Documents

Thoughts on the Emancipation Proclamation (II)

This article by Marxist scholar George Novack, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party for decades, was written in 1963 as the civil rights movement was dismantling the Jim Crow system of segregation through the sustained mass action of Black working people and their allies. Almost 60 years later it remains relevant to today’s ongoing battles against racism as well as to understanding the vital history of the African American nationality and its indomitable battle for freedom and equality.

World-Outlook is publishing this essay as part of marking U.S. Independence Day this year. As Novack points out, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, a Radical Republican, urged Lincoln in 1862 to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on the Fourth of July because the most radical abolitionists wanted to destroy the slave power to fulfill the original democratic ideals of the Republic. Lincoln rejected the proposal and waited another six months before issuing the proclamation.

Novack does not look at the Emancipation Proclamation in isolation from the context in which it was issued. In fact, he refers to it as a “a pallid document” with “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Instead, he urges us to see it in its rightful place as the U.S. Civil War[1] was transformed from a contest Lincoln and others first waged to save the union into a genuine revolution that could only be won by ridding every inch of the United States of the horrors of chattel slavery.

Novack is focused on the emancipation of those who were enslaved, rather than the proclamation itself. “In retrospect,” as he explains, “it can be seen how emancipation advanced step by step as the Civil War developed, overcoming one obstacle after another.” He notes that despite the weaknesses of the document, “The proclamation gave official sanction to the Negro’s efforts to free themselves; it opened the Union armies to them.” This proved decisive in crushing the Confederacy and defeating the armies of the slavocracy.

More than one idea in this article will be of interest to those fighting racism today. Novack poses the question: “Will the mutual estrangement between the privileged white workers and the Negro movement, fostered by the divisive strategy of the rich, be everlasting?”

He answers this way: “It would be unrealistic to underestimate the vigilant, unremitting efforts it will take, to purge the poison of racial prejudice which capitalism has injected into the bloodstream of American life. Yet the day will dawn when the white workers must come to understand that discrimination is not only a crime against their colored brothers and unworthy of a democratic society but injurious and costly to their own welfare.”

Change along these lines was one outcome of the powerful movement to end Jim Crow. It was reflected most recently in the large numbers of working people and youth of all skin colors who joined the explosion of protest last summer, catalyzed by the horrific police murder of George Floyd. Further change can be expected as mass struggle continues and new layers of the population recognize the truth of Novack’s arguments.

As we have noted in republishing earlier articles from the 1950s and 1960s, aspects of the writing may seem dated or unclear today. References provided in the footnotes will lead readers to these earlier essays that are annotated with a few explanatory remarks addressing such questions of context. For example, the terms “Negro” or “colored” used in the article to refer to African Americans may sound anachronistic, or even offensive, if taken out of context. At the time this article was written, the terms were still commonly used among many Black people.

This essay was first published in 1963 in the International Socialist Review magazine under the title “Some Thoughts on the Emancipation Proclamation.” The text is taken from the online library “George Novack Internet Archive 2005.”[2]

Subheadings and footnotes are by World-Outlook.com. Because of its length, we are publishing this article in two parts, the second of which follows. The first can be found here.


By George Novack

During the first half of 1862 the anti-slavery forces conducted a relentless campaign to compel the President to change his course. The difficulties in handling the large numbers of slaves who ran away and sought refuge behind the Union lines and in the army camps, the need for more men and money to carry on the war, the desire to placate European liberal opinion made the old conciliatory policy less and less tenable.

Illustration of a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. Drawn by Thomas Nast, it appeared in the January 23, 1863, edition of Harper’s Weekly. Its center depicts a unified family of formerly enslaved people. Illustrations of the past are seen to their left. On their right are images of a hopeful future with paid wages and public education. Underneath the family is an illustration of Father Time who holds in his arms the New Year Baby striking off the chains of slavery. The defects of the document turned out to be far less significant than its issuance and consequences. 

