By Don Radebaugh — I had to act fast if I wanted to see Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. I knew it was a rare day indeed when it was somewhere other than the National Archives in Washington D.C. But a few years back, the original document went on a three-city tour of the United States. It started out east, stopped at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan for a day and concluded in Phoenix.
As it turned out, The Henry Ford is just over an hour from the house. I got off work at 5, a quick pit stop at home and I would be off. On the way out, I told my teenage daughter that I was on my way to see the Emancipation Proclamation. I was in a hurry but as a courtesy call I asked if she wanted to go, all the while knowing she’d take a pass. Typically, 15-year-old kids aren’t all that ginked up about seeing a historical piece of paper.
“No thanks Dad…I’ll pass on this one,” she snickered. “But don’t worry, we’ll catch it the next time it comes around,” she added.
I came right back. “Well, no you won’t actually. When it goes back into our National Archives, it may not come back out for decades, if not longer. See ya!”
Just then, as the door behind me was slamming — remember, I’m in a hurry — she hollered out, “Wait! Can we go?”
I’m not gonna lie…I didn’t see that one coming. But I wasn’t going to blow an opportunity to hang with my daughter and maybe even teach a lesson or two along the way. Just like that, me, my daughter and her childhood chum piled into my car and made a beeline for Dearborn.
I figured we’d burn up about three hours, maybe four after we got something to eat on the way home. And I thought we’d get right in once we got there. I mean, I really didn’t think there’d be a go-zillion peeps there to see an old, crumply faded piece of paper. How long could this take? Maybe an hour once we got there?
Finally made it to The Henry Ford. It was about 6:30 p.m. I probably drove a little faster than I should have, but, at any rate, we made it an hour. Getting parked…well, that shouldn’t take too long. Wrong. We had to park in the back 40. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why there were so many cars. Surely, there had to be something else big going on.
We finally got parked and made our way to the museum. Coming up on the front entrance, I couldn’t understand why there was a big mob of people outside the door. Then, I found out it was the line to get in. What!?
“Why are all these people here?” I asked the closest person. “We’re in line to see the Emancipation Proclamation.”
I was shocked. Are you serious? Thousands of people here to see the Emancipation Proclamation? This was unprecedented in my mind. We got right in line with the rest. I was getting more excited by the second. We finally made our way inside the building…it wouldn’t be long now. Wrong again. Once inside, the line snaked and weaved back and forth covering every inch of usable space around the museum exhibits. We strode past the original bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. And right over there…there was the original red rocking chair that Lincoln was assassinated in. Then we found ourselves standing next to the limo that Kennedy died in. All these things were fascinating and as one became the other, I knew we were making progress toward our ultimate goal. It was all so exciting for a historical geek like me. Then, the bottom fell out of the tub when we learned that if we were going to wait it out, we would get to the document at approximately 4 in the morning. Furthermore, once we got there, each person would have about 10 seconds to gaze down up the words proclaimed by Lincoln at the height of the Civil War. Ugh……..sigh.
I’m sure you could see the disappointment on my face. My daughter and her friend, bless their hearts, said, “We’ll stay! Don’t worry dad…we know how bad you want to see this, dad. We’ll stay. We can do this!”
Well…we waited for another hour, but it was already about 9, and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to bring my daughter’s friend home at 6 in the morning. I just couldn’t do it.
Then, I got another brain storm. Yep…I had it figured out now. I was going to take the girls home, and turn right around and drive right back and get in line. On that note, we gave up our place in line and headed for the door. As we exited the building, I just happened to glance back. Someone had just positioned a sign that said the line was now closed and that they would take no more. The document had to be packaged up by 8 in the morning and prepped for its long journey to Phoenix. It was over. After all that, I would not get to see the Emancipation Proclamation.
I was flat bummed out. But, then I started to think about all that had just happened. I mean, I thought the crowd was going to be on the light side, but there were thousands. As it turned out, Americans really do care about their history and certainly about a document that turned the tide of the Civil War when Lincoln officially issued it on Jan. 1, 1863. I began to feel really good about the whole thing…that so many people were willing, as I was, to stand in line for hours to see an old piece of paper. In the end — I’ll never know for sure — but not seeing the document was almost better than actually seeing it. The whole thing restored by faith in my fellow countrymen and women. With my faith fully revived, we happily made our way home.
The Emancipation Proclamation…an explanation
“As a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion,” wrote Lincoln in the Proclamation……
“All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
So, in layman’s terms, what did the Emancipation Proclamation really do? What’s the big deal?
With one swoop of his signature on the document he wrote, Lincoln officially turned a war over states’ rights into a war over slavery…which is what it was really about all along. Lincoln simply and officially defined it for the world.
The immediate reaction from the south was that Lincoln’s new Proclamation was an unadulterated farce. How could he free slaves in rebellious states he had no control over? Good question indeed.
The first answer, albeit indirectly, came from Europe. By defining the Civil War as a war over slavery rather than merely states’ rights, Lincoln got the attention of Europe, which was already intently watching and listening. In fact, England and France, which were very near recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate nation, now chose to back away from southern support altogether. Neither England or France could support a regime which fought for the preservation of human bondage as its base alloy. And as a result, England and France could no longer stand by the Confederacy. Further, Europe, to be sure, wanted southern cotton, but they needed northern wheat even more.
Second, what was once considered risky business — slaves on the run — now became the norm as slaves, by the 10s of thousands fled to the north to join the Union Army to fight for their own freedom. In its final desperate moments, even the Confederacy went against its own grain. With a dwindling army in the field, the south had no choice but to make soldiers of their slaves. It was all too late of course. Outnumbered, out-industrialized and out-maneuvered by a piece of paper, the Confederacy was now on the permanent road to extinction.
It certainly didn’t help that Confederate soldiers, as the war dragged on, were ill-clad and hungry while their northern counterparts were well-clad and well-fed. In fact, at the surrender at Appomattox (Va.) Court House, when U.S. Grant asked Confederate commander Robert E. Lee if his soldiers needed anything, the first thing Lee asked for was food. Grant ordered up 30,000 rations and fed what was left of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
All along, Lincoln had the luxury of a cohesive Union which he could continually direct as one machine, while the south became even more splintered as the war dredged on. Hell-bent on states’ rights without one solid union to keep the fragile southern states glued together, the south continually crumbled. In a great twist of irony, the very things that the south fought for — states’ rights and slavery — are the very things that eventually did them in.
Grant’s thoughts at the war’s end were especially poignant.
“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
The Emancipation Proclamation was truly the beginning of the end for slave-holding Confederate states, and the beginning of “a new birth of freedom” for the United States of America.