On New Year’s Day 1863, a telegram arrived in Boston, bearing the glad tidings that Lincoln had signed the final Emancipation Proclamation. It was finished!!! The slaves were free!!! Suddenly, everyone standing with Frederick Douglass was “shouting, laughing, weeping.” On June 19, 1865, the Union army and its Star-Spangled Banner reached Galveston, Texas—the last place that had not yet heard the news. The celebration on that day has spread and spread. And, now that Juneteenth is an official holiday in the United States of America, the celebration will continue to grow and grow. A celebration full of shouting, laughing, weeping, and singing. A celebration that all Americans* live in sweet lands* of liberty!
It took two years of bloody fighting after Fort Sumter before Abraham Lincoln realized that he could not save the Union without granting liberty to the slaves—that Liberty and Union truly were one and inseparable, now and forever.
He issued his Emancipation Proclamation!
Lincoln took a great risk.
He gambled that the support of bold visionaries—such as Frederick Douglass and Harriett Beecher Stowe—would outweigh the complaining of cautious fence-sitters who were afraid of the consequences of setting the slaves free.
Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in two-steps.
He issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It took the form of a warning to the rebels that, unless they surrendered by January 1, 1863, Lincoln would free their slaves on that day.
This 2-step approach made sense considering the legal basis on which Lincoln relied to free the slaves.
Normally, the President would not have the power to take away property from a United States citizen—not even a toothpick—without fair compensation after due process as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But during a war, the President has the power—as the Commander in Chief of the military—to do many things to win the war that he could not do in peacetime.
One special wartime power of the President is the power to take property away from the enemy so that the enemy’s war effort is weakened.
Usually, this might mean confiscating their horses so that their cavalry would have fewer horses. But this time, the President said that he would take away the enemy’s slaves, arguing that he had the power to take this immense step as one of his war powers.
(Without getting too lost in the weeds, keep in mind that the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was eventually passed to abolish slavery everywhere in the Union because there were some legal doubts whether the Supreme Court—which had supported the existence of slavery in the past—might strike down the Emancipation Proclamation as unconstitutional.)
To show that he was taking this extraordinary step solely as a wartime measure, Lincoln gave the South a few months to make peace before his preliminary proclamation took effect. But, if they didn’t surrender by January 1, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed that he would issue a final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing the slaves of anyone who remained in rebellion on that date.
The South did not make peace.
The Republicans suffered major losses in the Fall’s elections.
Many people were angry that Lincoln was converting “a war to save the Union” into a “war to free the slaves.”
Staunch abolitionists were also disillusioned with Lincoln.
They complained that Lincoln was only going to free the slaves in areas where Confederate forces remained in control—areas where his Emancipation Proclamation could not take effect unless and until the Union regained control.
Furthermore, Lincoln could not use his wartime powers to free slaves in slave states such as Kentucky and Maryland which had not rebelled against the Union.
Therefore, during the period between issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and making it final, “Lincoln’s leadership was more seriously threatened than at any other time, and it was not clear that his administration could survive the repeated crises that it faced.”
The situation was so bad that some people feared—and other people hoped—that Lincoln would change his mind about freeing the slaves.
How did Lincoln find the strength and courage to go on? His vision of America strengthened him. And his faith in America encouraged him.
In his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln wrote: “In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”
Lincoln knew that “[t]he dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” Although “[t]he occasion is piled high with difficulty, . . . we must rise with the occasion.” “[W]e must think anew and act anew.”
Lincoln exhorted: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history . . . The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation.”
Lincoln prophesied: “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve.”
Lincoln warned: “We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth.”
But so long as Robert E. Lee and the South fought on so gallantly, the last best hope of earth—the last, best hope of Humanity—was in danger of being snuffed out forever.
Indeed, merely two weeks after these inspiring words from Lincoln, there came depressing news of the bloody, bungled Union defeat at Fredericksburg—further weakening the President’s supporters and strengthening his detractors.
Small wonder that African-Americans feared Lincoln would not carry through on his promise to free the slaves.
