Forever Free

Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a Story of Empowerment



portrait by william taufic

Their names were prime and Prince. Prime was literate, yet couldn’t even afford his name capitalization. Prince was illiterate, signing the document only with an “X”. The two Fairfield slaves filed a petition with the Connecticut General Assembly in 1779. Their request: to be free men.

“…we beseech your Honours [sic], to weigh this Matter, in the Scale of Justice, and in your great Wisdom and Goodness, apply such Remedy, as the Evil does require…” They requested the emancipation of all slaves, essentially arguing that no man should be another man’s slave.

The petition was apparently written by attorney Jonathan Sturges, a local figure who embodied the dichotomy of the times: He seemingly supported emancipation, yet owned slaves himself. The petition he penned was rejected by both houses. And the prescient proposal would not be realized until more than eighty years later when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, thus beginning the process of ending slavery.

The Fairfield Museum and History Center is commemorating the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s historic document with an exhibition and series of school programs, called the Promise of Freedom: The Emancipation Proclamation. The highlight is, of course, a rare copy of the 150-year-old document, signed by President Lincoln, one of only about twenty that have survived—one of the two written by Lincoln’s own hand perished in the infamous Chicago fire of 1871. Copies of the executive order are as valuable as they are rare: In June, a copy sold at a New York auction for more than $2 million. That’s the second-highest price ever paid for a proclamation signed by Lincoln—a copy owned by the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy fetched $3.8 million two years ago.

Aside from showcasing the proclamation itself, the Fairfield exhibition features arresting illustrations, including a Currier & Ives print depicting President Lincoln, one hand raised in the air, the other, being kissed by a slave bowing humbly before him. Other images, the political commentary of their day, portray Honest Abe as the devil incarnate. One drawing shows Lincoln removing a mask to reveal a horned visage; another depicts Lincoln at his desk, atop which sits an inkwell in the shape of Lucifer.

“We have a range of prints from the time that really reflect the division of public opinion—the ones that vilify Lincoln as this agent of the devil who’s taking the country down a path of ruin, and other prints that celebrate Lincoln as this great person who freed the slaves,” says Michael Jehle, the museum’s executive director. The exhibition, he says, shows “how vehement and passionate the debate was and how that was reflected in art.”

While the Emancipation Proclamation is now viewed as moral and just, Jehle explains that when Lincoln issued the now-revered document, it touched a nerve. “It was certainly controversial,” he says. “Many people in the country supported it and thought it was the right move to make, but other people thought it was beyond the president’s power.”

Lincoln anticipated a fierce debate and was nothing if not deliberate in his issuance of the proclamation. In the summer of 1862, he wrote a famous justification for the document to The New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it… .”

Beyond this written justification, Lincoln wanted a military victory before publishing the proclamation—the result of the Civil War was by no means assured at that time—and Lincoln got it with the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam. Days later, on September 22, 1862, he issued a preliminary proclamation, warning states still at war with the Union that if they did not cease fire, their slaves would become forever free on January 1, 1863.

The Fairfield Museum’s guest curator, Trinity College history professor Louis P. Masur, Ph.D., is author of Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union. Masur describes the days after the issuance of the preliminary proclamation as a period of debate. He says there was “a certain amount of hysteria, anxiety” during which citizens wondered what would actually happen on January 1. “The reactions ran the gamut—there were abolitionists who’d been waiting their whole lives for this moment, there was tremendous joy and rejoicing… .” But, on the other end of the spectrum, he says, there were those who felt “the president had no power to act against slavery.”

The issue of presidential overreach is one that echoes today in the debate over health care and the constitutionality of Obamacare, upheld by the Supreme Court in a complex ruling in June. The museum’s Jehle says, “It’s a theme in American politics and American history—what are the limits of presidential authority and what role does a president play in nudging a country in a certain direction?”

The Fairfield Museum’s library director, Elizabeth Rose, Ph.D., concurs that one of the lessons to be drawn from the nineteenth-century controversy over the document is that “things are messy in the past as much as they’re messy today.”

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, accusations that he exceeded his presidential authority were among the kinder criticisms. Dr. Masur says Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, called Lincoln’s action not just a political blunder but a political crime. Lincoln was attacked even in the Northern press—editorials incorrectly predicted the proclamation would lead to social revolution and black-on-white violence. Even some abolitionists complained that Lincoln’s language was tepid and wouldn’t really end slavery (it did take the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865, to actually outlaw it).

Jehle sums it up, saying the proclamation “was a crucial step, but it was only one step in a long process of freedom and civil rights for African-Americans.”

