Because my birthday is September 1, I’ve always had a slightly skewed view of Labor Day — I thought it was in honor of my Mom. So forgive me for now suggesting that the most notable Labor Day occurrence in our history took place 150 years ago.
Although this upcoming weekend was celebrated as Labor Day, we are also rapidly approaching an immeasurably more significant date in American History: On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the “Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.”
This week and next, over the course of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, we will all hear much about our nation’s special place at the pinnacle of world history’s moral high ground. And I doubt I’m going out on a limb in anticipating that both parties will find more than one occasion to claim close ties to our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. So this week’s column is offered as a short meditation on his single most significant act to ensure that today’s politicians are correct in the above assertion of America’s greatness.
While the American Civil War was always about slavery, that doesn’t mean it was always a foregone conclusion that a Union victory would result in the immediate abolition of alavery. But from September 22, 1862 on, slavery in America was doomed.
Readers familiar with this chapter of our heritage are well aware of the numerous qualifications and equivocations which (skeptics suggest) render Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation less glorious and profound than it is often portrayed. I have no problem simultaneously recognizing the document’s limitations, as well as Lincoln’s own personal reticence to take this step, while also believing that this single act constituted the most inspired, courageous, and moral act of political leadership by any American President to date. Simply put, without the Emancipation Proclamation, America’s image of ourselves as a great nation, for better and worse, would be hollow and illusory.
As we enjoy Labor Day weekend, and yell at or applaud our TV screens during the speechifying of the two national conventions, also hearken back to 150 years ago when 4 million enslaved Americans were looking to one man to lead them to freedom (“Father Abraham” was not a moniker lightly bestowed!). On September 22, 1862, with a somewhat dull and legalistic document in hand, which he had drafted himself and shared with his reticent and skeptical cabinet, our 16th President stepped forward and threw down the gauntlet — our Civil War was now a war to free the slaves, and the rest is history, as they say.
Happy Labor Day!
Patrick Teegarden is an award-winning columnist for The Colorado Statesman.