Knocking on the White House door 150 years ago for a fireside chat on the eve of emancipation

On New Year’s Day every calendar year people make resolutions. We pledge to ourselves to become better — to correct our mistakes, to end bad habits and begin creating good ones.

And most of those resolutions fall by the wayside before Groundhog Day.

But every once in a while New Year’s Day brings something truly new and better. That happened 150 years ago, as President Barack Obama reminded us yesterday with this proclamation:

Presidential Proclamation — 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

On December 31, 1862, our Nation marked the end of another year of civil war. At Shiloh and Seven Pines, Harpers Ferry and Antietam, brother had fought against brother. Sister had fought against sister. Blood and bitterness had deepened the divide that separated North from South, eroding the bonds of affection that once united 34 States under a single flag. Slavery still suspended the possibility of an America where life and liberty were the birthright of all, not the province of some.

Yet, even in those dark days, light persisted. Hope endured. As the weariness of an old year gave way to the promise of a new one, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — courageously declaring that on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves” in rebellious areas “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” He opened the Union Army and Navy to African Americans, giving new strength to liberty’s cause. And with that document, President Lincoln lent new moral force to the war by making it a fight not just to preserve, but also to empower. He sought to reunite our people not only in government, but also in freedom that knew no bounds of color or creed. Every battle became a battle for liberty itself. Every struggle became a struggle for equality.

Our 16th President also understood that while each of us is entitled to our individual rights and responsibilities, there are certain things we cannot accomplish on our own. Only a Union could serve the hopes of every citizen, knocking down the barriers to opportunity and giving each of us the chance to pursue our highest aspirations. He knew that in these United States, no dream could ever be beyond our reach when we affirm that individual liberty is served, not negated, by seeking the common good.

It is that spirit that made emancipation possible and codified it in our Constitution. It is that belief in what we can do together that moved millions to march for justice in the years that followed. And today, it is a legacy we choose not only to remember, but also to make our own. Let us begin this new year by renewing our bonds to one another and reinvesting in the work that lies ahead, confident that we can keep driving freedom’s progress in our time.

On New Year’s Eve, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln welcomed three Baptist pastors as guests at the White House, including Nathaniel Brown. Brown had been a missionary abroad, but returned to the U.S. in the 1850s to serve as editor of an abolitionist newspaper. The Rev. Brown, along with “Dr. Cheever and Mr. Goodell,” had knocked on the door — that was a thing you could do in 1862 — and asked the president to allow them to present their “memorial,” or manifesto, urging him to make the moral case for emancipation and not simply a pragmatic, military argument.

Brown recounted the visit in great detail in his journal, from which I retyped the whole account to post several years ago.

It offers a fascinating glimpse of a key moment in American history. It’s also a candid, behind-the-scenes look at Lincoln, whose ironical outlook contrasted with and somewhat bewildered the earnest ministers.

I also love this excerpt from Nathaniel Brown’s journal because it’s a reminder that, 150 years ago, some American evangelicals had a  justice-driven political agenda that was astonishingly different from the fierce defense of privilege that dominates our political engagement nowadays.

Go read the whole thing, but here’s a short taste:

The President said the Committee were unwilling to allow him to be the judge of what would be best; their memorial assumed that they knew better than he did, what measures would save the country.

“You come to me as God’s ministers, and you are positive that you know exactly what God’s will is. You tell me that slavery is a sin; but other’s of God’s ministers say the opposite – which am I to believe? You assume that you only have the knowledge of God’s will.”

“No, Mr. President,” said Dr. Cheever, “we only refer to God’s word, which speaks plainly on this point. The Golden Rule is sufficient.”

The President said to Dr. Cheever, that he presumed he was the writer of the memorial. Mr. Goodell said that the other members of the Committee had a part in it.

“Well, Dr. Cheever, I must say that you are a very illogical reasoner, at least, that is my opinion – ha! ha! ha!” The President seemed to have a habit, whenever he said anything sharp or sarcastic, of finishing it up with a sort of forced, mechanical laugh – a pretty good imitation, too, of a right hearty, spontaneous laugh – to show that he was in good humor. This made his sarcasm appear not at all offensive, but rather as good natured pleasantry, and Dr. Cheever could not but thank him for his frankness. Several times his laugh was so earnest, that, mingled with his wit, it succeeded in bringing the whole Committee into a tolerably sympathetic he-haw.

