Occasionally on this blog I will take a look at what has transpired close to this particular date in years past as a lens for examining the present, and one of the items that comes up on "this week in history" is the preliminary issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln in 1862 (officially promulgated on January 1, 1863), while the country was very much in the thick of the Civil War. Of course Lincoln had hoped, so the story goes, to avoid conflict and to negotiate terms with the Southern states in ways that would prevent Secession (such as a gradual abolition of slavery) but as often happens ideology trumped pragmatism and South Carolina and other states asserted their rights as supposedly sovereign independent entities to sever their ties with what they viewed as an oppressive regime in Washington. The ensuing Civil War of course provides the context for the Emancipation Proclamation - in its own way a unilateral declaration.
While the Proclamation is not to be lightly dismissed as sheer politicking, the student of history is cautioned to understand what exactly the proclamation entailed, and then to determine what we can take away from that seemingly auspicious moment. Remember that Lincoln called for the abolition of slavery as an institution - and therefore the liberation of all those held in servitude - within the states that were then in rebellion against the United States of America. Noting this fact of course leads to 2 important points of clarification:
1. The slaves in the so-called border states that were still loyal to the Union were not emancipated - as these states were not in rebellion against the US government the Emancipation Proclamation was not applicable to them. Technically that only occurred in 1865.
2. At the time the U.S. did not actually exercise sovereignty over those states and territories which were in rebellion against the country, and so in practical terms the proclamation could have only limited impact on the lives of slaves, or anyone in the south for that matter. Again it was Lee's surrender at Appomattox which allowed for emancipation in the South.
Yet we still hold out the Emancipation Proclamation as a momentous event, and indeed there is some logic to that conclusion. Words and ideas have import and sometimes one might argue power, even if those who write or speak those words have little chance of directly and immediately implementing those sentiments. The language Lincoln employed appealed to those who favored abolition and demonstrated a commitment to ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, even as he practically had no authority to liberate slaves in the South and did not apply the proclamation to the border states that were still under Union control. But clearly the words sent a message to people in the border states - as if the Civil War itself did not - that the days of legalized slavery in the United States were numbered, and expressly stated what many already knew, that the war was not merely over issues of states' rights and the limits of federal authority, but that indeed human slavery was central to the conflict between North and South.
Yet ultimately the ability to take those ideas declared so publicly and implement them on the ground depended on the Union army's successful operations on the battlefield. And to some extent even that was not enough as the ongoing presence of Union troops during Reconstruction was essential to providing some degree of freedom and liberty for the freed slaves, much of which vanished after 1877.
From the perspective of most Southerners at that time, the words that represented their cause were those which essentially formed the Confederacy's own unilateral declaration of principles - as they perceived their cause as justly embodying self-determination for their own people (not counting slaves as people of course). Had they emerged from the conflict victorious they would have viewed the outcome as a clarion call for freedom (as they defined it) from the tyranny of Federal oppression. Certainly in the aftermath of Appomattox and the ensuing era of Reconstruction, countless honorable freedom-loving southerners viewed the presence of Blue-clad troops, not to mention carpet-bagging profiteers, as representative of a foreign and unwanted occupying force, with no legitimate claim other than a notion of constitutional authority which was not shared by the indigenous population.
Regarding each of these unilateral declarations - Secession and Emancipation - perhaps the lesson to be drawn bares little profundity but rather reflects the age old principle of power. Sometimes having a seemingly just cause and clearly constructed ideals is not enough, as powerful forces, be they broad historical trends or a well armed opponent, can obscure and obstruct the path to realizing such goals. In this example might made right and ultimately enabled posterity to embrace the morality of Emancipation over the defiance of Secession. Had the Battle of Gettysburg ended differently, subsequent generations might have a different perspective on the unilateral declarations of Emancipation and Secession.