Why isn’t today Emancipation Day?

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the same man who stood up before the unfinished Capitol dome speaking about mystic chords of memory in hopes of reconciling the slave states to his election finally gave them what they had so deeply feared: Lincoln freed the slaves.

Rarely does the Emancipation Proclamation come up without someone misunderstanding it. No, Lincoln did not with the stroke of a pen free all four million slaves. Working from his war powers, Lincoln did not have the ability to free slaves in Delaware, Kentucky, or Missouri. He likewise exempted some areas under Union control from the proclamation’s effect.  Most slaves lived in areas beyond Union lines where Lincoln’s proclamation carried no force at all. But, as Eric Foner observes in Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction:

It is not true, however, as is sometimes stated, that the proclamation freed no slave on the day it was issued. Lincoln decided not to exempt the Sea Islands of South Carolina, occupied since late 1861 by Union forces, from the proclamation’s purview. Here, more than ten thousand slaves did gain their freedom with the stroke of Lincoln’s pen. As to the slave population behind Confederate lines – more than three million men, women, and children, they, declared the proclamation, “are and henceforth shall be free.”

(Foner also has a great op-ed in today’s New York Times on Lincoln and Emancipation.)

Never before had the government of the United States freed a single slave. It did not even do a particularly good job of enforcing its restrictions on slavery during the antebellum period. Nor had it lifted a finger, thanks to Southern objections, to help states that did emancipate their slaves before 1863.

But now the government firmly set itself between the slave and the slaveowner. If most slaves lived beyond the practical reach of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, they would not stay there. Everywhere Union armies advanced thereafter, they brought freedom with them. The revolution had come.

We have a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. It came over the objections of the slave power’s descendants and fellow travelers. In my lily-white school district, we never had it off. Instead we had a day that coincided with the start of deer hunting season. A woman once told me that hunting meant more to us than Martin Luther King, Jr. She said more than she knew with those words. But if MLK deserves a holiday to remember him and celebrate his work, how do we ignore the first day of the great emancipation? The calendar surely has room for two civil rights holidays. Yet I know no national emancipation holiday.

I never thought much about the first not being Emancipation Day until I read Kevin Levin’s post on it today, but he’s right. For a nation so rhetorically obsessed with freedom, simply ignoring one of the most revolutionary advances in freedom in our history is just bizarre.

But I do have an explanation. Freedom, in American rhetoric, refers to the state of white people, most especially white men. It has often meant freeing white men to do what they will to any minority within reach and their freedom from criticism or even questioning about what they choose to do. We grow up with that silent assumption. If the nation had four million slaves, that just doesn’t matter. They don’t count. If the nation didn’t let half the population, the female half, vote for most of its history, that also doesn’t matter. They also don’t count.  We no longer say that with words, but still say it with actions.

I don’t know how we get over that. I don’t deny we’ve made some progress, but like personal improvement cultural improvement involves ascending many steep slopes. Long after we see something askew, long after we know it intellectually and feel it emotionally, the same habits persist. I grew up thinking it unremarkable that we have no national emancipation holiday. Every day of my life before this one I carried on that habit of thought. I know I have plenty of company and I know any movement to make an Emancipation Day would receive bitter opposition from the expected quarters.

But how can an American even ask if freedom deserves celebrating? We call the place the land of the free. The time for clinging, unwittingly or otherwise, to the patriarchal, whites-only definition of freedom passed long ago. In the twenty-first century can’t we finally celebrate one of the greatest advances of the nineteenth?

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