The President said all his convictions and feelings were against slavery. “But,”? said he, “I am not so certain that God’s views and feelings in respect to it are the same as mine. If his feelings were like mine, how could he have permitted it to remain so long? I am obliged to believe that God may not, after all, look upon it in the same light as I do.”

  • http://twitter.com/mcclure111 mcc

    *@#&$ arrgh now whenever I read anything Lincoln said I hear it in Daniel Day Lewis’s voice.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Only a Union could serve the hopes of every citizen, knocking down the
    barriers to opportunity and giving each of us the chance to pursue our
    highest aspirations.

    Figures Obama would be pro-Union, that socialist.

  • Lori

    Maybe this will help.

     http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Ask-an-Expert-What-Did-Abraham-Lincolns-Voice-Sound-Like.html

  • Lori

    I suspect “socialist” isn’t the word the complainers would use in this particular case.

  • The_L1985

     The worst part, for me, is that watching that movie, the whole time I kept thinking about how every single mannerism of “Lincoln’s” was exactly the same as those of a cousin of mine, with whom I’m not on the best of terms.  Right down to the part where said cousin is always relating anecdotes.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think, given that he is the first President of visible African-American ancestry to hold the office, that Obama’s Proclamation holds particular significance, since it was Lincoln’s work that started the causal chain that created the society which, as imperfect as it is, recognized the right of people of color to stand as legal equals with whites and thus created the conditions for him to become President as a proper and true citizen of the United States.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    “That’s the trouble with believing in a supreme being: trying to determine what he wants.”
    ~ Deanna Troi

    (Likely not an exact quote. My google-fu was weak.)

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    some American evangelicals had a justice-driven political agenda that was astonishingly different from the fierce defense of privilege that dominates our political engagement nowadays

    Some American evangelicals.

    The defense of privilege was even fiercer in the mid-19th century. People committed treason and started a war in an attempt to extend their privilege. While we have a lot of rabble rousing among the privilege-defenders today, does anyone actually think it will lead to war? The mid-19th century was a much worse time to live on this soil than the 21st in every way. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    People IN Yugoslavia as late as 1990 didn’t think things were going to go right down the tubes, either.

    Other times, as in 1939, it was clear to all concerned that war would break out some time that year.

    It is not always possible to tell when tensions will be defused over time, or when they will explode.

  • http://twitter.com/lesterhalfjr Chris Hadrick

    It was a cynical gesture http://lewrockwell.com/orig10/sale9.1.1.html 

    “To begin with, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. It applied only to slaves in the states “in rebellion” – the Confederacy – where the Union had no power or authority, thus having about as much real effect as the famous (putative) papal bull against Halley’s comet. And it did not apply to the Border states where there still was slavery (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri). In other words, as Secretary of State William Seward remarked ironically at the time, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” ”

    would note the author is a leftist. His book about the Luddites made ME slam my head on the desk. a little taste of my own medicine there

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    The Emancipation Proclamation actually did free slaves.  It applied only to states “in rebellion” but it’s not as if the Union army never set foot inside those states.  If the Union forces stayed out states in rebellion and the Confederates stayed out of everywhere else, war would have been impossible.

    That’s not to say that it wasn’t a gesture that had a fair degree of cold non-moral pragmatism behind it.  It was offered, in a way, as an ultimatum because it was announced before it took effect meaning that any state that returned to the fold by the time it took effect (none did) could keep its slaves under the proclamation.  As could those still in the Union who had slaves.

    But to say that it didn’t free any slaves is false.  When the Union took control of an area of a state “in rebellion” it freed the slaves there.  The Emancipation Proclamation did that.

    Certainly the amendment that did away with slavery is much more important, but the Emancipation Proclamation did free slaves.

