One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Lincoln issued a Preliminary Proclamation that mandated the emancipation of all slaves in Confederate territory that did not return to the Union by January 1 of the following year. It was the beginning of the end of one of the greatest blots upon the face of liberty, a chattel system of coerced servitude in a nation founded upon ideals of equality and freedom.
Lincoln was many things, but let us never forget that he was a politician. He had to assuage the concerns of various constituencies, he had to build alliances, he had to pursue his advantage when necessary and compromise when it was called for. Yet ultimately, the greatness of Lincoln’s leadership lay in his insistence upon doing what he knew to be right, his steadfastness in pursuing that right, and the deftness with which he pursued the right.
The road to true freedom is a long one. Look at how Russia, South Africa, Haiti, Myanmar, and so many other nations have ambled, not always sure-footedly, away from tyranny and slowly, slowly in the direction of embracing human dignity. The setbacks are many, and the outcome far from certain. Our own country has made great strides, but we know there is still much for us to do. Slavery as it was once known in this country is no more, yet its legacy still haunts us. Poverty still cripples dreams in this land of wealth. Injustices still abound among us. There are brief moments in the history of any people when a creative genius like Lincoln steps in and enacts fundamental change. Yet we cannot wait for the strong arm of one person to right our wrongs for us. Each of us needs to cultivate that blend of heroic idealism and cunning pragmatism that made Lincoln our country’s greatest president.