A Quiet Lincoln Celebration in Hodgenville, KY

February 12, 2009

President Abraham Lincoln Frees a Slave after the Emancipation Proclamation is IssuedIt seems ironic that President Barack Obama won’t be visiting Hodgenville, KY today, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Obama admires Lincoln and — in light of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which freed slaves during the Civil War — an Obama visit would certainly have made the circle complete, so to speak, by having a black president speak here on Lincoln’s birthday. Laura Bush tried to attend Lincoln’s 199th birthday celebrations last year, but icy conditions precluded the landing of her helicopter, and she fluttered away in the sky.

Nothing is ever what it seems with Lincoln, though. Did you know that the Emancipation Proclamation actually didn’t free any slaves at the time? Did you know that his Gettysburg Address, widely hailed as one of the world’s great speeches, was not well received when he gave it? And perhaps the release of new Lincoln pennies today by the U.S. Mint is appropriate, as the humble penny — in keeping with Lincoln’s humble beginnings — is the lowliest of our coins, but perhaps the most widely circulated.

The splendid unused 1908 artist-signed (C. Chapman) postcard above was made at a time when we celebrated presidential birthdays (before the 1971 advent of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, a dismal piece of legislation which changed many of our known holiday dates to more bureaucratically “convenient” dates. And that’s how we ended up with President’s Day, a holiday which falls on no presidential birthday. But I digress, as usual.) While the post card image is fancifully entitled “Abraham Lincoln Presenting the Proclamation of Freedom to a Slave,” things didn’t go down quite that way.

Before and After Emancipation, as Depicted by Harper's Weekly in 1865

The misunderstood Emancipation Proclamation actually consists of two executive orders issued by Lincoln during the Civil War. The first executive order, issued on September 22, 1862, freed slaves in any of the Confederate States of America which did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863. In other words, it theoretically freed slaves in states over which the government had no control — the Southern states. A second order dated January 1, 1863 named specific states where the orders applied. The proclamation freed no slaves in the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri or West Virginia. Initially, the Emancipation Proclamation only directly affected slaves who had escaped to the Union.

Abolitionist William H. Seward, Who Served as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of StateThe Proclamation was ridiculed at the time for only freeing slaves over which the Union had no power. In fact, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, an abolitionist since the 1830s, commented: “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.” Had any secessionist state rejoined the Union before January 1, 1863, it could have kept slavery, at least temporarily.

The larger importance of the Proclamation lay in the fact that it effectively committed the Union to ending slavery. It set a course. It also took effect as Union troops advanced into the Confederacy. While several former slave states ultimately passed legislation prohibiting slavery, it was still legal until it was ended by the states’ ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865. The last slaves freed were those in Kentucky and Delaware, finally emancipated with the Thirteenth Amendment. About four million people were thus freed.

Lincoln was a consummate politician. With the Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves began to join the Union army, helping to defeat the South. The South no longer had slaves as an “engine of war” — slaves had produced food for Confederate troops, repaired railways, sewn uniforms, built fortifications and served as hospital workers. The international impact of the Proclamation was even more profound. It shifted foreign opinion, especially in France and the United Kingdom, to the Union side. It meant that neither of the countries, which had already outlawed slavery, could diplomatically or otherwise continue to support the Confederacy, which they had favored. It ended the Confederacy’s hopes of gaining diplomatic recognition. As Lincoln contemporary and historian Henry Adams put it: “The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former victories and all our diplomacy.”

Only Confirmed Photograph of Abraham Lincoln (Seated) at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Taken About Three Hours Before Lincoln Delivered the Gettysburg Address

President Lincoln, seen above about three hours before delivering the Gettysburg Address, once commented that: “Nothing named Lincoln ever amounted to much.” That was the initial reaction to his other masterful creation, the Gettysburg Address. Delivered almost as an afterthought at the November 1863 dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s carefully crafted speech received scant applause from the audience of about 15,000, although it’s now widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history. It took Lincoln a little over two minutes to deliver the speech. And in just two minutes, he invoked principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and redefined the Civil War as a battle for “a new birth of freedom,” with true equality for all citizens in a unified nation no longer dominated by states’ rights.

Author and Social Critic H. L. MenckenAs late as 1922, prominent journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken, in his book Five Men at Random, Prejudices: Third Series, analyzed the speech thusly: “The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history…the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — that government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union solders in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”

The 2009 Lincoln Penny Showing Lincoln's Humble Boyhood Home Near Hodgenville, KentuckyBut like the humble penny, Lincoln has staying power. His words resonate in our hearts and in the American psyche. His fame has outlived his critics. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. And congratulation on your hard-earned new penny.

Read about an Obama campaign platform meeting held in the suburbs hinterlands of Hodgenville, KY.


Photo credit: VintagePostcards.org

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