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London: Saturday, January 17, 1863

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1184, p. 62.

January 17, 1863


Had the proclamation with which the President of the Northern States of America has inaugurated the New Year been issued under other circumstances than those which unhappily attend it, there is not a journal in the United Kingdom but would have given that document the place of honour, and have introduced it with the warmest words of congratulation, the most honest utterances of rejoicing, which it is permitted to the pen to express. The President has proclaimed instant freedom to the American slaves would have been an announcement to set all hearts beating joyfully, and to call out a long exulting shout from British freemen. We should have set our bells ringing, and have kindled our fires

From Eddystone to Berwick bounds, from Lynn to Milford Bay.

For, let a few calumniators write as they will, the people of England have ever been of one mind upon the slavery question. They are as stanch and resolved in their hatred of the domestic institution as when we abolished the accursed slave traffic; as when, at a vast sacrifice, both of money and of colonial prosperity, we struck the last fetter from the last English slave; as when the women of England, half a million strong, sent out a generous if not a wise remonstrance to the women of America. We detest the system, and every attempt to palliate its wickedness or to defend those who are its friends by any argument based on principle is offensive to the right-thinking people of this country. We repeat that, had this proclamation been issued in time of peace, and as the deliberate resolve of the Government of the United States, the day on which we write, or some day that would have been instantly and gleefully fixed, would have been kept as high holiday in England, and the next mail would have gone out heavily laden with our sincerest congratulations to our American brethren upon their having given the deathblow to a cruel and blasphemous system. Our churches would have

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resounded with thanksgivings of a still higher kind, and we should have rendered grateful homage to Providence for having strengthened a kindred nation to wipe away a stain upon humanity.

Even as it is, and in spite of the fact that for all practical purposes the proclamation is a sham, the words cannot be read without emotion. The President decrees freedom to the slaves in ten States. But the more we should have rejoiced had the measure been one of peaceful civilisation the more bitter is the feeling that the document was prompted only for the embarrassment of an enemy, and that it will be in most instances a brutum fulmen, while perhaps in others it may bring on melancholy results. It is not the Government of America that issues this proclamation, but the chief of certain States that are seeking empire over others. The document is no noble State paper, the crowning of a deliberate and generous policy, but an experiment designed to help on a disastrous and unjustifiable war. It is simply an attempt to explode a mine under the feet of those upon whom cannon have thundered in vain. The President of the North, if he believes that his proclamation will take effect, is in the position of a soldier who employs some new and barbarous method of exterminating his antagonists. Could the notification really effect what some of the Abolitionists profess to desire, the savages who poison wells, the miscreants who leave poisoned stores behind them, are humane and civilised enemies in comparison to these who sign and publish this document. But we will not believe that the Abolitionist doctrine is that of Mr. Lincoln, who has always been accounted a kindly, if coarse and shortsighted, man. He does not think that his notice that the slaves are free will set four millions of revengeful Africans firing, plundering, and slaying; but he probably does hope that he will embarrass the Confederate Generals; and, moreover, he has obeyed the dictates of the powerful faction that has hitherto made him its tool, to the eternal detriment of the once mighty Republic which he was elected to govern.

Yet it is impossible not to feel a great and a new anxiety while we await information as to the results of this step. The President, true to his feeble character, hesitated to the last, and did not issue the proclamation until the second of the month. That the Confederates knew that it had been finally resolved upon may be assumed as certain, and it is equally so that they will have taken the most determined means to meet it. Indeed, the counter-proclamation of President Davis, though ostensibly and mainly directed against a man who had been recalled before the Southern document was issued, is intended as a repressive agency. Mr. Lincoln tells the slave that he is free, and that he may take arms for what is curiously called his country; Mr. Davis tells him that if he is taken in arms the officers under whom he serves shall be liable to suffer death, and that he himself shall be handed over to the tender mercies of the State to which he belongs; and the slave knows what that means, and would, if captured, gladly compound for the more merciful doom decreed to his white officer. All this is truly horrible, and even if none of the fearful revenge thus menaced shall be taken, America will be glad hereafter to tear from her history the pages in which such documents are preserved--to destroy such evidences that the boasted advance of education and civilisation had done so little for her nations that they had recourse in war time to menaces of indiscriminate massacre. But we doubt not that the President of the Southern States has done more than issue this proclamation. He has caused it to be understood wherever there is a negro who can carry arms. The Lincoln proclamation will have been kept out of the Slave States as much as possible, but Mr. Davis will not rely upon any such precaution. He knows that the Abolitionists are active and skilful, that they have a complex "underground" agency in the South, and that they will use every effort to make the negroes aware of the Washington manifesto. It will he impossible to prevent its coming to the knowledge of thousands of slaves. But we mistake the stern character of the Confederate authorities if they have not made preparations for dealing in the most terrible manner with the first Africans who may take advantage of Mr. Lincoln's verbal enfranchisement of the race. The Abolitionist may have cause to shudder at the example that will be made of those whom they have excited into an attempt to defy soldiers flushed with four great victories over the North.

But, on consideration, we are inclined to retain our conviction— which is, in all probability, Mr. Lincoln's (we hope so)--that if the slaves were to be moved by his documents they would have been moved much sooner. They showed no signs of insurrection, so far as we know, when their masters were weak; they now know that their masters are strong and victorious, and it is improbable that the black man's inclination to rise will be increased by the news which he has been receiving for the last year. Still, there may be some slaves who may believe that their hour has come; and if there are, whether they are victors or vanquished, such things will be done as will make even the Abolitionists shudder. Regarded, therefore, at the very best--that is, as a mere sacrifice to the petulance of a faction--this proclamation is contemptible; but if we look at it in another light, and believe that it is intended to do what the sword failed to accomplish, we dare hardly trust ourselves with expressions that would fittingly signify our sense of the wickedness.

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