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.
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.”