The mounting impatience of the most energetic supporters of the Administration with its temporizing attitude toward the rebels was expressed in the open letter that the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, known as the Tom Paine of the Radicals, addressed to Lincoln on August 20, 1962. Headed “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” it demanded that the President liberate the slaves in both the secession and border states at once and turn to the Negroes for aid against the South.

To this Lincoln replied: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

Despite the restraint in this restatement of his guiding line, Lincoln had reached the point where he could no longer withstand the fierce pressure of emancipationist sentiment. He was losing popularity in the North and risking leadership of his own party. The powerful Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War controlled by the Radicals was insisting that the military deadlock could not be broken without the suppression of slavery.

Lincoln had made up his mind to take action by June 13, 1862, when he informed Seward and Welles, that the Union would be subdued if he did not free the slaves. The legal basis for his exercise of executive power had been laid by the Confiscation Act passed by Congress on July 6, 1862, for the unshackling of slaves belonging to the secessionists. On September 23, after Lee had been driven back at Antietam, Lincoln made a preliminary public announcement of emancipation. One hundred days later his definitive proclamation was issued. January 1, 1863, was the great Day of Jubilee for all friends of freedom.

Few nowadays have read the Emancipation Proclamation. Compared to the fiery Declaration of Independence, it is a pallid document. According to Professor Richard Hofstadter, “it has all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Lincoln did not present the edict as an affirmation of democratic principle but as “a fit and necessary war-measure.” It did not outlaw slavery as such or free any slaves.

It applied only to areas over which the Federal government exercised no control and specifically exempted all regions under Federal military occupation. In the scornful words of British Lord Russell: “It does no more than profess to emancipate slaves where the United States authorities cannot make emancipation a reality, and emancipates no one where the decree can be carried into effect.” In the text Lincoln took care to enjoin orderly behavior upon the Negroes and “recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”

Picket station of Black Union troops near Dutch Gap canal, in Dutch Gap, Virginia, November 1864. The Emancipation Proclamation signaled the decisive turning point when the Civil War was transfigured into a social revolution. The further course of the conflict was powered by the irresistible dynamism of its attack on the structure of slavery. The proclamation gave official sanction to the efforts by African Americans to free themselves; it opened the Union armies to them. From that time on every advance of the Union troops into the South became a step toward full emancipation. 

Slavery sentenced to death

But these defects of the document turned out to be far less significant than its issuance. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts rightly observed that the Emancipation Proclamation was “a poor document but a mighty act.” It signalized the decisive turning point when the Civil War was transfigured into a social revolution against the last of the pre-capitalist formations in the United States. The further course of the conflict was powered by the irresistible dynamism of its attack upon the structure of slavery.

The proclamation gave official sanction to the Negro’s efforts to free themselves; it opened the Union armies to them. From that time on every advance of the Union troops into the South became a step toward full emancipation. The sentence of death which the Emancipation Proclamation in effect passed upon the slave power was carried out in the subsequent stages of the Second American Revolution.

Referring to the problem of slavery, Lincoln truthfully remarked that circumstances controlled him more than he controlled circumstances. The Republican switch from the path of reform to the highroad of revolution, from the expectation of negotiating a deal with the deposed slaveholders to their extirpation, from the shielding of slavery to its suppression is a remarkable example from our history of how the exigencies of a life-and-death struggle can transform people, policies and parties.

The necessities of waging a war to the hilt against the Confederacy compelled the Republicans to depart from the restricted perspectives of their original platform and enforce the most far-reaching anti-slavery measures which they previously opposed. The ascending revolution propelled the people of the North to ideas and positions advocated until then only by a tiny, isolated minority. The Abolitionists, who had made emancipation their war-cry long before secession, anticipated the march of events and the needs of national progress far better than the “realistic” and opportunistic professional bourgeois politicians.

