Lincoln’s famous flair for words couldn’t compete with the gravity of emancipation
When it was first issued, even Northerners who recognized it as a second Declaration of Independence lamented its uninspiring prose. When autographed reprints were offered for sale at a Philadelphia charity fair just a year and a half later, several copies went unsold at the price of $10.
Abraham Lincoln himself believed the document represented a “grand consummation” capable of inspiring a “great revolution in public sentiment.” But word for word, it struck many observers as not only less than “grand” and “great,” but remarkably short on sentiment itself. Why, observers have wondered, at a moment of such awesome historic importance, did the great writer fail to use all the powers at his command?
One thing is certain: Lincoln never doubted himself or his document. As he told witnesses on New Year’s Day 1863—pausing before affixing his name to it because his right arm was “almost paralyzed” from three hours of holiday handshaking—“If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
Yet he hardly offered the endeavor his full supply of literary skill. While the first Declaration of Independence began with the unforgettable phrase, “When in the course of human events,” the so-called second Declaration started with: “Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing among other things the following, to wit.” The remainder cited not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but offered insipid phrases like “attention is hereby called” and “I do hereby enjoin.” The document groans under the burden of two “therefores,” one “thereto,” two “to wits” and two “aforesaids.”
The word “free,” by contrast, appeared in the text only three times, first merely quoting the preliminary proclamation that had been issued a hundred days earlier; and later to admonish liberated people to “abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.” Most of the text was given not to discussing the promise of liberty, but to listing exemptions and exceptions. Its one stylistically redeeming sentence—“upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice…I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God”—was written not by Lincoln, but by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.
No wonder the document’s style—or lack of it—has been criticized ever since. Historian Richard Hofstadter offered the most devastating criticism of all, famously deriding the Emancipation Proclamation as boasting “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Hofstadter was hardly the first to make such a derisive comment. A 19th-century European Lincoln admirer named Karl Marx similarly complained Lincoln’s freedom orders called to mind “the trite summonses that one lawyer sends to an opposing lawyer, the legal chicaneries and pettifogging stipulations of an actiones juris”—a court case. Marx found it astonishing that what he called “the most significant document in American history since the founding of the Union and one which tears up the old American Constitution, bears the same character,” although its literary shortcomings did not alter its “historic content.”
Frederick Douglass concurred, even after campaigning mightily for the document to be issued. “It was not a proclamation of ‘liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof,’ such as we had hoped it would be,” Douglass lamented, but “one marked by discriminations and reservations.” Even so, Douglass fully understood its immediate impact. “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree,” he wrote in Douglass’ Monthly, quoting the prosaic text with biblical fervor.
How then to explain the proclamation’s concurrent, and disparate, reputations as both a rhetorical failure and an icon of freedom? Perhaps nothing better illustrates these oddly conflicting historical currents than the strange history
of the document itself—as a talisman and piece of archival history.
This parallel legacy was influenced by two of the nation’s unique Civil War social movements: the mostly political Union Leagues, dedicated to Republican politics and black enlistment, and the U.S. Sanitary Commission, devoted to the care and feeding of Union soldiers and sailors—especially the wounded. Both organizations played major roles in burnishing the reputation of the proclamation among the public, sidestepping its shortcomings as political literature and secular gospel and instead embracing its potential as a relic of almost messianic power. Lincoln’s participation in this metamorphosis is illuminating as well.
Keep in mind that Lincoln authored three separate proclamations: the rough draft he first read to his Cabinet on July 22, 1862, then tabled to await a Union military victory that could sustain it; the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation released to the public on September 22, a few days after Union forces prevailed at Antietam; and the final executive order—the proclamation issued 100 days later on January 1, 1863.
We are not certain precisely where Lincoln crafted the words of the first two drafts—perhaps initially on a steamship bearing him home from a visit to Union troops in Virginia, at the War Department telegraph office near the White House, or at the Soldiers Home, his summer cottage north of Washington. Wherever he worked out his thoughts, there is evidence Lincoln found their composition a daunting, even agonizing, process from the start.
One witness remembered his scribbling no more than a few words at a time. “He would look out of the window for a while, and then put his pen to paper, but did not write much at once. He would study between times and when he had made up his mind he would put down a line or two, and then sit quiet for a few minutes. After a time he would resume his writing.” By the end of the day Lincoln had written less than a page: It hardly seemed the outpouring of a man inspired.
