“Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” said Lincoln at Gettysburg, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Lincoln was fond of drawing attention outward, from local events to world import, from the crisis in America to the larger question of whether any democracy could survive the test the divided United States then faced. The Civil War, he argued, “embraces more than the fate of these United States.”
Before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation — which would free slaves only in the seceded states that remained beyond the president’s immediate control — he fretted about “a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet,” referring to Callixtus III, who supposedly excommunicated Haley’s Comet because it was a bad war omen.
And when he had finally signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, he spoke to celebratory crowds gathered outside the White House: “It is now for the country and the world to pass judgment.”
This was more than a rhetorical trope, and not just a reminder that the world was watching. Lincoln’s agonizing over the proclamation reflected a host of worries about self-government, practical politics, the future of the newly free African Americans and very possibly his own racist misgivings.
But foremost among these was the question of legitimacy and the constitutionality of the document. Even if issued as a war measure, a mere confiscation of enemy property, it was sure to be seen by many — perhaps even by Lincoln himself — as extraordinary medicine, even extra-legal. His Hamlet-like vacillating and deception during that period 150 years ago, when he pondered the document, wrote it, hid it in a drawer and finally issued it can best be understood in terms of Lincoln’s deep-seated fears about the viability of democracy: Was it capable of fixing itself?
In the late 19th century, as white Americans tried to exorcise the memory of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation lost luster, replaced in the popular imagination by the more eloquent Gettysburg Address (which didn’t even mention slavery). And today it seems strange that we celebrate the proclamation at all, except as a precursor to the far more sweeping and triumphant accomplishment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which two years later banned slavery everywhere in the country, without qualifications or geographical exceptions. We have mostly forgotten the reality of the document itself, its ignominious origins in military crisis, its lack of moral certainty, its dull rhetoric and all the other faults that led historian Richard Hofstadter to complain that it “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.”
And yet this document of war remains a sacred document of democracy, testament to the messiness rather than the ideals of governing. In an age when Western democracies are confronted by new forms of authoritarianism, which offer prosperity and security in exchange for political quiescence, the Emancipation Proclamation forces us to think about the fundamental vexations of representative government: Is democracy capable of resolving grand crises? Can we defend against terrorism without compromise to liberty? Can we reform our economies and free ourselves from crippling debts? Can we stave off environmental apocalypse? In short, is democracy capable of great things?