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Free at last, free at Last. Thank God almighty, I'm free at last. Well, not really. Not so much.

January 1, 2008, 12:01 am

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On this day, in 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — a symbolic gesture that launched a thousand misconceptions about U.S. history.

Here’s what the Proclamation didn’t do: abolish slavery. For that, the nation had to wait nearly three more years, until the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

And here’s another thing it didn’t do: free many slaves. Because of how Lincoln worded the Proclamation, it wasn’t intended to; it had no teeth. It freed only those slaves residing in the rebellious states of the Confederacy. That might sound bold. But it was within the Confederacy’s confines that the Union government had no power of enforcement. And even then, there were limiting conditions. Slaves in those parts of the South controlled by Union forces would have to wait for liberty. As for slaves in the Border States, the Proclamation didn’t apply to them, either.

Still, the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t meaningless. If democracy is a habit of the heart, freedom is, in some ways, a condition of the mind. Americans had to believe that the Civil War was being fought over freedom before it could be.

From the period of secession that followed the 1860 election, through the start of the conflict, Lincoln had insisted, in private and public, that he would fight only to preserve the Union. But by autumn of 1862, his views had begun changing; he had decided that the Union could no longer be reconsituted as it had existed prior to the war. The South’s antebellum social and economic order, built upon the foundation of slavery, likely had to fall before the nation could become whole again.

Lincoln, though, ever the diplomat, offered the people of the Confederacy a final chance to preserve their way of life — at least for a time. On September 22, 1862, less than a week after the Battle of Antietam ended in something approximating victory for the North, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If the rebels didn’t rejoin the Union by year’s end, he warned, their slaves would be free. The rebels didn’t. But most of their slaves still weren’t — free, that is.

And yet, with the Proclamation, Lincoln took a step toward making abolition part of the Union’s war aims. If that didn’t sit well with many Northerners, some others celebrated the evolving cause. At the same time, the Proclamation struck a blow against the Southern war effort. As more and more slaves crossed Union lines to fight for their freedom, the Confederacy hermorrhaged critical labor and capital.

So, even if the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the slaves, it moved in that direction, turning the Civil War into a moral as well as a military struggle. So raise a glass to President Lincoln’s memory: hair of the dog on this New Year’s Day.

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