As for the first publicly released document, whatever its literary shortcomings there was no denying its impact. Lincoln’s clerk William O. Stoddard never forgot the afternoon one of his colleagues rushed into his White House office and, “with a sort of flush on his face,” placed a paper before him and told him the president wanted him to make two copies “right away.” This of course meant transcribing by hand—no copiers or scanners. At first, Stoddard remembered, he “went at it, mechanically,” until what he called “a queer kind of tremor” began “shaking my nerves” as he realized just what he was writing. Now he began to imagine he could “hear the sound of clanking iron, as of breaking and falling chains, and after that the shouts of a great multitude and the laughter and the songs of the newly free and the anger of fierce opposition.”
Stoddard’s response—initial indifference to the individual words, followed by deep appreciation of their import—was mirrored throughout the country when the preliminary proclamation was issued. Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew spoke for many when he called it “a poor document, but a mighty act.”
Not everyone agreed. Lincoln’s uninspiring prose moved Washington gadfly Adam Gurowski to complain, “The proclamation is written in the meanest and most dry routine style; not a word to evoke a generous thrill, not a word reflecting the warm, and lofty comprehension and feelings of the immense majority of the people on this question of emancipation. Nothing for humanity, nothing to humanity…it is clear the writer was not in it either with his heart or with his soul; it is clear that it was done under moral duress, under the throttling pressure of events.” Then, quoting Union General James Wadsworth, he concluded, “never a nobler subject was more belittled by the form in which it was uttered.”
It was no surprise that longtime anti-slavery military officers like Wadsworth were disappointed. But Lincoln faced far greater danger from the conservative wing of the military—filled with Democrats—where opposition might foment insubordination and worse. Surely that concern was one of Lincoln’s chief motivations for keeping celebratory hallelujahs out of the document. Indeed, General Fitz-John Porter immediately told the editor of the anti-Lincoln New York World the “absurd proclamation” was the work of “a political coward,” revealing it had been “ridiculed in the army—causing disgust, discontent, and expressions of disloyalty.” Most alarming of all, the chief commander of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan, whose narrow victory at Antietam had emboldened the president to issue the document, told his wife its publication made it “almost impossible for me to retain my commission & self respect at the same time. I cannot make up my mind to fight for such an accursed doctrine as that of a servile insurrection—it is too infamous.”
Northern editorials proved initially flattering, but to his own vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln confided, “while commendation in newspapers and by distinguished individuals is all that a vain man could wish, the stocks have declined, and troops come forward more slowly than ever. This, looked soberly in the face, is not very satisfactory….The North responds to the proclamation sufficiently in breath; but breath alone kills no rebels.”
The reaction to Lincoln’s 1862 public statement appeared to confirm his darkest fears. Lincoln’s party lost 31 seats in Congress later that fall, prompting one border state newspaper to gloat that the balloting repudiated “Fanaticism, Abolitionism, and Niggerism” A month later, matters went from bad to worse when the Union Army suffered a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg. These setbacks compelled Lincoln to craft his next and final proclamation with almost microscopic precision.
Nonetheless, as January 1 neared, Northern editors hopeful for a masterpiece clamored for advance copies. “New York Editors are anxious, if possible, that your proclamation if ready, may be telegraphed to the Associated Press this afternoon or evening,” Congressman Schuyler Colfax advised Lincoln on New Year’s Eve, “so that they can have it in their New Year’s morning newspapers with Ed[itoria]l. articles on it.” Colfax fretted that if the document failed to attract coverage January 1, publication would be delayed until January 3, “robbing it of its New Year’s character.”
A skilful manipulator of public opinion, Lincoln doubtless would have preferred to oblige. The truth was, as late as December 30, he was still awaiting comments from members of his Cabinet on the latest draft. He had good reason to doubt their enthusiastic support: Back in July, they urged him to refrain from issuing a preliminary proclamation at all. In September he told them bluntly that he had made a pact with God to issue it with or without their consent. Now, in the final hours of this momentous year, Lincoln still sought elusive consensus. As he massaged his text to make it legally fireproof, he deliberated with them over such proposed clauses as a patronizing admonition that freed blacks refrain from violence, along with, by contrast, a truly revolutionary invitation to African Americans to join the Union armed forces. Ignoring the appeal of holiday glory, Lincoln rejected haste and turned down the eager editors.
