important of all, beginning on that unforgettable New Year’s Day, the proclamation forever transformed the Civil War from a struggle merely to restore the Union as it was, to a titanic battle to create a new Union altogether—in which all men, everywhere, would ultimately be free. If the proclamation did not with one stroke of the pen bring about the end of slavery, it did herald and hasten the beginning of the end of slavery. The Declaration of Independence, to which it was immediately compared, did not alone create a free United States in 1776; it required validation and enforcement on the battlefield before its promise could be kept—just as did the “second declaration of independence” four score and seven years later.

Certainly the Proclamation was variously appreciated and feared in its own day, by friends and foes alike. Southerners (and many Northerners) howled in protest at its announcement, particularly over its call for African-American enlistment in the Union armed forces. And many disappointed liberals bemoaned the document’s numbingly legalistic language, which its supremely gifted author had in fact carefully employed to ensure that no judicial body (particularly the hostile Supreme Court) could find grounds to overturn it. Lincoln determined that it was more important for his proclamation to be legally fireproof than emotionally stirring, and he paid a price among those who hoped for a more stirring declaration. While acknowledging emancipation day as “an epoch in our national history,” for example, Frederick Douglass, who had long advocated such a presidential order, could not help observing: “It was not a proclamation of ‘liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof’ such as we had hoped it would be, but was one marked by discriminations and reservations.”

Karl Marx, of all people, came much closer to the truth even while admitting that Lincoln’s leaden legalese called to mind “the trite summonses that one lawyer sends to an opposing lawyer.” As Marx marveled of Lincoln’s almost perverse habits as a writer: “He always presents the most important act in the most insignificant form possible. Others, when dealing with square feet of land, proclaim it a ‘struggle for ideas.’ Lincoln, even when he is dealing with ideas, proclaims their ‘square feet.’ Hesitant, resistant, unwilling, he sings the bravura aria of his role as though he begged pardon for the circumstances that force him ‘to be a lion.’”

What Marx failed to observe is that “the lion” soon enough provided the poetry to ennoble the proclamation’s uninspiring prose. At Gettysburg, of course, Lincoln proclaimed nothing less than a “new birth of freedom.” In his annual message to Congress, he breathed a public sigh of relief by reporting that emancipation had been “fully discussed, supported, criticized, and denounced” without threatening its legality. “Thus,” he declared, “we have the new reckoning. The crisis which threatened to divide the friends of the Union is past.” And in a message prepared for his racist neighbors back home in Springfield, Ill., he warned sternly against opposition to black recruitment. The war would ultimately be won by the forces of freedom, he confidently predicted. “And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” Meanwhile, Union troops—black as well as white—continued to use the president’s proclamation to liberate enslaved people wherever they encountered them within the Confederacy.

Lincoln was not the only contemporary to come to the defense of his order. In its own time, Union charity organizer Mary Livermore called it “the sheet anchor of hope, the rainbow of promise, to the oppressed of every land, at home and abroad.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had galvanized Northern opposition to slavery, likened Lincoln to “Moses leading his Israel through the wilderness.” And America’s freedom poet John Greenleaf Whittier suggested that Lincoln’s document, once considered banal, had been divinely inspired: “The mighty word / He spake was not his own; / An impulse from the Highest stirred / These chiseled lips alone.”

War charities solicited and sold Lincoln’s emancipation manuscripts for enormous sums (Lincoln even won a gold watch for donating one copy to a fundraising fair in Chicago—we can see Daniel Day-Lewis toying with a replica in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln). Its uninspiring prose notwithstanding, lithographed facsimiles of the quickly flooded the marketplace. Artists and sculptors hastened to the White House to capture Lincoln’s likeness and celebrate him as a great emancipator. One anti-slavery collector awarded the pen the president had used to sign the final document breathlessly predicted his new relic would “forever be associated with the greatest event of our country and our age & with the honored name and services of the President of the United States.”

Lincoln would not have disagreed. He not only fretted over how his signature would appear on the final document (today, ironically, it has faded almost to dust). He also boasted—albeit privately—that he regarded its announcement on Jan. 1, 1863 as not only “the central act of my administration,” but “the great event of the nineteenth century.” Abraham Lincoln did not often flatter himself. But the Emancipation Proclamation set his heart beating with thoughts of immortality. Inspirational its words may not have been, but its author firmly believed it represented a “grand consummation” that inspired a “great revolution in public sentiment.”

That it launched the destruction of slavery should be beyond debate. In the end, precisely how many enslaved people the document alone actually freed remains unanswerable. By reliable estimates, the number may approach 500,000. By the spring of 1864, Lincoln began a new campaign to enact a constitutional amendment to liberate those people not covered under the terms of the proclamation—and to guarantee that those who were freed could never be sent back into bondage.

“Those who have tasted actual freedom,” he famously insisted, “can never be slaves.” When he began worrying (incorrectly as it turned out) that he might lose his 1864 bid for reelection, he summoned onetime critic Frederick Douglass to the White House and asked him to fashion a plan to spread word of the proclamation to enslaved people before a Democratic successor could abrogate it. As Douglass learned that day, Lincoln’s actions could prove even more inspiring—and more effective—than his words.

A 150 years after he signed the order that transformed America, the nation Abraham Lincoln saved boasts both an African-American Lincoln admirer for a president and an understandable obsession with Spielberg’s somewhat different take on history. Spielberg’s film, after all, asserts that the 13th amendment, not the Emancipation Proclamation, deserves pride of place in freedom history. The old questions about the proclamation’s true impact are being raised again.

The answer should be obvious: it was the most important executive order in American history. Anti-slavery Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts may have said it best at the time it was issued, when he judged the Emancipation Proclamation “a poor document, but a mighty act.” And this mighty act did nothing less than change the Civil War, change the legal status of black people, and change America—just as promised: then, thenceforward, and forever.

And if that doesn’t inspire another New Year’s Day party to mark its sesquicentennial, what can?