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The Sanction of Memory
Dobbs & some piping hot takes on the Emancipation Proclamation.
On 20 October 1862, shortly after word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Europe, the Reverend G. Haven, Jr. (visiting Rome at the time), sent the following letter to the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which was run by my favorite abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison:
We cannot stop without one word of rejoicing at the approach of the hour of deliverance and exaltation of America. The Proclamation is as life from the dead. It will be known in history without any adjective, as The Declaration and The Constitution are known. To leave American the greatest of slaveholding nations—to find it on our return, after a brief absence, almost universally free, it seems well nigh miraculous. It is miraculous! “It is the Lord’s doing, and marvellous in our eyes.” How the souls of the martyrs of this faith, from Lovejoy to John Brown, must exult as the tidings go heavenward! How the greater martyrs that have perished by myriads in their Southern dungeons will exalt and magnify Him in whose hand are the hearts of rulers and people, and who turneth them as the rivers of water are turned! For his right hand and mighty arm have gotten him the victory.
Immediate and unconditional emancipation—the first and ceaseless cry of William Lloyd Garrison—emancipation with the inevitable ultimate of arming the liberated slave to preserve his freedom—the doctrine and practice of Capt. Brown—and this by the President, supported by Governors and people! How small and feeble appear the governments of Europe beside such decrees! No nation here has a record a millionth part as grand. Gladstone may flatter the slaveholders, and fool his own people by saying that Jeff Davis has created a nation. Abraham Lincoln has emancipated a nation. True, the work is not ended. The War of Independence had not ceased when Independence was declared. But it seems impossible now that any other result should happen than the extinction of the slaveholding clans, and the elevation of black and white to one level and one destiny.
Even if compelled to abandon the Southern territory, we shall at least make the United States what it never has been before—everywhere free. But we shall not allow these our fellow-citizens to be reduced again to bondage. The preservation of their liberty and of our own hangs together. The new life will clothe our armies with ideas; make Generals men as well as soldiers, and ensure us ultimate and glorious victory. Here, amid the ruins of the greatest of nations, destroyed because it would not destroy slavery, I rejoice in this act by which America secures for herself a grander, long, and infinitely better dominion than that of Rome.
This is beautiful, and true. It’s the hottest of hot takes, and, 160 years later, it makes my heart sing.
However, Rev. Haven’s reaction was uncommon! The Liberator was a radical right-wing newspaper, akin perhaps to The American Spectator today. Roughly one-half of America was enraged about the Emancipation Proclamation:
Let me be very clear: This ruling changes nothing in Minnesota today, tomorrow, or as long as I am governor. We will not turn back the clock on reproductive rights. Minnesotans deserve to decide for themselves when to make the most important decision of their lives – whether or not to become a parent. Today, that fundamental right to personal freedom and privacy – a right that we have held for half a century – was overturned….
I will exercise my discretion to decline requests for the arrest or surrender of any person charged with a criminal violation of a law of another state where the violation alleged involves the provision of, assistance with, securing of, or receipt of reproductive health care services…
We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellowmen of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.” Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.
So far as regards the action of this Government on such criminals as may attempt its execution I confine myself to informing you that I shall unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection. The enlisted soldiers I shall continue to treat as unwilling instruments in the commission of these crimes and shall direct their discharge and return to their homes on the proper and usual parole.
That was written by Jefferson Davis, the “President” of the insurrectionist pseudo-government which styled itself the Confederate States of America. You can see how I got these two documents mixed up.
But it is unsurprising that the enemies of a great swath of humanity remained enemies of those humans after the law recognized that those humans had rights.
What I found much more interesting was how many Northern papers reacted negatively to the Emancipation Proclamation. These are papers that nominally approved of the Union cause in the Civil War, but found the actual abolitionist movement yucky and dangerous. Here, for example, is the pro-Union, anti-Lincoln New York Journal of Commerce:
In a pluralistic democracy like ours, the convictions of a minority cannot be made into law over the will of the majority. This means that, for those opposed to abortion, there is no way around the hard work of persuasion and the necessity for compromise. But the Trumpified GOP with which most of the prolife movement has aligned itself in recent years has no time for persuasion or compromise, and no interest in attending to the uneasy ambivalence many people feel about this issue.