“To most liberals and militant black leaders, the president was something of an enigma; a good man, to be sure, honest, decent and kind, but slow, timid, vacillating even, in his approach to the supreme moral issue of the age. As the moment of truth approached, many people said Lincoln would never go through with it.”
Therefore, Frederick Douglass and other friends of liberty waited nervously at a gathering in Boston on New Year’s Day, longing for the good news from Washington that Lincoln had freed the slaves.
Hours dragged by. Still no telegram arrived.
Unbeknownst to the fretting crowd in Boston, the signing ceremony for the Emancipation Proclamation had been delayed because Lincoln was tied up at a New Year’s Ball. But at last, at 10 pm., the crowd in Boston learned that a telegram had come from Washington.
It was finished!!! The slaves were free!!!
Suddenly, everyone standing with Frederick Douglass was “shouting, laughing, weeping.”
And far away, on islands off South Carolina that Union troops were occupying, blacks and whites celebrated in a grove of giant oaks.
When the Union commander unfolded a new flag, “an old dry voice came from the audience. The old man carried it for awhile. Then two women joined in and another man and another until the words swelled out:
My country, ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.”
The Union commander said later: “I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap. It seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed.”
It took two and a half more years of bloody fighting for the Union to prevail—to establish that Liberty and Union truly are one and inseparable, now and forever.
Wherever the news spread that the slaves were free, there was shouting, laughing, weeping, and singing.
On June 19, 1865, the Union army and its Star-Spangled Banner reached Galveston, Texas—the last place that had not yet heard the news. The celebration on that day has spread and spread to all Americans* in every land.*
And, now that Juneteenth is an official holiday in the United States of America, celebrations will continue to grow and grow.
Celebrations full of shouting, laughing, weeping, and singing.
Celebrations that all Americans* live in sweet lands* of liberty!
*Keep in mind that the ideal America first discovered in the hearts of Abraham, Moses and Jesus is not the same as the actual, historical United States of America that has so often gone astray from its ideals. See my blog “The ‘United States’ Compared to ‘America’”. Anyone in the world who seeks to implement these ideals for a community of good neighbors can be an American regardless of their religion, ethnicity, nationality, or citizenship. Anyone in all Humanity can be an American who seeks to implement ideals for a community where ALL people are blessed, ALL pharaohs are challenged to let ALL people be free, and ALL hurting people are healed!
This blog is based on passages in my book Visions of America, at pages 83,88-90,93-95 (first published in 2004, together with Visions of the Church). For the supporting sources, please see the endnotes to those pages of my book.
For more of my thoughts inspired by Juneteenth, please read “Juneteenth: George Washington”, “Juneteenth: Frederick Douglass Learns To Read”, “Juneteenth: Frederick Douglass Denounces America’s Hypocrisy”, “Juneteenth: Harriett Beecher Stowe Writes Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “Juneteenth: Frederick Douglass Urges an Earnest Struggle for Liberty”, “Juneteenth: Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman”, “Juneteenth: Harriett Beecher Stowe Prophesied Doom for America”, “Juneteenth: Abraham Lincoln Transformed by Moral Outrage”, and “Juneteenth: Fort Sumter”.
For my thoughts on related themes, please read my blogs “Raising the Star-Spangled Banner—Americans”, “Racism Is America Gone Astray”, “The 500-Year Marathon To Overcome Racism”, “The ‘United States’ Compared to ‘America’”, “George Washington Refuses To Become a King”, “Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—Unifying Americans”, “Martin Luther King, Jr.—Restoring Hope and Giving a Vision”, “Nationalism Is Patriotism Gone Astray”, “How Do We Build a Civilization That Is Good—That Is Very Good?”, “We Need Inspiring Visions of a Bright Future. Why?”, “Speaking Up”, “Irresistible Hurricanes of the Holy Spirit”, “Parking Cars”, “St. Francis of Assisi Made the Way of Jesus Great Again”, “Hypocrisy: Taking Away What You Gave”, “Pandemic Wisdom: Visions of America”, and “Pandemic Wisdom: Scattering the Church”.