Civil War

On This Day in History, Something Truly Great Happened


On Sept. 22, 1862 — 150 years ago today — Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, promising to free the slaves in any state still in rebellion on Jan. 1, 1863. Americans have celebrated Lincoln’s proclamation, and argued about its meaning, ever since. But there’s a surprising legacy that few Americans know anything about, one that historians have overlooked, even though it shows just how thoroughly American ideas of freedom reshaped the globe. Emancipation touched off a crisis for the principle of humanitarian limits in wartime and transformed the international laws of war. In the crucible of emancipation, Lincoln created the rules that now govern soldiers around the world.

I continue to be amazed whenever I hear the myopic argument: "The Civil War started because of states' rights" -- and from otherwise educated people and Civil War experts in 2012. I always ask a salient follow-up question to anyone who tries to sneak this Lost Cause myth into a conversation: "States' rights... to do what?" The obvious answer: "To preserve slavery." That was the real reason for Southern secession. Preserving slavery. The reactionary fear, especially during the election of 1860, was that Lincoln was going to either free the slaves or incite a slave rebellion and subsequently, in the parlance of fire-eater propaganda, foster "miscegenation." Much like opponents of our current president, anti-Lincoln activists were clearly attacking Invisible Fictional Lincolns -- the truth is, Lincoln didn't take a formal pro-emancipation position until well into the war. The upshot of which came to fruition on this day 150 years ago, with the 13th Amendment to follow (the ratification of which is evidently covered in the forthcoming Lincoln feature film).

  • It’s a rationalization. All the acts of secession by confederate states declared protection of slave “property” to be their cause for war. As reflected in their founding documents, the CSA formed for this same purpose of defending “property.” It was only after the war that anyone in the South came up with the “state’s rights” canard, which is ironic given that Northern states resented their own laws about free blacks being overruled by Southern power in Congress through the Fugitive Slave Act.

  • nathkatun7

    In reality, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a limited military decree that applied to (i.e. freed) only those slaves that resided in States still at war against the United States. The Proclamation specifically excluded slaves residing in states, or parts of states loyal to, or under the control of, the United States. Consequently, After January 1, 1863, the only two ways slaves, who resided in the states or areas of states covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, attained their freedom was to either runaway and successfully make it to the territory controlled by U.S. forces; or after the Union forces gained control of a rebellious state or sections of a rebellious states. Which is to say that not all slaves became free on January 1, 1863, the date that Lincoln, in his September 22, 1862 Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, promised that he would issue the final Emancipation Proclamation.

    Obviously, since slavery was legal and protected by the Constitution, President Lincoln, without invoking the urgency of military necessity, had no Constitutional power to end slavery in states or parts of states that were not rebelling against the United States. This is why I wish the purity progressives, who incessantly attack President Obama, would take time to study Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which clearly lays out the Constitutional limits of Presidential (i.e Executive) power.

    There is no doubt that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, its limited nature notwithstanding, became a great mythologized symbol of freedom, and thus laid the foundation for the eventual legal abolition of slavery throughout the United States. The vast majority of Americans (or for that matter the vast majority of the people in the world) are brought to believe that Lincoln freed all the slaves. Only a few students of history know the limited nature of the Emancipation Proclamation or the fact that Lincoln was assassinated almost 8 months before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which legally abolished slavery throughout the United States, was ratified.

  • Just for fun, for anyone who thinks this was purely a states-rights issue, look up how many of the states cited the continuation of the institution of slavery in their articles of secession as one of their reasons for secession.

    Then come back and tell us all how it really wasn’t about slavery at all. 😉

    • nathkatun7

      What puzzles me about people who argue vehemently that the Civil War was all about the abstract principle of “States-rights” is their failure to give concrete meaning to the rights that the states that decided to secede from the United States were trying to protect/advance. Honest students of history know fully well that slavery was the dominant issue dividing Northern States and Southern States, going as far back as the Constitutional Convention of 1878 that resulted in compromises protecting slavery. The slavery controversy became even more intense as America expanded westward. Except for the few moralist anti-slavery groups that earned the label of “Radical Abolitionists,” for the majority of whites, the controversy over slavery seemed to be mainly focused on its negative political and economic interests of the non slave holding white people. All political attempts at compromises, beginning with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, were never sufficient to resolve the issue. It’s probably true that the relentless activism of the minority moralist abolitionists played an important part in fomenting the outbreak of the Civil War. But what is also true is that in 1861 neither Lincoln nor the majority of Northern Whites were on record committed to abolishing slavery throughout the U.S. What the majority of Northern whites vigorously opposed was the expansion of slavery in the new territories.

      It’s true that the Southern States invoked the doctrine/principal of “States Rights.” But the doctrine of “States Rights” was not invoked in abstraction. Rather, it was invoked for the concrete purpose of protecting the fundamental rights of States to permit and protect the rights of individuals to own other human beings as their slave property. The states that seceded from the United States did not do so in order to protect their rights to practice polygamy or promote interracial marriages. They seceded because their wanted to protect their rights to own other human beings as slave property.

      • jon_downfromthetrees

        From the southern point of view at the time, the region had always managed to hold on to enough power in Washington to hold anti-slavery forces at bay as the north grew more populous. While it couldn’t hold the House, it did keep the Senate in a state of parity between the two regions, and most of Lincoln’s predecessors were southerners. Its success with the states right dogma was due more to the number of Senate seats it held than to broad acceptance of that notion among non-southerners.

        While Lincoln’s use of federal powers in the war is often credited, correctly, with changing Americans’ conception of the union from a confederation of states to a nation rooted in the sovereignty of its people, the north had substantially adopted that attitude before the war began. The influx of immigrants, the settling of the northwest, the linking of that territory with the industrialized northeast, etc., were all factors that framed northerners perception of a unitary nation.

        The South’s seccession, then, was a secession of people, their illegitimate rejection of their nationhood, implemented via the actions of individual states. It was not the assertion of a valid Constitutional framework — states rights –against the hostile north. States rights was then, as it has remained, (and as it began with the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions) the tool by which a minority attempts to protect and secure the privileges of power that the majority no longer recognize as legitimate.

        The rise of the Republican Party in the north — pledged to ban the expansion of slavery — followed by Lincoln’s election and the breakup of the last national political grouping, the Democratic Party, in the same election, signalled to the south that, henceforth, the north would be the dominant political region. I.e., the north would no longer need to remain satisfied with mere legislative compromises. That region would have the desire and the votes in Congress to block slavery’s expansion and to enact other anti-slavery legislation.

        That’s the immediate reason for secession.

    • Yes, this.

      I always point people to the Official Declarations of Secession of the various states that chose to secede

      some excerpts


      “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”


      “She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

      So yeah, the Civil War was about States Rights, the right to keep and sell slaves.

  • Zen Diesel

    Lol, I wonder if the Invisible Fiction Obama jumps into his Delorean and chats with the Invisible Fiction Lincoln.

    • D_C_Wilson

      Ridiculous. Everyone knows that Invisible Fiction Obama has a TARDIS.

      • Zen Diesel

        Silly me, that is so true, it’s the preferred choice of time travel for the AntiChrist,Marxist,Socialist, Communist,Bolshevik,Gay,Nazi Invisible Fiction Obama.

      • Exactly, because Deloreans totally suck, reliability-wise, and a good TARDIS will last you several lifetimes!