On America's most important New Year's Eve, Lincoln found our better angels
This 1863 oil painting by William Tolman Carlton, "Watch Meeting -- Dec. 31st 1862 -- Waiting for the Hour," depicts the wait for President Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
Visitors view the original Emancipation Proclamation during a one-day-only exhibit Jan. 19, 2003, at the National Archives in Washington.
Share with others:
DRY FORK, W.Va. -- In the course of one evening, all of American history changed.
Before another sunset would occur, an entire people would move toward freedom, a large region of this country would change its identity, and America would be transformed forever. The effects would shape one of the most distinctive corners of the continent and put a mighty nation on the road to redeeming the signature declaration of its revolutionary founding document.
We pause now to mark the 150th anniversary of the most important New Year's Eve in American history.
For it was at that moment -- celebrated then as now as the time to ring out the old while ringing in the new -- that Abraham Lincoln determined, amid deep political controversy, to go forward with the proclamation that would begin the process of freeing America's slaves. And it was at that moment that Lincoln decided, amid a war over secession, to permit West Virginia to secede from Virginia, the crown jewel of the Confederacy, and to join the Union.
Never has so much been accomplished affecting so many people amid so much tragedy in so little time.
Never has a president spent a New Year's Eve remotely like the way Lincoln spent his, brooding until the breath of dawn, pacing the second floor of the White House, walking one way and then another.
Never has so much imagination been applied to constitutional principles by one figure who looms so large in the American imagination. In so doing, he saved the country created by that Constitution.
But that is only the beginning of the significance of Dec. 31, 1862. The real meaning of that day a century and a half ago -- a day in which the ferocious Battle of Stones River began in Middle Tennessee -- is that Abraham Lincoln made the country worth saving.
Pilloried publicly by his opponents, ridiculed privately by his allies, weary of war, wracked with worry, but possessed of an inner compass that pointed toward justice, Lincoln took two steps that made Union victory all but inevitable.
In the course of one New Year's Eve, Lincoln fractured the South and convinced Great Britain -- whose need for Southern cotton had prompted it to contemplate aid to the Confederacy -- that the president who in his first inaugural address spoke of the "better angels of our nature" was placing his country firmly on the side of the angels.
The Emancipation Proclamation accomplished little but signified much. It freed slaves held in territory over which the Union government in Washington had no power. But it set in motion the transformation of the Civil War from a struggle over secession to one over slavery, a process that would be accelerated by Lincoln's address in Gettysburg 11 months later.
The proclamation was the subject of tumultuous debate inside the Lincoln administration. Lincoln had ignored many of the recommendations that Secretary of State William H. Seward had made for his first inaugural address, but he heeded the New Yorker in this case, and as a result asserted that the emancipation of the slaves would not merely be proclaimed but would also be maintained -- a subtle difference to the writer of the statement but an enormous difference to the beneficiaries of it.
Lincoln presided over a special Cabinet meeting that afternoon for a final discussion of the proclamation. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase of Ohio suggested the president add a "felicitous" conclusion, which took the form of Lincoln's invocation of "the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God."
Later that day Lincoln met with a group of abolitionist ministers from New York, nervous that Lincoln might back away at the last moment. The president gave no hint, saying only, "Tomorrow at noon, you shall know -- and the country shall know -- my decision."
Lincoln himself knew, of course, and yet he agonized all night. The country was bled dry, and yet the battles continued. Victory was elusive, yet the president could not -- he did not want to -- avoid the gesture that would give meaning to the bloodshed.
So the next day he did it. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper he was careful that his hand, numb and shaking from handshakes during his White House New Year's reception, was steady, lest anyone then or later read into his trembling signature any hint of "compunctions." And at that moment he said:
"I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper."
There was less certainty in the intellectual and legal gymnastics that led to the creation of West Virginia that New Year's Eve.
Dissident Virginians concentrated in the western part of the Old Dominion -- the part that looked up the rivers to Pittsburgh while much of the remainder looked down the railroads to Richmond and the Southern ports -- had long been uneasy about the state's secession and then its prominent role in the Confederacy.
The movement to separate the west of Virginia from the rest of the state was in part a latter-day version of the classic American fight about taxation and representation, an issue seemingly settled less than a century earlier. It was also a question of home rule. Many of the residents of what was called the up-country, not only in Virginia but in South Carolina and North Carolina as well, felt that the old colonial capitals didn't give fair hearing to the inland counties.
Lincoln was torn over the national implications of these local tensions. He abhorred secession -- that was, after all, the public cause of the war, which he was prosecuting as a struggle to salvage the Union -- and he was uneasy about embracing a new state under a principle he reviled.
Seward and Chase supported the move. Others in the Lincoln Cabinet, including Attorney General Edward Bates, resisted. But Lincoln knew of the military and symbolic importance of what was to become West Virginia.
"We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in Congress and in the field," he said. "Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials."
The president acknowledged the contradiction implicit in admitting a seceded state into a nation at war over the principle of secession. He took refuge in the argument that he could take action in time of war that would be forbidden in times of peace, arguing that the admission of West Virginia set no precedent.
"It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession," he said. "Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution and secession in favor of the Constitution."
On that remarkable New Year's Eve, great principals debated great principles, and the implications of their debates affect us a century and a half later.
The president's decision to embrace West Virginia statehood changed the map of the nation and the character of the region. "It resolved long-standing, simmering tensions and some outright conflict between the eastern and western parts of Virginia," said Aaron Sheehan-Dean, a West Virginia University historian who specializes in Civil War studies. "It reflected a fundamental division in the Old Dominion about economic development, the place of slavery in public life and the orientation of the state. And it put the leadership of the state in the hands of locals here."
But of even more importance is how that New Year's Eve positioned President Lincoln and, ultimately, the bloodied but unified nation that would emerge from the Civil War.
The pace and nature of Lincoln's conversion to abolitionism has long been debated by historians who have tried to reconcile some of his remarks about the relations between whites and blacks -- and his persistent view that race problems in the United States might best be resolved by shipping blacks to Africa -- with his support of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"It should not surprise us that Lincoln was no exception to his times," Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in an essay, adding: "[W]hat is exceptional about Abraham Lincoln is that, perhaps because of temperament or because of the shape-shifting contingencies of command during an agonizingly costly war, he wrestled with his contradictory feelings and ambivalences and vacillations about slavery, race and colonization, and did so quite publicly and often quite eloquently."
Much of that wrestling occurred 150 years ago tonight. Like Jacob of the Old Testament, Lincoln wrestled with an angel. "Let me go, for the day breaketh," said the angel in the story from Genesis. When the day broke in 1863, Lincoln's struggle was over, and in a way the nation's was as well, for Lincoln had determined to express the will of the better angels of us all.
First Published December 31, 2012 12:00 am