EMANCIPATION: 150 years old and needing expansion

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., January 1, 2013 – On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was neither a law nor an unbridled condemnation of slavery as written. Instead, it was a carefully timed document with limited scope. Yet, it was sufficient to turn the tides of the Civil War in favor of the Union and to serve as the impetus for the Thirteenth Amendment. On its 150th anniversary, it would appear that a second Emancipation Proclamation might be in order.

A historical perspective is in order.

While President Lincoln was adamantly against slavery, he was without constitutional authority to address the issue directly. At the time, the Constitution was “pro-choice” when it came to slavery; allowing each State to determine whether it would permit slavery within its borders.

The President also had political challenges: four of the Union’s border States permitted slavery and Northern Democrats strongly supported it (Southern Democrats had already seceded). President Lincoln feared that those groups would have turned against the war had he pressed for the abolition of slavery when he first took office.

During the early months of the Civil War, the Confederacy was using slave labor to support its efforts with resounding success. The importance of disrupting this advantage had become increasingly apparent.

The first opportunity to address the issue arose when the Confiscation Act of 1861 was passed on August 6th of that year.  Under that Act, the President, as Commander in Chief, was given the power to seize any property that was being used by an enemy to wage war against the United States. Ironically, because slaves were considered to be property, the Union’s military forces were now able to “seize” slaves without any obligation to return them to their owners.

“Seizing” slaves is somewhat of a misnomer as the vast number of these individuals were escaping and fleeing to the North. In another stroke of irony, these former slaves became the property of the United States.

While the political scenario was evolving, President Lincoln actually had to countermand a field order issued by Major General David Hunter that declared slaves in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina to be “forever free” (General Orders No. 11). The President reserved the responsibility for any such decision to his Office.

In that same proclamation, it was further resolved “That the United States ought to cooperate with any State which may adopt a gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.” Interestingly enough, none of the three States previously mentioned accepted the President’s offer. Given the more recent behavior of State governments, one can only wonder if any of those States would have fallen to the temptation if today’s standards were applied.

By the summer of 1862, Republicans were applying considerable pressure to the President to shift the focus of the Civil War away from secession to one of abolishing slavery. While he had been hesitant to do so earlier in fear of fracturing the Union by alienating Northern Democrats and the four border States, the time was now right.

A second Confiscation Act was passed on July 17, 1862, which served as a precursor to the Emancipation Act that was to follow. It allowed slaves who escaped to the North to be declared captives of war but otherwise set free, and it gave the President the power to employ them in the Union forces.

However, this second Confiscation Act most certainly did not call for equal rights and even contained a provision that authorized the President “to make provision for the transportation, colonization, and settlement, in some tropical country beyond the limits of the United States, of such persons of the African race, made free by the provisions of this act, as may be willing to emigrate, having first obtained the consent of the government of said country to their protection and settlement within the same, with all the rights and privileges of freemen.”

Finally, on September 22, 1862, the President made his intent to emancipate the slaves directly known and, in a preliminary proclamation, declared that his edict would go into effect with respect to any State that did not take action on its own within 100 days. Thus, on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

It should be noted that for political reasons, the Emancipation Proclamation only addressed slavery in the States that had seceded. It ignored the slavery that was still in effect in the border States that remained part of the Union as well as those areas of the Confederacy that had already come under Union control. This was done to avoid any issue of constitutionality as well as to appease the Northern Democrats, whose support the President would continue to need. Emancipation was also conditioned on military victory.

The latter point served as an additional inducement for Confederate slaves to flee their masters and to fight for their freedom. This depleted the Confederate military of its labor pool and reinforced the Union with nearly 200,000 new troops. It also gave the North the moral high ground.

To address the issue of constitutionality, the Republican-led Senate overwhelmingly passed the Thirteenth Amendment on April 8, 1864, and by January 31, 1865, the dissent of Northern Democrats had dissipated sufficiently to allow that Amendment to pass the House of Representatives by the required two-thirds vote. When three-quarters of the States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865, slavery was finally eliminated; a well-earned victory that President Lincoln was only able to enjoy for the final three months of his life.

So, how far have we come?

Today, we have a President of Euro-African heritage. Many consider his election to be the final step in demonstrating how far our Nation has come. The reality is that had we come far enough, his election would not be worth mentioning.

President Obama received approximately 95 percent of the Black vote in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012. These figures are disproportionately high with regard to any demographic and are prima facie evidence that race played a role.

In a truly evolved society, race would no longer be relevant. It would not be used as a criterion for political consideration. It would not be a basis upon which some might challenge a decision nor would it be the basis upon which legitimate challenges were summarily dismissed.

Our society still suffers disparities that are implicitly based on race. During the most recent election, there was a dearth of discussion pertaining to residual discrimination. One Party assumed that it would receive an overwhelming percentage of support from minorities, while the other Party assumed that it could not do anything to prevent that anomaly. Both Parties preferred to sweep the real issues under their respective carpetbags.

For example, from 2008-2012, median income fell approximately 66% among Hispanics, 53% among Blacks, and 16% among Whites; median net worth fell approximately 67% among Hispanics, 59% among Blacks, and 44% among Whites; and with respect to Americans living at or below the poverty level, approximately 27.4% were Black, 26.6% were Hispanic, 12.1% were Asian, and 9.9% were White.

These facts are compelling. They should disturb us. However, what should disturb us even more is that they were not even addressed by either Party during the last election. We are left to assume that the parties either do not care or would just prefer to ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

Unfortunately, in the real world, problems cannot be solved until they are defined and openly discussed. In our current political environment, that is unlikely to occur. The discussion of such issues would expose the fact that they exist, and people might begin to start “connecting the dots.”

In turn, a more informed electorate might begin to ask questions. Why do such differences exist? What is their root cause? What can be done to correct them? Why hasn’t anything been done to correct them?

These are uncomfortable questions for traditional politicians who play by a different set of rules; who have different healthcare programs than we do; who have different retirement programs than we do. These are questions that expose why the concept of emancipation needs to be expanded well beyond race.

If we can boldly address these issues, perhaps we can finally put race behind us. If we are lucky, we may be able to simultaneously address the gender biases that still prevail in our society. After all, women of any color did not receive the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, a full 50 years after Black men received the right to vote (under the Fifteenth Amendment), we still are trying to create equal pay for equal work for women, and a woman has never been elected President of the United States. Then we can perform the final act of emancipation: emancipation from the two political Parties who have accomplished so little at such a great cost to the People. The examples are too numerous to detail. Suffice it to say that the recent fiasco called the “fiscal cliff” and the repeated failure to address the national debt ceiling in a timely manner are merely symptoms of the disease. Add the $2 billion price tag the Presidency now carries and you have clear and convincing evidence that the dollar has been radically devalued under their watch.

It is time to reissue the Emancipation Proclamation without the political limitations of the original one. We should demand an Emancipation Proclamation that says that no man or woman regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc. shall ever again be held in slavery or involuntary servitude by the Democrats or Republicans or their political heirs or assigns. From this day forward, we shall truly be free to build a meritocracy upon which our futures shall be dictated not by the pronouncements of our political officials but rather by the talent, effort, and determination we are willing to display. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, “… when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every State and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” Think about what a wonderful start to a new year that would be.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A President for the People, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.