The Emancipation Proclamation, 150 Years Later: Hear the Many Voices That Cried Freedom

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One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an Executive decree that freed slaves then still subjugated in the rebellious South. The proclamation, enacted by a President wielding war powers, is seen as the defining act that ended the scourge of slavery and is forever pinned to Lincoln. But as an excellent new anthology shows, the decree emerged out of a conversation far larger than the career of that gaunt, towering leader. In American Antislavery Writings, compiled by James Basker, a professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, the Emancipation Proclamation is just one selection in a collection of 216 abolitionist articles, epistles, short stories, poems and other documents. Basker spoke with TIME about the anthology, the abolitionist struggle and its legacy a century and a half after Lincoln’s famous order.

Give us a sense of the range of voices and the spectrum of opinion that make up this abolitionist anthology.
This is truly a democratic literature. It begins in the late 1600s as far as the records show, mostly with religious writings. What’s in here are writings of every genre: there are sermons and religious tracts; there are novels and poems and plays and short stories and magazine articles; there are even children’s books and alphabet books with little rhymes that are abolitionist. Everything you could imagine in terms of human utterance and the scope of human imagination. And the authors come from every single background. Some of the most elite and well educated — you have Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau — all the way down to working-class writers. One of the first poems written against slavery was by a serving girl in Boston in the 1770s. And there’s everything in between, including people you don’t expect, such as white Southerners in Virginia in the 1770s. [Founding Father] Patrick Henry has a piece in the book and was a slaveholder himself. In the piece, he admits that slavery is wrong on humane and historic grounds, but admits the hypocrisy that he can’t do without it.

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How do some of the more perhaps obscure texts speak to us now, decades and centuries later?
They speak to us in so many ways. Each piece has a story. There are two, from 1831, anonymous short stories. There in 1831 are two visions of the future, bipolar choices. One is a devastating future where there’s a race war, as you can say happened in Haiti, and the blacks won and the last surviving whites have been captured, and there’s a debate in Congress among the black leadership over whether to enslave them, ship them back to Europe or just kill them. On the other hand, the parallel story is an idealistic story about the future of America: slavery has ended, integration has happened, racial discrimination is over and into the room walks the first black President of the United States. That story, of course, predicts Barack Obama 177 years before he was elected. So that speaks to us in our time about the power of literature to imagine futures that we can go on to fulfill. Nothing can happen in the world if it’s not first imagined.

The vastness of this collection gives us a great sense of the depth of the abolitionist movement. But what’s not immediately clear is what this literature is up against. Could you fill in the gaps?
This literature is up against an enormously powerful, rich, entrenched opposition. You can really sense it by a couple of things: one is how long this literature continued to proliferate before change could be accomplished and how slowly and gradually change did come, beginning in 1777 when Vermont became the first state without slavery in its founding constitution. But to me, the most forceful thing is the violence and censorship that surrounds this literature. We have to ask ourselves, Why did Southern states pass laws against abolitionist literature? Why did Maryland put a free black man in jail for 10 years for owning a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? On the flip side, there was nothing like that in the North. It was in the South that it was against the law to possess abolitionist literature. There was a bounty put on the head of David Walker, the free black man who wrote a call to the African people. And the violence against press, even lynchings were testimony to the power of this literature that no proslavery literature could ever match.

In your introduction, you say this body of work represents “as dramatic a pivot point in human history as one is likely to find.” Why is that?
It’s basically an idea that most historians would share: in the history of the world, in advanced, complex societies, unfree labor and hierarchies of order were the natural condition wherever we look. What’s remarkable is when the idea that freedom is the natural condition and basic human right of people — when that became ascendant, that story is really dramatic and a fundamental departure from the course of human history.

So when did that idea become ascendant in the U.S.? Obviously, it was hotly contested.
There’s a pivot that happens between 1805 and 1820. Down through 1810, slavery was abolished state by state in the North. The Northwest Territory is created in 1787; slavery is banned there, and there will be five free states that will come out of that. And then, of course, the slave trade is banned by British and Americans in 1808. So a lot of people thought that was the turning point — now we’re really going to accelerate and end slavery.

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But meanwhile, the South was gaining vast economic power. The Louisiana Purchase opened up vast new lands. The cotton gin made cotton 50 times more profitable and productive on the market. And so people went into the new lands of the South, and economic power that was generated there also had political power, so that by 1819, 1820 when the Missouri Compromise is being fought out in Congress, things change radically. And for the next 30 or 40 years, the real political and economic power of the South was what the antislavery movement found itself up against.

