The Emancipation Proclamation—Sesquicentennial Reflections

January 1, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of slaves in rebellious states. The decree was controversial in Lincoln’s time and seems often to be misunderstood in ours. The objective of this blog post, accordingly, is to survey the context, chronology, and consequences of the Proclamation as we observe the sesquicentennial of its issuance.

The Context—Summer 1861 through Fall 1862

Through the latter half of 1861 and well into 1862, it was not at all self-evident that the Union would win the Civil War. Particularly in the east, the most symbolic military theater, the Confederate Army secured numerous victories or military stalemates, the latter of which were essentially as advantageous for it as the former. Despite having superior financial and industrial resources, the Union Army’s deficit of aggressive battlefield leadership, lack of well-trained or seasoned troops, and comparative unfamiliarity with the terrain repeatedly hampered Union military actions.

Lincoln was painfully cognizant of these problems, especially the operational timidity of his top brass, purportedly remarking at one point that if General George B. McClellan was not going to use the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln “would like to borrow it, provided he could see how it could be made to do something.” President Lincoln also knew that popular support for the war, as casualties mounted and the prospect of national conscription loomed, could not long endure without visible Union success in the east. At the same time, the President was aware that the Confederacy was seeking the recognition and material support of European nations such as England and France, and that every Confederate victory appeared to make this objective more attainable.

It was this array of circumstances, among others, that prompted President Lincoln to take the manifestly drastic step of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Only against this political and military backdrop, in fact, can the Proclamation and its timing be fully comprehended. In order to explain why this is so, it is necessary to walk through the events leading up to the Proclamation and then to examine the substance and scope of the Proclamation itself.

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The Roots of Progressivism Lie in . . . the Republican Party?

Tonight, when President Barack Obama delivers his third State of the Union address, he is widely expected to channel the progressive rhetoric of Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech in 1910 (quoted in my previous post here) that called for the federal government to play an active role in regulating the economy. When he speaks to the nation tonight, President Obama is likely to push back against the demand to shrink the federal government – a common refrain among the current crop of Republican presidential candidates — by pointing to Theodore Roosevelt’s call for an active federal government.

It is certainly true that, in his “New Nationalism” speech, Theodore Roosevelt developed the theme that elite special interests had come to dominate government at all levels, thereby turning government into a tool for their own narrow purposes. President Obama is hoping that a return to this theme will resonate with voters today. However, while the connection between President Obama and Theodore Roosevelt has been widely reported, few commentators have recognized that these same ideas actually can be traced back to an earlier Republican president . . . Abraham Lincoln.

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Brevity in Lincoln’s Writing

Professor Julie Oseid examines Abraham Lincoln’s writing in her article The Power of Brevity:  Adopt Abraham Lincoln’s Habits, 6 J. ALWD 28 (2009).  Based on her review of Lincoln’s writing, Oseid recommends that lawyers use his “habits of writing early, visualizing audience, and ruthlessly editing.”  (page 29)

Oseid starts with the premise that “[t]he goal of brevity should be clarity.” (29)  Lincoln, she says, described the opposite of brevity when he said that another lawyer could “’compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.’”  (29)  Brevity does not sacrifice precision, however, and a writer must be aware of concepts like the rhythm and sound in phrases like “’[f]our score and seven years ago.’”  (30)

Brevity has persuasive power.  (30)  Oseid quotes Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner on brevity in Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges:  “’Judges often associate the brevity of the brief with the quality of the lawyer.  Many judges we’ve spoken with say that good lawyers often come in far below the page limits—and that bad lawyers almost never do.’”  (30)

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