Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Emancipation Proclamation at 150

ABRAHAM LINCOLN is hot these days. The 16th president of the United States, gone these 147 years, finds himself a Hollywood commodity, figuring in two recent big-budget movies (“Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” came and went months ago, perhaps mercifully; we’re really waiting to see Daniel Day-Lewis portrayal in Steven Spielberg’s biopic, due out in November). And the president’s 1865 portrait by Alexander Gardner recently got a stunning full-color makeover from artist Sanna Dullaway.

But this year, Lincolnalia is less about the man than about the document that defined his presidency and, more than any other since the Declaration of Independence, announced the future of the United States.

On Sept. 22, 1862, President Lincoln sought to add to a military advantage secured days earlier at Antietam Creek, Md., the site of a pivotal battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. On Sept. 17, the deadliest single-day battle in American history took place, with more than 23,000 casualties — dead, wounded and missing — by the end of the fighting.

Despite its pyrrhic dimension, the Battle of Antietam stemmed the advance of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces into the north. Five days after that bloody victory, sometimes considered a stalemate by modern contemporary military analysis, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It would go into full effect on Jan. 1, 1863 and while it conferred freedom on the slaves in the Confederate states at that time, the Proclamation was also a rolling phenomenon; the Proclamation’s provisions literally took effect as Union forces advanced into the South — a fact that swelled the numbers of former slaves willing to fight for the Union cause.

The rest is history, and current events.

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Last week, President Obama took note of the anniversary:

“One hundred and fifty years after that historic event, we recognize an important milestone in the American story and reflect on the progress we have made toward realizing our Nation's founding promise of liberty and justice for all.

“Though it would take decades of struggle before African Americans were granted equal treatment and protection under the law, the Emancipation Proclamation marked a courageous step forward in fulfilling that essential task. It affirmed that the Civil War was a war fought not only for the preservation of our union, but for freedom itself. And by opening the Union Army and Navy to African American men, the Proclamation gave new strength to liberty's cause.

“The Emancipation Proclamation stands among the documents of human freedom. As we commemorate this 150th anniversary, let us rededicate ourselves to the timeless principles it championed and celebrate the millions of Americans who have fought for liberty and equality in the generations since.”

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THAT’S THE anodyne, benevolent view we’ve come to expect from the president, and given the racial and ethnic chafing of today, one that makes perfect sense. But despite the Proclamation’s enduring emotional resonance, you have to reckon with its guiding principle: an apparently pure, cold, existential practicality that was, given the stakes, absolutely necessary.

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery,” Lincoln told Horace Greeley in a letter in August 1862. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. ...”

How different from the younger, leaner, idealistic Lincoln recalled by John Hope Franklin, perhaps the pre-eminent African American historian. In “The Emancipation Proclamation,” Franklin writes of Abraham Lincoln the lawyer of May 1831, the man who, after witnessing a slave auction in New Orleans, said to acquaintances: “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I’ll hit it hard.”

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In recent decades, it’s become almost intellectually fashionable to denigrate the Proclamation as calculating, expedient, and even racist. And criticism of the inciting document accompanies criticism of the man who wrote it. But the professionally cynical interpretations of the Proclamation have to confront the germ of idealism that birthed it.

In his lapidary “My Dungeon Shook,” a letter written to his nephew, the author James Baldwin said: “Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

This, then, is the ultimate value of the Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln’s declaration effectively recalibrated the possibilities of life in this nation, started the process of moving the African American star from its fixed place in the national universe. The transit of that star began on Sept. 22, 1862; that star realized maybe its brightest moment in a new part of the sky 53,446 days later, when Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the President of the United States.

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THE PROCLAMATION was never a present-tense conceit; it was never about “what is”; ultimately, and perhaps in ways Lincoln never intended, it was always about “what is possible.” For this reason, for all its flaws and faults, real and perceived, the Emancipation Proclamation remains the most aspirational American document since the aspirational document that invented America.

Beyond the immediate calculus of victory and defeat in the context of war, it ratifies the idea of America. It wasn’t so much a reordering of America’s reality as a renunciation of that reality. It was an invention, conceived in brutal practicality, that first and foremost, now like before, calls on us to free ourselves.

Sanna Dullaway’s full-color reinterpretation of Abraham Lincoln may aspire to do the same thing; it may be revelatory of more than the latest applications of Photoshop’s potential. Implicit in her reimagining of Lincoln’s world is the aspiration — call it a wish, if you like — that we finally engage race in America the same way: not in the comfortable daguerrotype view of our history, but in something closer to the bolder, fiercer Pantone palette of the colors we live, and live among, every day of our American lives.

Image credits: Abraham Lincoln top: Portrait by Alexander Gardner, 1865. Lincoln bottom: Portrait by Alexander Gardner, 1865; full-color re-creation by Sanna Dullaway.

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