Monday, December 31, 2012

Watch Night

Tonight marks the 150th anniversary of the moment the Emancipation Proclamation became law.  In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln declared his intent to emancipate all slaves living in rebellious states or sections of states unless the authorities in question agreed to re-join the Union by December 31, 1862.  It is important to note that this proclamation did not outlaw slavery everywhere in the United States; slaves in sections of the country not in rebellion remained slaves until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.  Even so, January 1, 1863 marked the beginning of the end of slavery as an American institution.

As the author of this interesting Denver Post article points out, the moral question we deem so central was one among several reasons for emancipating southern slaves.  Despite the legacy of the revolutionary conflict and the War of 1812, our most important international relationship was with Great Britain, and throughout 1862 and 1863 the British remained divided on the question of recognition for the Confederate government.  On one hand, these were states in rebellion from the perspective of the United States; on the other, they were important purveyors of raw cotton for the burgeoning textile industry of industrial Manchester and other British manufacturing centers.  Britain had outlawed slavery years before, but until the Emancipation Proclamation placed slavery squarely at the center of the Civil War conflict it remained possible to view the war as a question of state's rights versus federal prerogatives.  Once Lincoln signed his proclamation, the War Between the States became unquestionably a war about slavery--and public opinion in Britain would not stand for an alliance with southern slaveholders.  The rhetoric of defending slavery was present from the earliest days of the conflict.  C.S.A. vice president Alexander Stephens memorably declared slavery the "cornerstone of the Confederacy."  After January 1, 1863 this rhetoric could no longer be minimized or ignored.

African Americans were, of course, eager to see the Emancipation Proclamation take effect, organizing "Watch Nights" on December 31, 1862 to stand vigil in hopes that Lincoln would keep his promise to undertake such a revolutionary action.  On this 150th anniversary, the National Archives will stay open past midnight as the original document is put on display alongside the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.  Others around the country will keep vigil in remembrance of this transformative event.  Emancipation did not bring the end of suffering, but it marked an tremendously important beginning.  I am thankful for the step toward freedom Lincoln took on behalf of this nation 150 years ago tonight.


Thomas Eric Ruthford said...

An interesting bit of historical causation that I read about a little while ago: in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery, the author points out that in the late 1850s, Georgia's largest export was slaves. Tobacco growing is hard on soil, especially so when you have slaves who working the land who don't take care to prevent soil erosion. The soil was so burnt out that Georgia was facing diminishing returns. Thus, the election of Lincoln, whose only position on slavery in the 1860 campaign was that slavery should be not be allowed in new territories such as New Mexico was enough to drive the price of slaves down and cause Georgia to want to rebel.

It was one those "hmm, I never knew that," moments.

Laura Gifford said...

That's a good point -- I will have to look up that book as it sounds fascinating (does he cover the Dust Bowl? that's something I enjoy spending some time on with my students in the US survey because it's shocking to contemplate the scope of the damage... and so recently in the grand scheme of things). Montgomery may mention this, too, but part of the reason why Founding Fathers less favorably disposed toward slavery let it slide at the time of the Constitution's creation was that the soil of VA and the Carolinas was becoming so depleted due to the aforementioned affects of tobacco cultivation. The idea was that slavery would soon die out for economic reasons, so there was little sense in making it yet another contentious issue in the Constitutional Convention. Then, of course, came the cotton gin, and a tremendously profitable agricultural system based upon large-scale slave labor. Oops.