The Proclamation of Freedom

New York World editorial

January 03, 1863

The character of this document was so fully foreshadowed in its September precursor that public interest centers more on the fact of its issue than on the nature of its contents. What principally strikes public attention is the fact that President LINCOLN has fully and finally committed himself to the policy of emancipation. The particular features of the proclamation which seem deserving of remark are these: the President rests the measure on purely military grounds with a distinctness which did not appear in the September proclamation; he avows an intention to receive the emancipated slaves into the military and naval service of the United States…

The most important question that can arise relative to this proclamation respects its legal effect. Immediate practical effect it has none; the slaves remaining in precisely the same condition as before. They still live on the plantations; tenant their accustomed hovels; obey the command of their master or overseer, eating the food he furnishes and doing the work he requires precisely as though Mr. LINCOLN had not declared them free. Their freedom, then, it is clear, is only a dormant freedom; if free at all, they are not actually but only legally free.… The original remedy of the slave (if he has any) is in the local courts of the state where he has his domicil. These courts, we know beforehand, will not entertain his suit. They do not recognize the validity of the decree on which he rests his claim. So long, therefore, as the present political and military status continues, the freedom declared by this proclamation is a dormant, not an actual freedom…

The slaves might, to be sure, take the vindication of their rights into their own hands, by rising, en masse, against their masters. But this they could have done any time within the last fifty years with quite as good advantages and as strong a color of right as now. Mr. LINCOLN’S paper proclamation is of no more force than the imprescriptable title to freedom born with every human being who has courage and vigor of character to assert it. There has never been a time when the negroes had so little to hope from an insurrection as at present. The whole white population of the South is in arms. If the slaves were disposed to run away, they are hemmed in by large armies on all the southern frontiers. Whither could they flee? If, assembling in large bodies, they should offer a show of violence, what chance have they, unarmed, against the abundance of improved artillery and firearms in the hands of the superior race. If they resort to the torch of the incendiary, how are they and their little ones to subsist? Whatever small chance they have of gaining their freedom is by a servile insurrection; but they have ten chances to rush on destruction to one of escaping from servitude. It is obvious, therefore, that for the present, the proclamation is inoperative and futile. It may strengthen the resistance of the rebels, but it cannot benefit the slaves.

It may be said that the proclamation establishes a legal claim to freedom which the slaves may successfully assert after the military subjugation of the South. But this knocks the bottom out of the proclamation and spoils all its contents. The proclamation is issued as a war measure; as an instrument for the subjugation of the rebels. But that cannot be a means of military success which pre-supposes this same military success as the condition of its own existence. It confounds all ideas of means and ends to call emancipation a war measure when emancipation is obviously unattainable until after military resistance is put out of the way. If the war should end in the triumph of the rebellion the proclamation would, of course, amount to nothing. If the rebellion is subdued, the proclame tion merely gives a colorable ground for suits fly freedom before the tribunals of the country. It whole efficacy must finally depend on whether it is sustained by the courts. That the courts of the slave states in which the suits must originally be brought will not sustain it admits of no doubt whatever. That the Supreme Court of the United States, to which such suits may be carried for final adjudication, will declare the proclamation void is also morally certain. It is clearly unconstitutional and wholly void unless sustainable as a war measure. A war measure it clearly is not, inasmuch as the previous success of the war is the only thing that can give it validity.

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