Tuesday commemorates the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. It went into effect the following Jan. 1. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass considered the proclamation at the time a "worthy celebration of the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thraldom of the ages."
The Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves in the United States. Rather, it declared free only those slaves living in states not under Union control. There were slaveholding states that were not in rebellion, such as Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware, where the proclamation did not apply.
It was nevertheless a seminal moment in the country in that it was the first time the federal government sent an unwavering message that slavery would no longer be tolerated.
Under the Constitution, neither the president nor Congress had the authority to prohibit slavery in the states of the Union. But the commander-in-chief could invoke his war powers, which allowed Lincoln more latitude to act.
Though the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, was not ratified until December 1865, Lincoln used his war powers to confiscate Confederate property, which included freeing slaves. But the moral outcome of the proclamation must be viewed through the paradoxical lens that includes more than 600,000 lives lost, making it America's most brutal war.
The proclamation shined the spotlight on the war's true raison d'être, allowing Lincoln to publicly unearth his moral voice. Whether or not the inception of the Civil War was about states' rights versus the preservation of the Union, on Jan. 1, 1863, it functionally became a war about slavery.
The 10th Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This is the basis for the states' rights argument.
It is the proclamation that opened the door to the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed due process and equal protection to those born in America or naturalized citizens. The 14th Amendment extended the Bill of Rights and made it applicable to both state and federal law, diminishing much of the 10th Amendment's original power.
The proclamation is merely part, albeit a significant part, of this nation's long, arduous journey to realize a more perfect union that would stop by Jim Crow segregation and its legalization through Plessy v. Ferguson, before it reached Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement.
But as Douglass prophetically opined, it was only a first step. Though the "thraldom" that he referred was specific to antebellum slavery, the proclamation would unleash the liberation impulses in all who had felt the fruit that the Constitution bore was beyond their grasp.
The short version of history places Lincoln between the limited contours of a great emancipator and a brutal tyrant. Invariably such discourse leaves out more than it adds.
The proclamation did more than make slavery illegal in the rebellion states; it changed the course of the war and forever transformed the nation. For the first time, it made ubiquitous the Jeffersonian notion of all being created equal.
It set a moral tone that would place Lincoln's words at Gettysburg in perpetuity 11 months later, "That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
During the proclamation's centennial anniversary, Martin Luther King Jr. would tell America about his "dream." And 50 years later, during sesquicentennial commemoration, President Barack Hussein Obama will once again take the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.