Abe’s emancipation

One hundred and fifty years ago, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln presided over the annual White House New Year's reception. Late that afternoon, he retired to his study to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. When he took up his pen, his hand was shaking from exhaustion. Briefly, he paused — "I do not want it to appear as if I hesitated," he remarked. Then Lincoln affixed a firm signature to the document.

Like all great historical transformations, emancipation was a process, not a single event. It arose from many causes and was the work of many individuals. It began at the outset of the Civil War, when slaves sought refuge behind Union lines. It did not end until December 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which irrevocably abolished slavery throughout the nation.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was the crucial turning point in this story. In a sense, it embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Lincoln's statement in 1864 that he had always believed slavery to be wrong. During the first two years of the Civil War, despite insisting that the conflict's aim was preservation of the Union, he devoted considerable energy to a plan for ending slavery inherited from pre-war years. Emancipation would be undertaken by state governments, with national financing. It would be gradual, owners would receive monetary compensation and emancipated slaves would be encouraged to find a homeland outside the United States — this last idea known as "colonisation."

Lincoln's plan sought to win the cooperation of slave holders in ending slavery. As early as November 1861, he proposed it to political leaders in Delaware, one of the four border states (along with Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri) that remained in the Union. Delaware had only 1,800 slaves; the institution was peripheral to the state's economy. But Lincoln found that even there, slave holders did not wish to surrender their human property. Nonetheless, for most of 1862, he avidly promoted his plan to the border states and any Confederates who might be interested.

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