Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film, "Lincoln," movingly dramatizes the struggle for passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We should be grateful. That epic battle gave us the legal victory required to free the slaves, a victory that assured the integrity of America’s promise of freedom—to her citizens and to the nations of the world. Many have said that this was the most important achievement of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
Lincoln himself, though, would not have agreed. He believed that the Emancipation Proclamation—issued 150 years ago this January 1—was the greatest accomplishment of his life and his presidency. Perhaps if we wish to honor Lincoln as he deserves, we should honor him as he preferred—by remembering the terrible clash of forces that gave his Proclamation birth.
This takes us to the first week of September 1862. A tortured president paces White House floorboards, mumbling wearily of all that has gone badly. Just days before, Confederate forces humiliated Union troops at the Battle of Bull Run. There had been over ten thousand Union casualties. It was horrifying, but somehow not surprising.
Since this bloody rending of the states had begun, the Union had enjoyed superior numbers of troops, superior weapons, superior materiel, superior industrial strength and superior international support. Yet it did not win battles. Instead, it lost often and sometimes for the silliest of reasons. One Union general allowed his enemy to escape because he would not cross a river. Another surrendered his advantage because he took too long at coffee. Some would not take the field at all, despite Lincoln’s cajoling and rage. “If you are not going to use the Army,” he wrote coolly to one general, “I would like to borrow it.”
Events were no longer in hand. They never had been. Tragedy led to tragedy despite Lincoln’s fiercest efforts. This is what kept him up at night, haunting his own White House, murmuring his disbelief in the candlelit stillness.
He was wrestling in these small hours, but not just with himself and his ineffectiveness. He was wrestling with the deeper meaning of it all.
No man, he realized finally, could control such a monstrosity as this war. Something else was at work, some other being. Perhaps, God, not man, would determine the outcome of this war. If this was true, then it was God with whom Lincoln had to deal. But what did God demand of this shattered nation?
Apparently, answers came. By September 17, when Union troops drove Lee’s army into retreat at Antietam Creek, Lincoln had already devised a plan.
At a cabinet meeting on the 22nd, Lincoln explained what he was about to do. Fortunately, some of the nation’s leading men were present, notebooks in hand. We can be confident of what took place. As Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase recorded in his diary, Lincoln reminded the gathering of a proposal he had presented some weeks before. In light of the recent victory at Antietam, the president solemnly declared, “I think the time has come now.”
Then, all eyes upon him, he explained that he had determined to “issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little)—to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.”
In his emotion, Lincoln had dropped his voice. Some weren’t sure they had heard. Chase asked if he had understood the president correctly. This matter involved a promise to God? Lincoln replied “I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.”
Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy, was also in attendance that day and he too made extensive notes. The president, Welles recorded, “remarked that he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” Welles also captured Lincoln’s memorable conclusion: “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”
True to his word, Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. To the end of his days, he considered it his greatest act.
It was not a perfect document. Since it was a war act, it could only free slaves held in states then in rebellion against the United States. It did not apply to Union states. Lincoln did not have that authority. However, the act did free tens of thousands of slaves in “contraband camps” throughout Union-controlled portions of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas. Perhaps as important, the Proclamation transformed the purpose of the war. Prior to January 1, 1863, the war had been about preserving the union. Afterward, Union armies were transformed into armies of liberation.
We should be grateful for all that Lincoln left us. We should be grateful, too, for Spielberg’s film. Yet Abraham Lincoln hoped that we would remember him for his Emancipation Proclamation—for the sense of human helplessness and the covenant with a forgiving God that set the slaves free.
We could use a sense of our helplessness, and of this same forgiving God, as we venture into the unknown wilderness of 2013. Perhaps this is what Lincoln hoped later generations might reclaim, as they—as we—remember that great man’s greatest deed.