In retrospect, it can be seen how emancipation advanced step by step as the Civil War developed, overcoming one obstacle after another. The Republicans abolished slavery in the District of Columbia in April 1862; they fulfilled their campaign pledge to forbid slavery forever in the territories the following June; Lincoln opened the flood gates with his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. When the Radical machine went into high gear, it put over the most revolutionary solution of confiscating slave property without compensation and enacting the 13th Amendment. So a mighty revolutionary shakeup revolutionizes the mentality and politics of its participants and leaders.

Today Kennedy occupies the White House tenanted by Lincoln a century ago. The President has condemned the Fidelistas because they did not confine their actions to the pronouncements of the original national-democratic, humanistic platform, but went on to take socialist measures. He refuses to see that, in order to realize their democratic objectives and carry out their pledges to the poor, the honest and courageous Cuban revolutionaries had to go far beyond their initial intentions.

Cuban Revolution found good precedent in U.S. history

The leaders of the Cuban Revolution had good precedent for this in American history. They acted no differently than the heads of the Second American Revolution who discovered that they could not preserve the Union, defend democracy, and clear the way for national progress without dispossessing the counterrevolutionary slaveholders.

The Republicans who started out as reformers became converted by force of circumstances and much to their surprise into bourgeois-democratic revolutionists. The Fidelistas, who began as bourgeois-democratic rebels, have ended up as socialist revolutionists. The Cubans of the 1960s took up where the American revolutionists of the 1860s left off. After all, the Castro regime, which Kennedy is so intent on destroying, has uprooted racial discrimination in Cuba.

Cuban peasants sign Second Declaration of Havana, February 4, 1962. The declaration marked the development of the Cuban Revolution from its democratic to its socialist stage. In the United States, “The Republicans who started out as reformers became converted by force of circumstances and much to their surprise into bourgeois-democratic revolutionists,” Novack wrote in 1963. “The Fidelistas, who began as bourgeois-democratic rebels, have ended up as socialist revolutionists. The Cubans of the 1960s took up where the American revolutionists of the 1860s left off.” They quickly took steps aimed at genuinely uprooting racism.

This is well worth noting on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead of blaming Castro for transgressing the limited aims of the July 26th Movement in its infancy, Kennedy’s propagandists and historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., might better direct attention to the following questions closer to home: Why didn’t the President’s predecessors of Civil War days succeed in eliminating Jim Crow and why must Negroes still be fighting today to acquire the status of full citizenship?

Enlightenment on these points can be obtained through understanding the motives and aims of the ruling capitalist class in its progressive and in its reactionary phases of development. It took four years of civil war and twelve years of military occupation of the South before the Northern statesmen felt securely entrenched at the summits of power. So long as they feared a political comeback by their traditional adversary, the Republican bourgeoisie had to make substantial concessions to keep the allegiance of the farmers and Negroes.

At each turn of events from 1861 to 1876 their conduct was primarily shaped, not by consideration for the needs of the common people and still less for the claims of the four million Negroes, but by the shifting requirements of their drive for unchallenged supremacy. After the Confederacy had surrendered and the slaves were freed, the problem of remolding the cotton kingdom came to the fore. Was the South to be democratized by transferring control to the emancipated black and the poorer whites—or would a new oligarchy take the place of the subjugated slavocracy?

This issue was fought out during the Reconstruction[3] period. In the first years after 1865 two contending programs were put forward for handling the South.

Lincoln’s successor, President Johnson, sought to restore order as quickly as possible and keep the Negroes subjected by enforcing the Black Codes, denying them the vote, and restricting changes in social relations to the minimum. The Radicals, backed by the Abolitionists and Negroes, set out to complete the demolition of the planting aristocracy. To forestall any resurgence of the unregenerate rebels, the aggressive agents of Northern business and banking found it expedient to give the Negroes the vote and sustain by military force the reconstructed state governments established and administered by opponents of the old order. These introduced many worthwhile innovations in education, taxation, the criminal codes and other domains.

As in all modern revolutions in backward areas, agrarian reform was the most burning need of Southern society. Here the Republican administration defaulted. In some places the ex-slaves seized the plantations, worked them for their own account, defended them arms in hand. Generally, they expected that a generous Federal government would give them “forty acres and a mule.” They waited in vain.

Land confiscation ‘mere naked justice to former slave’

“Confiscation is mere naked justice to the former slave,” declared Wendell Phillips. “Who brought the land into cultivation? Whose sweat and toil are mixed with it forever? Who cleared the forests? Who made the roads? Whose hands raised those houses? Whose wages are invested in those warehouses and towns? Of course, the Negro’s . . . Why should he not have a share of his inheritance?”

African Americans working confiscated land in the South after the Civil War. “Confiscation is mere naked justice to the former slave,” declared Abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips. “Who brought the land into cultivation? Whose sweat and toil are mixed with it forever? Who cleared the forests? Who made the roads? Whose hands raised those houses? Whose wages are invested in those warehouses and towns? Of course, the Negro’s . . . Why should he not have a share of his inheritance?”

Bust the representatives of the rich in Washington refused to hand over this rightful inheritance by providing the masses of freedmen with the material means for economic independence: land, livestock, seeds, cheap credit and other essentials for raising crops. Consequently, the four million landless, helpless agrarian laborers, fell back into servitude in new forms to the merchants, money lenders and landowners.

In a few years this economic dependence led to the loss of their civil rights and political power as well. In the showdown the Republican bourgeoisie had confiscated four billion dollars-worth of slave property since that kind of investment was unsuited to their own mode of exploitation.

They were happy to transfer title to the Western territories belonging to the Federal government to homesteaders, railroad, mining and lumbering corporations, because this brought profit to their enterprises. But it was pushing social revolution too far for these moneyed men to expropriate landed property in the settled South. That would not only set too dangerous an example of confiscation but might endow the small cultivators of the soil with too much potential political weight.

After using the freedmen and the poorer whites to hold the ex-Confederates down, the Northern capitalists left them in the lurch. They turned away while the Ku Klux bands instituted a reign of terror, deprived the Negroes of their gains, and drove them back into oppression.

Finally, in the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican and Democratic chiefs sealed a bargain by which white supremacy was re-legalized in the South in return for a continuance of Republican rule in Washington. The Robber Barons of industry and finance, assured of a divided and destitute working population and a plentiful supply of cheap agricultural labor in the South, then proceeded to harvest and enjoy the golden fruits of their victory.1

The Reconstruction period was the final chapter in the Second American Revolution. Its tragic outcome is pertinent to the Negro struggle today. It demonstrated that the capitalist rulers at the peak of their revolutionary vigor would not accord full and enduring equality to the Negroes nor even permit the freedmen to keep the rights they had won in bloody combat. Will their present-day descendants be more inclined to grant genuine integration a century later when they have become the mainstay of the anti-democratic, pro-colonialist, and anti-socialist forces in the world?

Alliances in the fight for freedom

The experience of the Civil War is instructive on both the positive and the negative sides of the problem of alliances in the fight for freedom. The coalition between the Republican bourgeoisie and the small farmers with the Negroes took time to cement and become effective. But it pulverized the slave system, struck off the shackles of chattel slavery, and protected the most democratic and progressive regimes the Southern Negroes have known to this day. With the relationship of forces in the country at that time, these accomplishments could not have been made in any other way.

After advancing the cause of Negro liberation, the upper-class Republicans broke the alliance and conspired to thrust the freedmen back into bondage. They became anti-Negro, anti-democratic, anti-labor, not because they were white, but because they were capitalist profiteers bent on their own aggrandizement.

It would be wrong to conclude from this betrayal—and those which have occurred since—that the Negroes are predestined to travel the rest of freedom’s road alone. They remain a minority in this country which they have helped create and make great. To attain the objectives they seek and overcome the enemies of equality, they can use reliable and strong allies. Where are these to be found within our borders?

It is becoming widely recognized that the “liberals” in both the white and the colored communities, who deprecate direct action and pin their hopes on the powers-that-be, are untrustworthy allies and even worse leaders. This is all to the good, since those who look to the beneficiaries of discrimination to end it serve to weaken and derail the struggle against the Jim Crow system.

At the same time many of the best fighters for Negro emancipation have lost all faith in the capacity of the white workers to aid their struggle and have totally cancelled them out as possible allies. It cannot be denied that organized labor, and especially its leaders, have given ample grounds for this mistrust.

The Negro militants are completely justified in going ahead, as they are doing, to direct their independent actions against discrimination. This same spirit of self-reliance was evidenced by the slave insurrectionists, the runaway slaves, the Negro Abolitionists, the delegates to the Colored People’s Conventions, the freedmen who seized their master’s plantations and armed themselves against the resurgent white supremacists.

Will ‘white privilege’ be everlasting?

Will the mutual estrangement between the privileged white workers and the Negro movement, fostered by the divisive strategy of the rich, be everlasting? The Civil War showed what radical reversals and realignments can come about in the course of a life-and-death struggle. We are far from such a situation in the United States now. But the increasingly militant temper of the movement for racial equality does mark the beginning of a deep-going change in American life and politics which has revolutionary implications.

Protest against racist cop brutality, White Center, Washington, June 2020. “It would be unrealistic to underestimate the vigilant, unremitting efforts it will take to purge the poison of racial prejudice which capitalism has injected into the bloodstream of American life,” wrote Novack in 1963. “Yet the day will dawn when the white workers must come to understand that discrimination is not only a crime against their colored brothers and unworthy of a democratic society but injurious and costly to their own welfare.” Outpouring of protest last year by people of all skin colors showed progress in this direction. (Photo: Geoff Mirelowitz / World-Outlook)

Even at this stage the government has trouble coping with the Negro problem. It will become still more disturbed as the anti-discrimination struggle batters at other parts of the Jim Crow system, North and South.

At some point along the way the reactionary anti-labor policies of Big Business will also shake up the mass of workers and bring them into opposition to the administration. Both segments of the American people would then find themselves arrayed against a common foe. It is an old adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

However hesitatingly and slowly, these converging anti-monopolist forces will have to seek points of contact and mutual support. In the course of practical collaboration, each will have to readjust their relations and revise their opinions of the qualities of the other. As has happened in many union battles—and in the battle for the Union—prejudices will be burned away and new alliances forged in the fires of joint combat.

Just as the Republicans of 1860 underwent a profound transformation and decreed the liberation of the slaves in 1863, despite their earlier indifference, so the participants in a new revolutionary movement would have to recognize even sooner the necessity of achieving solidarity through complete equality. This time, forewarned and forearmed, the Negroes will not be satisfied until that is won.

It would be unrealistic to underestimate the vigilant, unremitting efforts it will take to purge the poison of racial prejudice which capitalism has injected into the bloodstream of American life. Yet the day will dawn when the white workers must come to understand that discrimination is not only a crime against their colored brothers and unworthy of a democratic society but injurious and costly to their own welfare. The emancipation proclaimed in the Second American Revolution will be realized for black and white alike in the “new birth of freedom” which a socialist America will bring.


ENDNOTES

[1] For a concise introduction to the U.S. Civil War see The U.S. Civil War: Its Place in History, also by George Novack, recently published on World-Outlook.com in three parts: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

[2] Written: 1963. First Published: International Socialist Review, Spring 1963, Volume 24, No. 24, pages 35-40. Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido. HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters. Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005. This work is completely free: https://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/works/1963/x02.htm

[3] For a concise introduction to the post-Civil War Reconstruction, see Two Lessons of Radical Reconstruction, also by George Novack, recently published on World-Outlook.com in two parts: Part I and Part II.


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