Abraham Lincoln's birthday today returns the man to our thoughts once again, this man known as the Great Emancipator. Historians unanimously identify him as our greatest president.
"Why was he great?" the question recurs.
The frequent answer is, "He freed the slaves"
Yet his detractors say the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves. It applied only to Confederate states, where Lincoln had no authority. Had the South respected his decree, we would have had the irony of slavery in some Northern states, such as Maryland, loyal to the Union, but no slaves in the South.
Indeed, Lincoln was the death knell to slavery and freed the slaves by deeds as well as words. Lincoln believed, and the U.S. Supreme Court held, that the Constitution protected slavery in states where it existed and that neither he nor Congress could change it. Not so in the vast federal territories. The new states could be admitted on conditions Congress specified. Because of Lincoln's opposition to slavery's expansion, the Confederacy was formed, war ensued and all slaves were liberated.
Lincoln's priority was preservation of the Union. Like President George Bush, who said, "Read my lips, no new taxes," before the election and then raised taxes after the election, Lincoln, too, could have reversed his campaign rhetoric and not stood in the way of slavery expansion. As much as he wanted to avoid war, he held firm to his belief that slavery was a monstrous injustice. Thus, the Civil War ensued, and 600,000 men died on the battlefield.
The Emancipation Proclamation, though, was more than symbolism. It told the South that Lincoln's war aims were no longer limited to preservation of the Union. The war aims then included total abolition of slavery, which would mean the destruction of the South's economic base.
How could he justify emancipation in the middle of the war when he felt that it was protected constitutionally before the war?
During war, the president has authority he doesn't have in peacetime. Lincoln exercised his war powers, declaring slaves to be free, as a weapon to win the war. Finally, he sponsored and advocated in Congress the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. It passed during his presidency and was ratified by the states after his death.
When the nation was falling apart, Lincoln saved it. Our Founding Fathers drafted a flawed Constitution; Lincoln fixed it. He saved our republic and gave us a new birth of freedom the way the Declaration of Independence intended it to be.
What else did he give to earn the title of Great Emancipator? He gave "the last full measure of devotion." John Wilkes Boothe killed Lincoln for no other reason than Lincoln destroyed slavery.
In his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln set the stage for reconciliation with these words revered by some historians as highly as the Gettysburg Address:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
By Russell Troutman
The Orlando Sentinel
Thu. February 12, 1998