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Gilbert: Emancipation

(Host) New Year's Day one hundred and fifty years ago was unlike any other in American history. With the stroke of a pen, four million humans stopped being under the law pieces of property owned by other people. The slaves in the Confederacy won their freedom. Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert has the story.

(Gilbert) January 1, 1863 was the date slaves and abolitionists had been waiting for. A hundred days earlier, Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation stating that he would order the emancipation of all slaves in any Confederate state that didn't return to Union control by January 1st. No states returned, and Lincoln issued the order.

In those days presidents traditionally hosted a public New Year's Day reception at the White House; any citizen could attend and shake his hand. Lincoln shook hands for three hours. After the reception, when he picked up thepen to sign the proclamation, his hand shook. Lincoln remarked, I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper, adding in jest that in future years people would see his shaky signature and think he has some compunctions. But, he said, If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.

Not everyone was supportive. Historian Carol Berkin tells us that the First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Davis, considered the proclamation an outrageous attack on property, which, far from disheartening Southerners... would produce a new, steely determination among Confederate troops. Vermonter George PerkinsMarsh, Lincoln's ambassador to Italy, didn't like the means by which the slaves were to be emancipated. He had written his wife, The proclamation is as foolish in form - not substance - as possible, and is technically speaking, unconstitutional. Common sense would have dictated an unobjectionable way of doing the same thing.

In Vermont, just before New Years, the editors of the Burlington Sentinel, a Democratic newspaper, wrote that with the proclamation, the abolition experiment will have been completed - its last card played out. With the utter failure of that measure to bring the rebellion any nearer its close... what will remain to Mr. Lincoln but to perceive and realize the mistakes of his Administration.

But when news reached St. Johnsbury that Lincoln had issued the proclamation, bells rang for nearly an hour.

And abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood that the Proclamation was a revolutionary document that turned the war to preserve the Union into a war to abolish slavery. He knew it spelled the end of slavery everywhere in America. For him it was a sacred text, along with the Declaration of Independence.

In Boston's Tremont Temple, a former theater converted into a church, Douglass led an enormous congregation in the hymn Blow Ye the Trumpet Blow, with its refrain, The year of jubilee is come. And nearby, in Music Hall, Ralph Waldo Emerson recited a poem he'd written for the occasion. In it, Randall Fuller points out, Emerson turns on its head the debate about whether slave holders should be compensated for their lost lsquo;property.' The speaker in the poem, who is God himself, says:

Pay ransom to the owner
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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