09/14/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

Countdown to Emancipation and the End of Slavery in the United States

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, following a summer of discussion in his cabinet, intense pressure from abolitionists including Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, and a major Union military victory at Antietam, issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It announced that unless hostilities ceased, enslaved Africans held in rebel states would be declared free on January 1, 1863. The final document also called for the formation of black military units among the Union forces and an estimated 200,000 Black men and women answered the call.

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library, is hosting a four-day exhibition of Abraham Lincoln's handwritten draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from the New York State Library and the Official Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from the National Archives. The center is located at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard and 135th Street in Manhattan. Admission is free but online reservations are required.

Lost in preparation for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in the United States are the narrow limitations on freedom written into both documents and the sharp debate over the proposal at the time. It included nasty attacks on Lincoln and blacks by prominent New York State politicians including the Democratic Party candidate for governor, Horatio Seymour, who was elected in 1862 in an outpouring of anti-war sentiment.

In the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation issued on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln made recommendations that would be considered anathema today. He announced that he would seek authorization from Congress to provide "pecuniary aid" to slave states that voluntarily manumitted enslaved Africans either gradually or immediately, but he did not propose any financial reparations to a people who had been held in bondage for 300 years. Under this military decree, not only was slavery allowed to continue in slave-holding border states, but enslaved Africans escaping from bondage would be returned to the people who claimed to own them if "the person claiming said fugitive shall first make oath that the person to whom the labor or service of such fugitive is alleged to be due is his lawful owner, and has not borne arms against the United States in the present rebellion." In addition, "all citizens of the United States who shall have remained loyal" would be "compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves." Lincoln also pledged to continue efforts "to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere."

Horatio Seymour and prominent Democrats could not stomach even this limited approach. In his speech accepting the gubernatorial nomination of the New York State Democratic Party in Albany on September 10, 1862, Seymour accused the president and his supporters of being "fanatical men" and had warned against a general emancipation because it would punish the border states that had been loyal to the Union. In a statement tinged with virulent racism, he denounced recruiting formerly enslaved Africans into the military because the "general arming of the slaves throughout the South is a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine; of arson and murder unparalleled in the history of the world." He claimed what would happen would make the "horrors of the French Revolution" seem "tame in comparison" with a "wide spread scene of horror over the vast, expanse of great States, involving alike the loyal and seditious." Seymour argued, "such malignity and cowardice invoke the interference of civilized Europe" in American affairs.

Seymour also claimed, "a proclamation of general and armed emancipation at this time, would be a cruel wrong to the African" as well because "the negro cannot live in the enjoyment of the full privileges of life among the white race." For Seymour, the problem facing the nation was not slavery but "negro question... growing out of the unchangeable distinction of race." He picked up on Lincoln's belief in colonization and charged that while "the South holds that the African is fit to live here as a slave," Lincoln and "our Republican Government denies that he is fit to live here at all."

As we prepare to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the expansion of freedom in the United States, it is important to remember that everybody, including some of our most prominent and honored Americans, did not believe in human equality and rights for all. These are ideas that Americans must continually fight to protect and extend.

As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. told the audience at the New York Civil War Centennial Commission's Emancipation Proclamation Observance in New York City in September 1962, "There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation."