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President Lincoln's Proclamation

The Illustrated London News, vol.41, no.1168, p.373.

October 11, 1862


The Australasian, from New York on the 24th ult., which arrived at Queenstown early on Sunday morning last, bought over copies of a document which has excited the liveliest interest on this side of the Atlantic. It is a proclamation of Mr. President Lincoln declaring all persons held as slaves within any State, or any designated part of a State, which shall be in rebellion against the United States on the 1st of January, 1863, "thenceforward and for ever free." On that day the Executive "will designate the States, and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof respectively shall then be in rebellion against the United States," the fact of any State, or its people, being at that day represented in Congress by members legally chosen to be deemed, "in the absence of strong countervailing testimony," conclusive of its loyalty. The tone of this proclamation, the circumstances under which it was issued, the conditions upon which it is to take effect, and the party views which it is understood to represent, compel us to regard this instrument as having been rather forged for war purposes than fashioned as a basis of national policy--as a weapon against the foes of the United States' Government, rather than as a frank but tardy exposition of what is just between man and man.

We deeply regret being obliged to consider the Presidential proclamation in this light. The question of slavery is one in which we have taken so deep an interest, on account of the moral considerations it involves, that we should have preferred a solution of it by those moral forces which take their rise in the conscience of the people. Emancipation is, in our view, too sacred a thing--too closely associated with immutable justice and with goodwill to all men--to be hurled as a thunderbolt of war against a population in arms. Had the Northern States,

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at the outset of what they naturally regarded as rebellion in the South, seized the occasion for declaring that in no possible issue of events could they allow themselves to be again entangled in a system condemned alike by man and by God--had they publicly recognised, as they might well have done, Secession as the inevitable retribution of their own complicity in a system which their consciences denounced as evil, and; on that recognition, washed their hands of all future participation in this great national crime--had they, by any word or deed bearing upon it the stamp of authority, done homage, even by a late and enforced repentance, to the essential Christian truths and principles upon which slavery had ruthlessly trampled, and not without their consent; and had they, in distinct deference to the claims of morality and religion, inscribed upon their banners a motto to the effect that the soil of the United States should thenceforward be consecrated to freedom alone, the whole world would have sympathised with, even if it could not have approved, their efforts to recover dominion over the seceded half of the empire. It is clear, however, that the commercial profits of Southern slavery were far too highly appreciated by the North to admit of its offering them up upon the altar of justice at the behest of conscience. The President's proclamation, interpreted as an expression of the national will, is a sacrifice (if sacrifice that may be called in which the thing given up is already beyond reach) to political passion rather than to reason and religion; and, whatever may be its ultimate effect, we can only welcome it for what it is, not for the spirit and temper of which it is the symbol.

Considered as a politico-strategical movement the proclamation will scarcely, we imagine, be found to answer the purpose which it was issued to effect. That it will not be operative beyond the frontier which may be held by the Federal armies on the 1st of January, 1863, is rendered more than probable by the significant teaching of almost all the facts that have any bearing on the case. Explain the matter as we will, whether as the result of the brutal ignorance in which they have been kept, the terrorism exercised over them, or the depravation of spirit which slavery, as a social system, necessarily produces, it has been demonstrated that hitherto the slaves themselves have not displayed the eagerness which might have been anticipated to rush towards the few doors which the army orders of some commanders, or the fortune of war in some localities, have opened for their escape. We fear that so long as a powerful Confederate army is afoot the document will he a dead letter in the Southern States, serving no purpose but that of confirming the resolution of the white population to listen to no terms short of final separation from the Union. It will be interpreted as a threat, and a threat is always impolitic unless when there exists behind it adequate force to carry it into execution. It is more likely to be read by the South as a signal of Federal weakness than as a warning of coming judgment; and we are by no means sure that it will not do more to help Jefferson Davis than Abraham Lincoln. It will certainly unite all parties in the South, and infuse new vigour into their determination to he independent, and probably without rousing any proportionate enthusiasm in the North. There, instead of binding all classes more closely together and arming the Government with increased moral authority, it seems better fitted to widen the breach between the Republicans and the Democrats, and to stimulate the desire of the mercantile and moneyed magnates to close the contest as speedily as possible. Since the step has been taken, and cannot be retraced, we should be glad to discover in it some promise of success. We own, however, to a fear lest the Presidential proclamation, besides marring, to some extent, the moral aspects of emancipation, will entail upon it the imputation--the heaviest which in these utilitarian days can be fastened upon it--of being responsible for a great practical failure.

The foregoing considerations would have had some weight with us even if the declaration of Mr. Lincoln's proclamation had been enacted in some form by Congress. As an embodiment of the supreme legislative authority of the Union it would have been open to cavil as a violation of fundamental constitutional law. But as a mere decree of the Executive it can have no permanent validity, and there are, doubtless, hundreds of thousands of intelligent Americans who, earnestly as they may approve the object sought to be realised, will discern in the means resorted to for attaining it a frightful danger to free institutions. The man who thus assumes to set aside for ever one of the bases of the Federal Constitution may hereafter, upon equally urgent pretexts, bring the same despotism to bear upon all. He becomes, thenceforth, an autocrat, not merely in the direction of the war but in the determination of future national policy. The personal freedom of blacks may thus become the occasion of political slavery to the whites, and the stain of one crime be blotted out by the deeper dye of another. We do not ourselves auger ill of the political future of the North--we have little fear that twenty millions of Anglo-Saxons, long accustomed to self-government, will submit their interests to the management of irresponsible power one moment beyond the felt necessity of the crisis; but just in proportion to our confidence that when this civil war is at an end the people will resume their authority is our conviction that the proclamation can be regarded only as a brutum fulmen, which will be set aside as of no effect when matters return to their ordinary channels.

The sole practical advantage of Mr. Lincoln's proclamation, as it seems to us, will be realised in its sweeping Federal complicity with slavery out of the political creed of the North. We conceive that it must have this effect. The whole question has been placed in a position, as regards the Federal States, from which there can be no return. It resembles the free-trade movement in this country after the announcement by Sir Robert Peel of his conversion to its doctrines. No party in the States will henceforth be strong enough to occupy the platform of "The Union as it was and the Constitution as it is." The decision of the President, devoid of legal authority though it may be, will so entirely undermine the whole region of compromise that hereafter there can be no secure political footing upon it. Coupled with the Act of Congress which last Session enfranchised the district of Columbia, it assures us of the moral certainty that there can be no resumption of partnership between the North and the South in the business, profits, and interests of negro slavery. All Europe has long foreseen the improbability of a reconstruction of the Union. It is reviving to be certified, as we now are, that, should the Border States remain with the Northern section, they can only do so by purging themselves of the crime which they have not yet renounced, and that, if they should eventually fall to the South, they could not maintain the accursed system even if they would. After what has happened no room is left for a Fugitive Slave Law between North and South; and Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee will find it more troublesome and expensive to uphold the "domestic institution" along the frontier of a free, independent Power than to accept compensation for the "chattels" they may surrender and to work out emancipation in their own way and time. The President's proclamation will, no doubt, help to convince them that the status quo of American slavery is hopeless and for ever gone.

Subject, then, to the rather large deductions we have felt ourselves compelled to make, we still regard the political document upon which we have animadverted as one of the highest importance. That it will help in any material degree to retrieve the misfortunes of the Union we strongly doubt; that it exhibits the political sentiment of the North in a light likely to do credit to themselves, or to impart to the policy of emancipation the moral grandeur which fairly belongs to it, we are sorry to find ourselves precluded from asserting; but that it heralds the approaching doom of slavery, and denotes the impracticability of suspending that doom by temporising expedients, we look upon as demonstrable. We should have been glad to mingle with our joy at the inevitable extinction of the "domestic institution" admiration of the motives and the means by which its guilty days have been numbered. But, even from the hands of a grudging necessity, Europe will accept the issue with gratitude; and there will be a thrill of pleasure amongst the civilised nations of the earth that a great people (which the Northern section of the Union must ever remain) have at length removed from their political programme that fruitful source of national demoralisation--connivance with slavery.

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