On Emancipation

The Just and Unambiguous Case for Celebration

The arc of the moral universe may be long. And it may bend towards justice. The American story is one that does its best to prove out that it doesn’t bend on its own though. There are fights, great accomplishments, won at great cost, required to ensure it. The end of African American slavery is one of them. It’s not a footnote in our history. It’s not context. It’s core to our American existence.


If Lincoln had a singular super power, it was stubborn insistence in the Union. Whatever his base motivations, he understood that the existence of slavery and a free and liberal society were principally incompatible and politically unsustainable things. Slavery was the American terminal disease. Cure it or perish. And he was willing to fight to ensure it. Lincoln’s miscalculation was to underestimate how far the Southern power structure was willing to go to defend slavery. War. Death. The worst our people have ever seen. When given the choice between slavery and the Constitution of the United States, the Southern governments chose slavery.

Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy on the Constitution of the United States of America:

“Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the storm came and the wind blew.“

Stephens again on the role of slavery in the rebellion against the Union.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

If we think about the history of America and the anchor points that hold the arc of progress in place it goes something like this:

The Declaration of Independence was the conception. The Constitutional Convention was birth. And the Emancipation Proclamation was the death of the old and the resurrection of the new. It was the fulfillment of the prophesy of what could be. This is the American Gospel; the good news. This is what brought our nation into its modern existence and won us the right to fight about how we achieve and maintain the grand goal of liberty and justice for all; not if.

If you think about what was accomplished, literally with emancipation but symbolically in a broader sense, it’s a victory for every American living today. And every human living in a free, democratic liberal society.

One of the duties of historians is to remind us of which questions remained unanswered at the onset of the great events of our past. And what answer those events gave in answering them. Lincoln told us clearly on a battlefield where thousands of America’s sons were freshly buried in the wake of Gettysburg exactly what question hung in the air. “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

That’s the question emancipation answered. What an unambiguously glorious answer to celebrate.

For millions of Americans, the emancipation of African American slavery was the end of an unimaginably cruel institution that impoverished and destroyed the agency and identity of their ancestors. But for every American it was that event that was required to continue on to the promise of America as we know it. Imperfect. Unfinished. But intact and progressing. 19th Century rebellion and revolutions outside of America weren’t quite so positively deterministic. To view the observance of the Emancipation as anything other than a towering triumph for all living Americans today is a sort of fixed pie mindset that would have prohibited the very existence of a fair, equitable and growing society. Moreover, it’s worse in a sense. Because it fixes us to a backdated 1865 pie.

There’s not an American alive today that participated in the slavery that’s abolition is being celebrated. And so there is no shame implied in the celebration. There are only winners here. The Confederacy may have been your people. But it wasn’t your cause. There are no losers in emancipation.