Religion plays a key role in the abolitionist movement. Was there a point when it became more secular?
Christianity never went out of the antislavery movement. From the 18th century down to the founding era, it was largely religious. It changes around the founding era, when a secular discourse enters in: the rights of man, the Declaration of Independence. The political rights that are asserted in that era create a whole new context in which African Americans and their friends can claim equal privileges for black people. And of course the antislavery language, from the first years of the new Republic, becomes more nationalistic. There’s a whole generation of young writers who fought in the revolution and then want their new country in an idealistic way to be free of slavery. So that discourse prevails in the first decades of the 19th century — slavery is not only sinful, but also a national disgrace.

But, while nationalistic, abolitionists surely also were heavily influenced by events across the Atlantic.
From the beginning, it is an international conversation and collective effort. Some of the earliest pamphlets written by Quakers in Pennsylvania in the 18th century are widely read in England and are very influential on people like [Thomas] Clarkson and [William] Wilberforce, who will later lead the newly formed British abolition movement. British abolition ideas and activities were known and celebrated in the U.S. In 1833, the British abolished slavery in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Emerson, Thoreau and many people in New England and elsewhere would commemorate the British abolition of slavery in annual events.

How popular was abolitionism in the North? There was some indifference to the black condition. We know, for example, about the Irish riots in New York during the Civil War.
Working-class people can always be set against each other in local, spasmodic episodes. But the antislavery campaign carried on in many different ways, in many different levels of intensity. One of the things I make clear in the book is that there are many radical abolitionists in place, even well before the abolitionist movement — some of the preachers in 1688, 1733, if you read them, there’s no compromise. Slave owners are damned to hell. So there’s radical thought at every juncture. But in the 19th century, there are people who fill the spectrum, who are moderates, who want gradual emancipation, who want to avoid catastrophic rupture. We’re at a moment right now where people are negotiating things in Congress fearful of a catastrophic collapse of some kind, and I think some of the moderates — the people willing to be politically temperate — were moving that way. You could see the Civil War as the very cataclysm that all the political moderates were trying to avoid.

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How did abolitionists fare in the South?
It’s a challenge and difficult story. In 1791, there was an abolition society in Virginia and Maryland, two slave states. In both cases, they drew up petitions that they sent to Congress for the abolition of slavery in their states. Now, gradually it became intolerable for antislavery activists to remain in the South. And there are stories in the early 19th century of people like the Grimke sisters in South Carolina, Angelina and Sarah, daughters of a very prominent South Carolina family who were part of that whole elite that owned slaves and lived off that slave economy. They became ardent abolitionists and interestingly then moved to Pennsylvania and later New York and New Jersey and campaigned actively. Over time, the antislavery voices were squeezed out and silenced in the South because of the tremendous power of the slave-owning establishment.

So bring us to the Emancipation Proclamation.
It’s very important not to see the Emancipation Proclamation in isolation. It comes in the context of a series of actions that happened — the Confiscation Acts in Congress and the whole movement where African-American slaves had begun emancipating themselves by going into Union lines and seeking refuge, and then the congressional acts freeing them. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia in April 1862. That was the one place the federal government had legitimate authority to do so. So it was in that context that Lincoln, who was always seeking politically acceptable ways to end slavery, issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

He issued a preliminary act in September that was a kind of warning to the states in rebellion that said, If you’re still in rebellion by Jan. 1, this is what’s going to happen. But issuing [the proclamation] on Jan. 1 and with the additional tenet that blacks so freed from slavery would be free forever more — and be allowed to fight in the Union army — that was clearly a signal that slavery was over, as far as Lincoln was concerned. Now, of course, it was carefully delimited, as Lincoln knew that if he overstepped his war powers, the Supreme Court would overrule whatever he did. And the man at the top of the Supreme Court, people forget, was Chief Justice Roger Taney, a proslavery man who had issued the Dred Scott decision in 1857. Lincoln knew that he was doomed if he overstepped his constitutional authority, so he’s very careful in that document, down to the county level, that only in those areas that were still in rebellion and not under Union control did he free the slaves. People have criticized him for it, but that was the key to his success. Lincoln was determined to follow through and see slavery abolished with the 13th Amendment. There was a real danger that if the war ended and there was a negotiated peace that would allow slavery to continue, Lincoln would be set back tremendously.

What are some of the lessons we can glean now from Lincoln’s doggedness and that of the abolitionist movement writ large?
It’s hope, it’s the value of continued assertion of ideals, it’s patience, it’s stamina and it’s an eye on the horizon for the long term. If the antislavery movement had allowed itself to be discouraged or give up, think what would have been lost to this country and the world. So in a way, it’s [the lesson of] the fits and starts, the imperfections of the antislavery movement that took 170 years to succeed. People would say that the civil rights movement, its belated extension, also took decades and decades to come together. But I think to see the progress that did happen as a result of this movement is what should encourage us about our ideals for the future.