  • Lujack

    Also, the Emancipation Proclamation did immediately free several thousand slaves.  Although the Border States and SOME occupied areas were excluded from the proclamation, every slave on South Carolina’s Sea Islands and in the Union-held parts of North Carolina were immediately freed.  Furthermore, slaves that the Union Army had been holding as “contraband of war” (the legal fiction that permitted them to not return slaves to their rebel masters) were also allowed to go (they’d previously been required to stay with the army).

    The Sea Islands amounted to around 10,000 by itself.  And that also doesn’t figure in that slaves in areas that were later claimed by the Union immediately became free, as had previously not been the case.  Any ground that was taken on January 2nd…slaves there were freed.

  • Lujack

    Also, the Emancipation Proclamation did immediately free several thousand slaves.  Although the Border States and SOME occupied areas were excluded from the proclamation, every slave on South Carolina’s Sea Islands and in the Union-held parts of North Carolina were immediately freed.  Furthermore, slaves that the Union Army had been holding as “contraband of war” (the legal fiction that permitted them to not return slaves to their rebel masters) were also allowed to go (they’d previously been required to stay with the army).

    The Sea Islands amounted to around 10,000 by itself.  And that also doesn’t figure in that slaves in areas that were later claimed by the Union immediately became free, as had previously not been the case.  Any ground that was taken on January 2nd…slaves there were freed.

  • Gotchaye

     What a bizarre comment.  The slaves in the Confederacy just happened to be freed independently of the EP?  Had Callixtus III proceeded to get together a scrappy team of astronauts to go blow up Halley’s Comet, one might reasonably say that the apocryphal papal bull against it was a big deal and not at all merely a gesture.

  • P J Evans

    recognized the right of people of color to stand as legal equals with whites 
    Probably even more important to his wife, who is a descendant of slaves.

  • P J Evans

    ‘leftie’? You need to dig farther.

  • P J Evans

    Part of  the Army was in northern Mississippi at the time. Vicksburg surrendered on July 3. (Gettysburg is at that time, too.)

  • vsm

    How else would you describe Kirkpatrick Sale’s politics?

  • Lori

    Holy crap, I skimmed and missed that. Chris Hadrick called Lew Rockwell a leftist. That has to be the final proof that he’s putting us on, right? It’s certainly the final proof that discussion with him serves no purpose.

  • vsm

    The article was actually written by Kirkpatrick Sale, who indeed has had a long career in left-wing politics. It’s just hosted on Rockwell’s site.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Can this thread please not devolve into “arguing with the incredibly weird crap Chris Hadrick says”? 

    Is Lincoln a good movie? My dad likes it, but my dad’s taste is… well, it’s not like mine, to be charitable. I’m picky, and I’m especially picky about historical films. Normally I wouldn’t even consider seeing a historical non-documentary about a period of history I know a lot about, but it’s gotten so much good press, I’m tempted.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    No, it’s not always possible to tell. And it’s never possible to tell with surety. But the antebellum U.S. was far more tense than the U.S. is today. People on both sides were saying war was inevitable and that they would welcome it, and had been since the late 1840s. Not just people on the fringe, either. 

    Further, the extremely large group of people the war was about had been at war for over a century. Slaves just didn’t have the resources the Union had, but they had been at war with their captor-rapists for a very long time. 

  • Lori

    Ah, gottcha. Apparently I have had too much holiday and have lost my reading comprehension skills.

  • http://twitter.com/lesterhalfjr Chris Hadrick

    though there is the perverse pleasure of ordering a book about Luddites online.

    lliira – so what just stand and genuflect? All presidents  can be criticized. 

  • vsm

    I think you’re right. Despite how polarized the United States are, the issues of the day aren’t really the kind you’d go to war over. Gay marriage, better healthcare, immigration reform etc. are of course important topics, but none of them would influence society and the economy the same way as abolishing slavery did. I just don’t see a significant amount of people (and especially not financial backers) wanting to keep gays as second class citizens or ban abortions badly enough to turn their own country into a battlefield.

  • WalterC

     Honestly, they probably would make more money if the conflict continues as is. Pro-life organizations can squeeze more money out of socialy-conservative donors in a country where abortion is at least nominally legal than one where it was prohibited.

