The Emancipation Proclamation and the 'Right to Rise'
Liberty of all kinds, Abraham Lincoln believed, began with economic freedom.
By DAVID VON DREHLE
Jan. 1, 2013, marks 150 years since Abraham Lincoln climbed the White House stairs to his office after greeting hundreds of visitors at the traditional New Year's Day open house. His right arm cramped from hours of handshaking, he worried what people might think if his penmanship wavered as he inscribed one of the most important signatures in American history.
"The signature looks a little tremulous, for my hand was tired," he acknowledged as the ink dried on the Emancipation Proclamation, "but my resolution was firm."
The motives behind that resolution continue to generate arguments to this day. Though his views on race were more humane and enlightened than those of most Americans in the mid-19th century, Lincoln harbored scant hope that whites and blacks could live happily in an integrated society.
"You and we are different races," he told a group of Washington's black leaders during a meeting on Aug. 14, 1862. This difference, he asserted, was the cause of the Civil War: "But for your race among us, there could not be war." With that introduction, he proposed that his guests lead a mass exodus of freed blacks to distant colonies, leaving America to the whites.
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of many readers down the generations appalled by these remarks. Yet he testified that Lincoln was admirably unprejudiced on a personal level. "He treated me as a man; he did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skins."
Lincoln's determination to resist, and finally to defeat, the slave system wasn't based on ideas of racial equality, however, or on abstract ideals of human dignity. It was grounded in his belief that liberty of all kinds begins with economic freedom.
He came by this belief the hard way. Lincoln entered the world on a chilly Sunday in 1809, but he might as well have been born a thousand years earlier. The hut on a Kentucky hillside was dark and drafty. The baby was washed in water hauled from a dripping spring, wrapped in animal hides, and put to bed on dried husks over a mud floor. Such poverty is a sort of prison, and Lincoln came to understand that economic freedom is the most reliable key.
His own liberty to leave his father's farm, to educate himself, to marry and start a family, to enter politics—everything Lincoln was free to accomplish in his remarkable life began with the freedom to seize economic opportunities. In a famous address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Lincoln described this process of liberation:
"The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all." Freedom to all, he might have added.
Gabor Boritt, emeritus professor of history at Gettysburg College and a leading authority on the 16th president, has called this cornerstone of Lincoln's philosophy "the right to rise," and it was profoundly incompatible with slavery. Bondage broke the link between work and prosperity. It dictated that certain people would always be poor while others would always be rich, not because of their efforts, but because of their parentage.
Replying to Stephen A. Douglas's race-baiting during their famous debates, Lincoln defended the principle of economic freedom even in the absence of social equality. "I agree with Judge Douglas that the Negro is not my equal in many respects," he began. "But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man."
The slave wasn't the only one whose liberty was at stake. Lincoln believed that no one, regardless of race, could be confident of any freedom in a society that wasn't grounded in economic liberty. After reading the influential George Fitzhugh's proslavery book "Sociology for the South," Lincoln lasered in on the danger of any system that rations opportunity. If the supposedly superior white race could enslave blacks, what was to stop any man from making a slave of any other who happened to be a bit slower, or a bit darker-skinned, or somehow different in any imagined or observable way?
The Emancipation Proclamation—like the 13th Amendment, which is the subject of Steven Spielberg's stirring film "Lincoln"—wasn't an exercise in empathy, nor was it a gift that Lincoln magnanimously granted. It was a necessary step to preserve the liberty of all Americans.
"In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free," he told Congress on Dec. 1, 1862, shortly before he affixed his shaky signature to the Emancipation Proclamation. With the principle of economic freedom in the balance, Lincoln's only alternative to keeping his resolve would have been to throw away the key to the prison of poverty. By issuing the proclamation on that proud New Year's Day, he transformed a terrible war into a new crusade for liberty and gave to his people the chance to "nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth."
Mr. Von Drehle, an editor-at-large for Time magazine, is author of "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year" (Henry Holt, 2012).