Silence from the White House, however, ignited rumors that Lincoln would blink and let the January 1 deadline pass without issuing the order at all. Contemporaries like New Yorker George Templeton Strong, a Union Leaguer and founder of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, wondered whether “Lincoln’s backbone” would “carry him through the work he is pledged to do….If he come out fair and square,” Strong confided to his diary, “he will do the ‘biggest thing’ an Illinois jury-lawyer has ever had a chance of doing, and take high place among the men who have controlled the destinies of nations. If he postpone or dilute his action, his name will be a byword and a hissing till the annals of the nineteenth century are forgotten.”
Strong need not have worried. As Lincoln had recently assured a delegation of Union men from his native Kentucky, “he would rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom.” A day after Christmas, Senator Charles Sumner had confidently told fellow Massachusetts abolitionist George Livermore, who later begged for the pen Lincoln used to sign it, “The President says he would not stop the Proclamation if he could, and could not if he would.”
As those close to the situation soon learned, however, the endless hours of preparation did not mean history would be given memorable phrases to consecrate the occasion. Indiana editor John D. Defrees had recommended “such a document as to justify the act in all coming time.” But after the political and military disasters of November and December, Lincoln preferred a proclamation that would survive court challenges even if it did not please literary critics; a declaration that might not enthrall the enslaved, but would seal the cooperation of the free—white men who had no tolerance for black men.
In the face of intractable racial prejudice and mounting dissatisfaction with the administration, Lincoln thus chose to mute his natural skill for oratory even if it risked giving future generations the sense that he lacked empathy altogether. He opted to limit his approach, and grant distasteful exemptions, so border slave states like Kentucky did not react by seceding and joining the Confederacy. He eliminated the likelihood of constitutional challenges by acting narrowly as the commander in chief, with a tightly argued, precisely worded military order—one that would survive the war, even if the appeals went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Nor, in another important sense, did the occasion truly call for rhetorical flamboyance. Lincoln saw the final proclamation as a formal recounting and redemption of the promise behind the warning he had issued back in September—that slave states either return to the Union or forfeit their slaves forever. Now he would calmly summon his war power and collect on that debt—using the Army to enforce it, and recruiting the untapped African-American manpower freedom unleashed and using it against the Rebels. “It is not a question of sentiment or taste,” he later explained, “but one of physical force, which may be measured, and estimates as horse-power, and steam-power, are estimated. And by measurement, it is more than we can lose and live.” This was not the time, he said with almost palpable regret for restraining himself, for “magic, or miracles.”
While the final text was hardly more inspiring than the preliminary order, most in the anti-slavery movement this time excused the prose altogether. Instead they celebrated the consequences, and lauded both God and the man many believed had been ordained to act on heaven’s instructions. “It is a great historic event,” William Lloyd Garrison exulted in the Liberator. The proclamation was “sublime in its magnitude, momentous and beneficent in its far-reaching consequences, and eminent just alike to the oppressor and the oppressed.” Harriet Beecher Stowe later likened Lincoln to “Moses leading his Israel through the wilderness,” mixing her metaphors—certainly her Testaments—to argue, “His rejection of what is called fine writing was as deliberate as St. Paul’s.”
Such comments eventually helped the proclamation to achieve iconic status, its leaden style notwithstanding. But much of the credit must go to an indefatigable charity organizer named Mary Livermore (no relation to George), coordinator of the northwestern branch of the Sanitary Commission.
Ten months after the proclamation was issued, she wrote Lincoln to alert him to the forthcoming Great Western Fair, designed to raise funds for “sick and wounded soldiers.” Mrs. Livermore wanted a spectacular donation, “not so much for the value of the gift, as for the eclat which this circumstance would give to the Fair. It has been suggested to us from various quarters,” she ventured, “that the most acceptable donation you could possibly make, would be the original manuscript of the Proclamation of emancipation….There would be great competition among buyers to obtain possession of it, and to say nothing of the interest that would attach to such a gift, it would prove pecuniarily of great value.” And, she pledged, “We should take pains to have such an arrangement made as would place the document permanently in either the State or the Chicago Historical Society.”
Lincoln ignored the request for a time, no doubt reluctant to part with his original manuscript. Knowing its value, clerk William Stoddard had tried, he later confided, to hide it in his desk drawer and “ ‘smouch’ it” for himself. Undaunted, Livermore dispatched heavyweight Illinois politicians to rattle the plate. Congressman Owen Lovejoy for one poured on the biblical flattery by telling the president, “it seems to me that Illinois would be a very suitable resting place for a document that ought to be laid away in some holy place like the ancient Jewish symbols.”
