Home > F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution > The Emancipation Proclamation: 150 Years of Freedom

The Emancipation Proclamation: 150 Years of Freedom

File:Emancipation Day in Richmond, Virginia, 1905.jpg

The Emancipation Proclamation is, for a groundbreaking implementation of human freedom, a rather subdued document. It does not ban slavery outright, but merely says that people held as slaves in areas in rebellion against the United States on January 1, 1863 are free as of that date. Slaves in four border states and the future West Virginia were not covered; they did not receive their freedom until the 13th amendment was ratified (on December 18, 1865).

And yet there is something unmistakably radical about the proclamation. The trend in the mid-19th century was towards gradual, compensated emancipation. The British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, for instance, converted slaves into “apprentices,” all of whom were not freed until 1840; and the BSAA compensated slave-owners for their lost “property” (at a cost of £20 million). But please note: actual emancipation for all British slaves was legally granted ahead of schedule, on August 1st 1838.

In contrast, the Emancipation Proclamation granted immediate freedom to all slaves covered by its terms, and did so without offering a penny of compensation. This was pretty much the most uncompromising solution to the problem of American slavery possible. The main response among slaves themselves was to 1) escape behind Union lines; and 2) move to the cities–an effort to leave the plantations as far behind as possible. Little violence accompanied the news of emancipation, and in fact it was only in 1865, in Texas, that the last of the new freedmen were informed of the proclamation (on June 19, a date now commemorated as “Juneteenth“).

Achieving the emancipation, however, was another matter; the Reconstruction of the south, carried out from 1863-1877, is generally considered a failure. At its end, southern states had passed laws enforcing racial segregation, which remained in place until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

And yet the proclamation achieved something important, both on a personal and a political level. Booker T. Washington, nine years old at the time, reported that in response to the reading of the proclamation, “My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.”

And on a moral and political level, it was hard to deny that segregation was a flagrant breach of the Reconstruction Amendments–and the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation was the first step towards fulfilling Lincoln’s promise of “a new birth of freedom.”   RT

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PhotoEmancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1905; VCU Libraries; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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