SLAVERY IN CONNECTICUT

The Fairfield exhibition examines not only the Emancipation Proclamation but also our area’s history of the Civil War and slavery; it will likely surprise many visitors who hold the common misconception that slavery was strictly opposed in the North and supported in the South. In the second half of the eighteenth century, and closer to home, Fairfield actually had one of the larger slave populations in Connecticut.

Dr. Rose explains that slaves were concentrated in the larger towns and cities, and Fairfield was a “significant town” in the Colonial period. Even though Connecticut didn’t have the plantations usually associated with slavery, she explains, “slaves were held as domestic servants and farm-laborers by the wealthier members of society.”

The exhibition also touches on the colonization movement, which advocated sending free slaves back to Africa. In Connecticut the effort was led by a number of leading Fairfield denizens, including Yale scientist Benjamin Silliman, co-founder of the Connecticut Colonization Society. Still, by 1848 Connecticut had joined the rest of New England in abolishing slavery, perhaps too late for prime and Prince, yet still well before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Aside from learning about Connecticut’s nuanced history, visitors to the Fairfield Museum might also be surprised to learn that the Emancipation Proclamation provided for the enlistment of African-American soldiers. Professor Masur says this is why the proclamation is ranked as one of the “two most important documents alongside the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. Rose says the document essentially repudiates the ideas of the colonization movement for African-Americans and represents “a first step in recognizing that they were American citizens.”

It was a calculated attempt by president Lincoln, says Executive Director Jehle, “not only to do what was morally just, but also…to open the doors to African-Americans to help bolster the Union army.” Bolster the blue it did. Nationally, by the end of the Civil War, some 180,000 African-American men had served in the Union army, many of them even heading north to re-enlist. The first all-black regiment in Connecticut, made up of nearly 900 African-American and Native American men, first mustered in 1863; they fought valiantly in several engagements in Virginia and were among the first infantry units to enter Richmond after it was abandoned by the Confederate Army.

Regardless of race, for many soldiers, like Silas Shearer of Iowa, the proclamation was inspirational: “I believe the Best thing that has been done Since the War broke out is the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Masur says the proclamation’s impact on the war was critical. “Soldiers who had been fighting think that finally there is a purpose to the war aside from preserving the Union. People who their whole lives thought slavery was wrong felt there was a greater cause worth fighting for; and slaves themselves ran away in greater numbers than before and by so doing, weakened the Confederacy.” In 1865, two years after the proclamation was issued, the Civil War ended.

LINCOLN TO OBAMA

In January 2010 America’s forty-fourth and first African-American U.S. President, Barack Obama, placed a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation on display at the White House. He did so on Martin Luther King Day, ordering the document hung directly above the bust of Dr. King in the Oval Office. The president invited civil rights elders from the 1960s into the West Wing to view the famous artifact from the 1860s. In Emancipating Lincoln, the author Harold Holzer calls it “a moment of unavoidable and deeply moving historical symmetry.”

A year later, perhaps echoing the proclamation that allowed African-Americans to enlist, President Obama set into motion the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Last September, the Department of Defense lifted its ban on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people serving openly in the military. Jehle notes, “The military in our country has served as an interesting pathway toward more inclusive participation, sometimes even a step or two ahead of the larger society.”

When asked about modern-day parallels drawn from the proclamation, Dr. Masur says, “Look at gay marriage and the evolution of people’s thought…it’s almost analogous to people who might have thought slavery was right and just, but then changed their minds.”

Another current hot-button issue, immigration, was decided by the Supreme Court in June. It delivered a split ruling on Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, upholding the “show me your papers” provision, which requires state law enforcement to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest if they suspect that person is in the country illegally. Jehle sees interesting parallels between the debate over immigration and the arguments over the Emancipation Proclamation. One question that loomed large in the Civil War era was this: Do freed American slaves deserve to be citizens? He says, “I think what continues to resonate today, as in the nineteenth century, is the debate over who legitimately belongs to this country, where do the bounds of citizenship lie.”

Dr. Masur poses, “What does freedom mean? Is being free just being free or do you need the right to vote, to be protected by society?”

While the exhibition doesn’t take a stand on current national debates, it does aim to show visitors that there are important points in our history “where controversial issues were hotly contested.” The exhibition will help visitors explore such points. He adds that seeing the document itself will resonate especially for some. “For all Americans it’s an important document, but it’s one that has particular emotional and historic value for African-Americans. It was really the first time a statement like this was made…that slavery had to end,” he says. If the exhibit has a message, Jehle says it should be this: “History doesn’t happen because a president signs a piece of paper. It’s really the people on the street that make it happen and implement it. It’s a message of empowerment.”

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