Oh, shoot! Sorry! I’m really at odds and ends today, aren’t I? That’s Commonweal’s editorial on “The End of Roe.” Here is the New York Journal of Commerce on the Emancipation Proclamation (emphasis in original):
Mr. Lincoln has yielded to the radical pressure, and issued a Proclamation. It is, on the whole, a curious document. We have no inclination to-day to discuss its wisdom, or the probabilities of the effect it will produce in rebeldom. We have only anticipations of evil from it, and regard it, as will an immense majority (!!) of the people of the North, with profound regret. …The only result which an adherence to the principles of this Proclamation can lead to is a continuation of the war, in a dark future, in which the end is beyond our vision.
Again, you can see how I stumbled. “Pro-Union, anti-Lincoln” rhetoric scans a whole lot like “pro-life, but anti-MAGA-pro-lifer” rhetoric. I like David French, but when I see him write a headline like, “Roe is Reversed, and the Right Isn’t Ready,” I cannot help recalling the Boston Post’s insistence that, while emancipation might be a good idea, America was not yet ready for it, and “thus [President Lincoln should] defer the proclamation in question until at least the year 1900.” What’s 37 more years of unrelenting mass human suffering and cruelty if it gives us time to build support networks and popular sentiment?
French, to his credit, does not go so far as that. Others have:
The Emancipation Proclamation has been sanctified in memory. Virtually everyone in America today supports it as a moral triumph and a legal truism. We all like to imagine that, had we been there, we would have been on the side of the presidential proclamation that ultimately saved so many people from torment and death. But this fantasy is because we are have little understanding of who opposed the Proclamation, why they did so, and how very much they were like us. Slavery, like abortion, was an Evil That Ran Through Everything, a sin so deep it caught everyone in its current one way or another.
It is not surprising, then, that the initial proclamation of slavery’s downfall was met with ambivalence or hostility by so many people who should have known better. Likewise today.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed almost no slaves at the time of its announcement. Emancipation took years more of war, and some very tricky political work, to achieve even the 13th Amendment. The full weight of society was not behind the spirit of equality—was not truly ready to welcome the slaves into its bosom—until the Civil Rights Movement, and arguably still isn’t ready today. Emancipation was nevertheless a great and necessary advance. Dobbs, similarly, is the beginning of the work, not the end. But it is a great beginning, worth celebrating.
If you are feeling some ambivalence today, then I congratulate you for two reasons:
First, you are now able to sympathize with the people who felt ambivalent about the Emancipation Proclamation. The people who wrote for the New York Journal of Commerce and the Boston Post were not insane or evil. They were not even, so far as I can tell, pro-slavery! They were just very wrong about how to prioritize a human rights issue of historic importance. They were wrong about whether freedom for the oppressed should wait until the oppressor is good and ready. You know now that they weren’t evil, because you feel the same, and you’re not evil, either. It is always good for the soul to learn how to sympathize with other people whom you once simply couldn’t understand. Congratulations.
Second, you have now been warned. The pro-Proclamation letter of Rev. G. Haven has received the sanction of memory, because it was right, because it saw through all the grimy evils of the writer’s time to the beautiful future of life, liberty, and equality it would achieve. The writers opposed to the Proclamation are fortunate to have been forgotten, because otherwise they would stand condemned. My advice: try to react to Dobbs in a way that will earn you the sanction of memory when justice for all children finally sings out across America… whether that happens five years from now or five hundred.
On the other hand, if you are feeling not ambivalence but hostility today—if your reaction was more in line with Jeff Davis’s than Commonweal’s—well, then you are on the other side from me in our nation’s Cold Civil War. You stand against the rights of unborn children, as a former generation stood against the rights of other unpersoned Americans. I respect your opinion, and recognize that many people honorably believe it (as many people have honorably believed in every atrocity since Adam & Eve), but can wish you nothing but swift, honorable, and total defeat, delivered in the patient spirit of another Civil War document, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
(Image credit: Samuel Bronston’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964.)