January (1st) marks the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, by America’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln. Make no mistake, and ignore criticism to the contrary — this one act by Lincoln (combined with winning the Civil War, of course) had more to do with the elimination of America’s Original Sin of Slavery than any other in history, including passage of the 13th Amendment.
From September 22, 1862, when he publicly announced his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, until well after it was formally issued, Lincoln was under intense pressure from considerable segments of the Union’s population to reconsider or rescind it. And later, during the darkest days of the Civil War in 1864, even anti-slavery voices like Horace Greeley were urging the President to make peace with the Confederacy on terms that would effectively have re-enslaved African-Americans who had been fighting as troops in the Union Army.
But, rather than wavering, Lincoln only became stronger and more emphatic in his convictions to eradicate slavery. Many of his most famous comments were in response to questions about his commitment to the Emancipation Proclamation, including:
“And the promise (of freedom) having been made, must be kept.” (To James Conkling);
“I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it.” (To Frederick Douglass, refuting suggestions that he had vacillated on the Proclamation);
“I should be damned in time & eternity for so doing.” (In response to a suggestion that freedmen be returned to slavery to reach peace with the Confederacy).
Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated, and Andrew Johnson was a virulent white supremacist racist. Ulysses S. Grant was therefore the only President who implemented meaningful Reconstruction after the Civil War. When Grant left office in 1877, his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, had been elected in spite of losing the popular vote, based on a promise to end Reconstruction.
But forging ahead in U.S. history:
January (15th) marks the 84th birthday of America’s greatest civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, Dr. King’s most remembered words are “I have a dream…” but many have forgotten the opening of that immortal speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seated in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence… We cannot walk alone.”
Like President Lincoln, Dr. King was stolen from our midst. While America was certainly harmed deeply by the treasonous murderers Booth and Ray, we are immeasurably better off because of the towering and courageous leadership of Lincoln and King, who were dead, respectively, at ages 56 and 39. And their contributions to our national character continue to live on through our national commitment to their memory and their character.
Which leads me to my final January reflection:
January (16th) is the day we got the news that Colorado’s favorite son, Ken Salazar, is returning to us later this year.
Like many other readers of The Colorado Statesman, I’ve been privileged to know our current U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Recognizing the dangers of “Potomac Fever” and “inside the Beltway” myopia, I’m selfishly glad for Colorado that the Secretary is returning home.
In spring 2011, I wrote a column about Secretary Salazar’s contributing role in preserving an important parcel of property within the Gettysburg Battlefield site. But that acknowledgment barely scratches the surface of the contributions Colorado’s favorite son has made to preserve our nation’s history, heritage, and memories during his four years as America’s public landlord.
Our national parks have increased in size, number and quality during Secretary Salazar’s watch. And likewise, other nationally designated sacred places like the Fort Monroe, VA, National Monument, the new monument to Dr. King on the same National Mall with Abraham Lincoln, and former slave-owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are either in existence or vastly improved thanks to Ken’s skilled stewardship.
A closing anecdote which links Colorado’s Salazar with the man who abolished slavery and the man who 100 years later carried the Civil Rights torch forward: In November 2011 a prominent historian/author/professor, Adam Goodheart, recently recounted to a group of Lincoln/Civil War students in Gettysburg the story of an African American woman’s heartfelt and emotional response to President Obama’s and Secretary Salazar’s designation of Fort Monroe, Virginia as a National Monument. If the quote is not precise, it’s close:
“Finally, more than 400 years after the first African slaves landed at this spot, and 150 years after the first runaway slaves gained freedom by reaching the Union fort at this spot, African-Americans now have our very own equivalent of Ellis Island to help us remember our heritage.”
Nice job Ken. And as Dr. King said later in the speech mentioned above, “Let Freedom Ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado.”
Patrick Teegarden is the director of policy and legislation for a state agency in Colorado and a chronicler of the Civil War for The Colorado Statesman.