Lincoln eventually bowed to the pressure and donated his manuscript. “I had some desire to retain the paper,” he admitted, “but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers that will be better.” Overjoyed, Livermore promised the “treasure will be carefully guarded & skillfully managed, so as to produce a revenue, that shall make your heart glad, and soothe the woes of hundreds in hospitals.” She lived up to her word. The proclamation earned a small fortune, even if its disposition turned out to be something of an inside job. Thomas B. Bryan, the art entrepreneur whose own booth displayed its exhibit for the 100,000 fair-goers, purchased it himself for $3,000.
Not only did the manuscript fetch a huge sum of money, it earned the president an unexpected and generous reward: a gold watch donated by a local jeweler for “the largest contributor” to the fair. The news delighted the once-reluctant donor. He proudly wore his Emancipation timepiece for the rest of his life.
Thomas Bryan’s efforts were just beginning. By January 7, 1864, he sent Lincoln proof copies of what he called a “lithographed Fac-simile of your Proclamation of Freedom,” asking him to “inform me if the copy impress you favorably.” A “share”—but only a share—of the profits would go to the new Chicago Soldiers Home. Clearly, Bryan believed his $3,000 investment for the original could be recouped. Designed by printmaker Edward Mendel, complete with a lithographed portrait of the president, his print moved Lincoln to admit, “it impresses me favorably as being a faithful and correct copy.” Copies soon went on public sale.
Around this very same time, Lincoln received a request for the other emancipation document still in his control: the 1862 preliminary proclamation. Albany Relief Bazaar organizer William Barnes told wealthy New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith, a member of the organizing committee, “I think the 22nd Sept. is really more valuable than the 1st of Jany….Jany. was only enforcing Execution. The Sept. Proclamation first embodied the President’s plan…was really the effective Proclamation of Freedom.”
Once more it took considerable political wire-pulling to get the president to part with his document. Fortunately, Barnes was married to the daughter of Thurlow Weed, the New York Republican boss. Sidestepping the president, Barnes had his wife appeal directly to her father’s old friend, Secretary of State William H. Seward. On January 4, “the original draft of the September proclamation” duly arrived in Albany, and excited fair organizers decided to raffle it off.
Smith purchased a huge block of tickets for the drawing—perhaps as many as a thousand. It certainly increased his odds of winning, and win he did. Yet such was his reputation that a “loud and hearty cheer” reportedly greeted the announcement that the old abolitionist’s name had been drawn. “The disposition of it although by chance is eminently just,” Barnes said.
In the days when presidents confidently entrusted the U.S. mail with valuable correspondence, Lincoln’s two freedom documents made it safely through the postal system without harm. But they ended up meeting startlingly different fates. The preliminary proclamation remained with Barnes in Albany while Smith explored options for donating it to another charity. But after Lincoln’s assassination, the New York State Legislature purchased the proclamation for $1,000. After surviving a devastating fire that swept through the state capitol building in 1911, the document entered the collections of the state library, where it has remained safely preserved ever since. Just last fall, it went on view publicly on an extended tour for the sesquicentennial.
In Chicago, Thomas Bryan made good on his pledge to enshrine the final proclamation at the local Soldiers Home. It was on display there, as Mary Livermore sadly remembered, when disaster struck the city in 1871. In Mrs. Livermore’s simple words, Lincoln’s most famous manuscript “burned at the time of the great conflagration.”
The original, “official,” so-called “engrossed” copy of the document, the one Lincoln took so much time to sign, lives permanently in the National Archives in Washington—but is badly faded. Lincoln’s fragmentary July draft is part of the Lincoln Papers collection at the Library of Congress.
“I know very well that the name which is connected to this act will never be forgotten,” Abraham Lincoln told Senator Charles Sumner even while he was still writing the Emancipation Proclamation. He was right. The proclamation morphed into an icon, its surface banality overcome by savvy salesmanship in the good name of philanthropy. Slowly but surely the public at large came to understand that the text was more than the sum of its parts.
Even the 48 souvenir reprints Republicans Charles Godfrey Leland and George Henry Boker commissioned to sell at the 1864 Philadelphia Sanitary Fair enjoyed a renaissance. The 21-by-17-inch limited editions, signed by Lincoln, Seward and presidential secretary John Nicolay, did fail to sell out for $10 apiece—perhaps because the fast-approaching election campaign had transformed both text and author into volatile political lightning rods. But last June, a newly uncovered copy sold handsomely in New York—for $2.1 million.
Historian Harold Holzer is a columnist for America’s Civil War and the author of Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory.