150 Years Later — What Was Revolutionary About the Emancipation Proclamation

Chris Mahin wrote this article 10 years ago, on the 140th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Much is being said to decry the significance of the deed.  The Proclamation was a product of the time in which it was written, and so its influence and importance needs to placed within that context.  What then are the implications for today?  Surely not that we need a great leader to follow.  That might be the lesson if we took from history the idea that Lincoln, with the stroke of the pen, freed the slaves.  That isn’t what happened, and the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation need not enshrine that myth.  The issue today, the 1% vs the 99% as Occupy phrases it, is similar to the issue then, when a handful of the richest people in the United States had the right to own, as their private property, 4 million slaves.  The Proclamation was a step across a nodal line of ending a form of private property.  It raises questions about how we treat the right of billionaires today to own what should be public property.

  People’s Tribune/Tribuno del Pueblo (Online Edition)
                  Vol. 30 No. 1/ January, 2003

                 P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL  60654



By Chris Mahin

th-1The document makes dull reading — but it inspired millions. No music rings from its carefully constructed sentences — but it sounded the death knell of slavery. Deliberately understated in form, its content gave a bloody war a higher, more noble purpose.

Jan. 1, 2003 marks the 140th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Much has changed in the United States since the Civil War, but the story of how the proclamation came to be issued, and what it wrought, contains important lessons for the
struggle for justice today.

Despite its dry, legalistic tone, the Emancipation Proclamation was a radical document. It declared that all persons held as slaves in states or parts of states in rebellion against the United States on Jan. 1, 1863 were free — forever. Because this step affected over 3 million people at a time when the selling price of a slave averaged $1000, the proclamation removed over $3 billion of legally obtained property from the slaveowners without any compensation whatsoever. Since slavery in the United States was an especially brutal form of capitalism, at its time the Emancipation Proclamation decreed the greatest single expropriation of capitalist private property in human history. (It retained that distinction until the Soviet Revolution).

The Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of the Civil War.In the beginning, the Lincoln government insisted that it was fighting the war because rebellious forces in most slave states had conspired to organize secession, not because those states permitted slavery within their borders. (Most supporters of the Union felt that secession was illegal, even treasonous. While many of them abhorred slavery, most felt that it was protected by the Constitution, and that as a result the federal government could not interfere with slavery in those states where it had always been legal.)

At first, the Lincoln government adhered to this policy so rigidly that it was official policy for the Union Army to return to their masters those slaves who fled to its battle lines and offered to help the Union cause. This callous obsession with the absolute letter of federal law meant that the war dragged on, casualties mounted, pro-Confederate traitors inside the Union wreaked havoc, and international support for the federal government could not be fully mobilized. Perhaps most dangerous of all, this policy prevented the Union from aiming at the secessionists’ Achilles Heel: the presence of more than 3 million slaves in Confederate territory who would act against the Confederacy if they could be sure that acting would help them win freedom.

As the bloodletting continued, and the Union suffered numerous defeats, the situation reached a crisis. Either the war could continue to be fought on the basis of the narrow legal technicalities it was begun on in April 1861 — without disturbing the property relations in the states where secession had taken place — or it could be fought in a revolutionary way. By late 1862, the Union had to face a stark fact: The only way to save the country, to stop the rebellion, would be to end slavery.

At this point, Northern society began to respond to the action of the slaves who ran away to the Union Army’s battle lines and to the heartfelt appeals of abolitionists who urged the government to adopt an openly anti-slavery policy. Slowly but surely, more and more people began to feel that if the only way to defeat the rebels was to abolish slavery, then slavery would have to go. After Union forces stopped an attempted invasion of the North by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the fall of 1862, Lincoln announced his plans to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

The proclamation had immediate effects. Racist whites were disgusted by it, and vowed to cease fighting for the Union. But opponents of slavery, black and white, were elated, and galvanized into action. Sympathy for the Union skyrocketed all over the world.

While the proclamation applied only to those states and parts of states in rebellion against the United States, and did not apply at all to the 800,000 slaves in those parts of the United States not in rebellion, it was a first step. Everyone understood that after Jan. 1, 1863, there was no turning back; the war was now a battle over whether slavery would exist in the United States or not. Through the telegraphic power of the grapevine, many slaves in the Confederacy soon learned that they would be free forever if they could reach Union lines.

There is a lesson in this for our time. Today — just as in late 1862 — the people of this country have to make a choice. At the beginning of the Civil War, the survival of the United States was threatened by about 475,000 slaveowners who possessed billions of dollars worth of wealth. Today, this country’s survival is threatened by a tiny class of exploiters who are also worth billions. A continuation of the rule of this class threatens America with economic disaster and moral ruin.

In fighting this tiny class of billionaires, we should build on the best in the past of this country. Exactly 140 years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation established the principle that when one section of society’s property rights destroy the human rights of millions of other people, when those property rights threaten the forward progress of society, humanity has a right to change the property relations. The Emancipation Proclamation was a public declaration that there is nothing sacred about the legally obtained private property of brutal exploiters. There are moments in history when society cannot move forward unless that property is taken away and new social relations established.

In the seven score years since Abraham Lincoln took a gold pen and signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the White House on New Year’s Day 1863, it has become fashionable in some political circles to stress what the Emancipation Proclamation did not do. But instead of disparaging the proclamation, real revolutionaries ought to squeeze every ounce of political energy possible out of the moral precedent it established. On this Emancipation Day 2003, we should honor the valiant abolitionist agitators, runaway slaves, and Union soldiers who made the Emancipation Proclamation possible — by declaring: If it was right to wrest the source of strength away from one kind of exploiter in 1863, it is right to take society away from all exploiters today!

This article originated in the PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE/TRIBUNO DEL PUEBLO
Vol. 30 No. 1/ January, 2003; P.O. Box 3524,
Chicago, IL 60654


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