    (In fact, a total nationwide abortion ban would probably ruin them in less than a generation — no one’s going to respond to panicky fundraiser email about baby killers if they think they’ve already won that battle. It would be like getting an Obama  campaign donation email on November 7.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    It would be like getting an Obama campaign donation email on November 7.

    …I did.

  • WalterC

     Huh.

    But you get what I’m saying though, right? It’s a lot easier to get people to donate money to a current struggle, “barbarians at the gates”, than a cause that’s already been more or less decisively resolved. I bet there weren’t any major pro-life action committees prior to ‘Roe vs. Wade’.

  • P J Evans

    Many non-profit organizations seem to exist mostly for fundraising purposes – if you pay attention to what they actually do, you notice that they never actually do much toward reaching their legislative goals.

  • Lori

     

    lliira – so what just stand and genuflect? All presidents  can be criticized.   

    This will apparently come as a shock to you, but there are other options besides “stand and genuflect” and “spout of a bunch of ignorant crap”.

  • http://twitter.com/lesterhalfjr Chris Hadrick

    It wasn’t ignorant. It’s based on fact! That’s the opposite of ignorant. It’s opnorant

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Are you seriously fucking kidding me? You’re the walking definition of an ignorant jackass who doesn’t know when to shut the fuck up.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Everyone is so good to Chris. Y’all keep paying him so much attention.

    You keep playing this game, Chris. I guess you know your audience pretty
    well by now. All the posters here know you too — we’re not total
    strangers. You know the rules of the internet, and so do we. I realize
    you’re fully committed to your agenda. You wouldn’t get this from any
    other site. I think you’ve heard this from a lot of people — how they
    feel when you say your stuff. And they want to make you understand.

    We’re never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down.

    http://youtu.be/dQw4w9WgXcQ

  • http://twitter.com/lesterhalfjr Chris Hadrick

    because what this board really needs is another matriarch to tell people what to do

  • Michael Pullmann

     Weren’t there also two slave states that stayed in the Union? I imagine the Proclamation freed the slaves there.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Heh. I reads good.

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    Does it count as Rick-rolling if you don’t pretend the link to “Never Gonna Give You Up” is really a link to something else?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Everyone seems in agreement that Astley’s singing the song in a Macy’s parade was rickrolling the whole world, so I’d say it counts.

  • Lori

    No, it specifically only freed the slave in states that had seceded. Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important or that it was entirely a cynical political move or whatever other crap our resident idiot wants to spout.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates is actually talking about this today.

    One of the more interesting arguments I’ve had to adjust to since diving
    into the Civil War is the cynic’s denunciation of the Emancipation
    Proclamation as a document which didn’t do anything. I assume this is a
    reaction to a point in our history when people went around claiming that
    the Proclamation “freed the slaves.”
    It did not. But, as historian Eric Foner notes, the Proclamation is still one of the most important documents in American history

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/the-wholly-misunderstood-emancipation-proclamation/266741/To say that both Coates and Foner know more about it than the idiot does is an understatement of truly massive proportions.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I considered that, and then said screw it, because I tried like three times to get the link right and failed :P.

  • Tricksterson

    Maryland kentucky and, I think, Delaware were all slave states and no, none of the slaves there were freed until the 13th Amendment was passed.

  • AnonymousSam

    I don’t know. I honestly don’t. The more certain Tea Party and Republicans policies draw lines in the sand between rich and poor, the more police brutality against protestors gets brushed off and goes without a single media remark, the more policies are drafted to stifle people’s rights to vote and the more big business gleefully strips workers of their benefits and reasonable working conditions and expects them to be grateful for making pennies on the hour, the more I start to wonder if a second civil war might not be inevitable.

    Maybe not in our lifetime, but if it continues on this trend, I think there’s a very real chance of it happening sooner rather than later.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think it could be argued that if what COPS portrays is generally the case when it comes to the way police treat minorities, I suspect that you could argue a hidden partisan-style conflict is actually happening in the inner cities.


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