One hundred forty-nine years ago, Abraham Lincoln met with his cabinet to explain that he was about to release a presidential proclamation that would turn their world upside down. The Emancipation Proclamation would unilaterally, and without compensation, free every slave held within the territory of the rebel Confederate States, and pledge the U.S. military to assist any of those slaves in achieving their “actual freedom.” It would be, he predicted, “the central act of my administration.”
Lincoln had been sending frequent signals that he was contemplating such a measure, so the substance of the proclamation came as no surprise. It was the method that was new. With the gloom of a failing war hanging over his head, Lincoln cast emancipation in the form of a “war powers” proclamation, issued on the strength of his constitutional designation (in Article 2, section 2) as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States.”
The chief legal problem was that, in 1862, no one really knew what it meant to be a “Commander-in-Chief,” much less whether any “war powers” came with the job. And then there was the consideration raised by Secretary of State William H. Seward: What would a military proclamation of emancipation look like when the president’s military forces were at that moment reeling from defeat to defeat? Wait, he counseled, until the military victory has been won, and then send the proclamation forth from strength rather than from weakness.
Two months later, Lincoln had the victory Seward wanted, as the Union army pounded Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces into retreat at Antietam, on Sept. 17, 1862, and so Lincoln prepared to release the proclamation. But Lincoln had something more to add. As he told his astonished cabinet, he had made a vow “to my Maker” that if the rebel army was beaten and “driven out,” he would send the proclamation after them, “and I am going to fulfil that promise.”
Abraham Lincoln was not normally a very self-revealing sort, especially on the subject of religion. But now, in what remains the most socially revolutionary document written by any American president, Lincoln threw aside his self-imposed restraint and proceeded to justify his proclamation and the freedom it bestowed on 3.9 million black slaves in terms of a private covenant he had made with God.
It is a peculiar moment — this uncommonly private man with so little personal religion of his own, presiding over a secular and enlightened democracy, and yet appealing to “the favor of Almighty God” as the rationale for what he called “the great event of the nineteenth century.”
But Abraham Lincoln was certainly no holy fool. In Lincoln, and in the Emancipation Proclamation, there is the glimmering of a fundamental truth at the bedrock of the American experience — that the scaffolding of our democratic politics may be religionless, and free from the fear of the likeliest forms of intolerance, but at the same time, the entire system is infused with a religious sensitivity to issues of right and wrong. A purely religious government becomes the theocracy of the mullahs; a purely secular democracy becomes the insipid play toy of power. The American experiment would be neither.
In this greatest of presidential state papers, Abraham Lincoln captured both the scaffolding and the spirit. The result was freedom.