01/08/2013 11:30 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

The Rhetorical Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation

As we celebrate the 150th year of the Emancipation Proclamation, historian Kidada Williams reminds us that as we celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the document, we should examine what the emancipation did and did not do. Williams notes that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a military strategy for winning the war against the Confederate rebellion and it did not free all enslaved people.

While in her essay she touched on the mixed reactions to the emancipation, for black people during the time, and despite its limitations, the emancipation already had a place alongside the other important national documents (ie. the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc). African-Americans saw the emancipation as a liberative document -- one ordained by God, and one that continued America's freedom and liberty experiment to finally include African-Americans. While the document was a military order and did not free all enslaved people, we should not underestimate the rhetorical meaning of the emancipation and how African-Americans adopted uses of its meanings. It allowed many of them to begin imagining a new America where all its people could enjoy the freedoms that many proclaimed. One such figure that the emancipation inspired was Henry McNeal Turner.

Turner did not start as a supporter of Lincoln's earlier efforts at emancipation. He vigorously attacked Lincoln's "Message to Congress Recommending Compensated Emancipation," in March 1862, in which Lincoln offered cooperation with any state, which adopted gradual abolishment of slavery and promoted a "giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system." Turner wrote:

A great many here have been blinded and made to believe that it portends hope for a brighter day; but I look at it as one of the most ingenious subterfuges, to pacify the humane and philanthropic hearts of the country, that was ever produced (20).

After Lincoln announced the emancipation, Turner's views changed. While there were some African-Americans who questioned the motives of Lincoln regarding the emancipation, Turner did not. Turner wrote a response to the emancipation where he defended Lincoln. He wrote, "Mr. Lincoln embodied his conscientious promptings when he wrote that proclamation." While he acknowledged the political situation that possibility led Lincoln to write the proclamation, he saw Lincoln's early apathy at emancipation as an "unnecessary caution, and a useless prudence," but not as others saw as a "love of slavery." He closed by exhorting people to thank God for it (proclamation) because "Mr. Lincoln loves freedom as well as anyone on earth, and if he carries out the spirit of the proclamation he need never fear hell. God grant him a high seat in glory (111-112)."

To understand the importance however, of the emancipation to African-Americans who witnessed and lived through it, one only have to examine Turner's appreciation of it later in his life. In 1913, African-Americans celebrated the 50th year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In response to the celebration, the AME church asked then Bishop Henry McNeal Turner to write a reflection on the meaning of the emancipation. However, the selection of Turner was not without problems. At this time, Turner shifted from one filled with optimism after the signing of the emancipation to one that believed America did not hold any promises for African-Americans. Turner found himself out of the mainstream of both American and African-American political and social thought.

While this seemed to be another opportunity for Turner to rain down bitter anathemas and criticize the country for not living up to the ideals and principles after the emancipation, Turner offered an eloquent, moving reflection of the time. Published in the January 1913 edition of the AME Journal, Turner's "Reminiscences of the Proclamation of Emancipation," reminded many not only of his legacy and his importance to the AME Church, but also it introduced Turner to a new audience -- one that only knew him as a pessimistic prophet.

About the issuing of the emancipation, Turner wrote, "The newspapers of the country were prolific and unsparing in the laudations of Mr. Lincoln. Every orator after reviewing in their richest eloquence concluded their speeches and orations by saying, "God save Abraham Lincoln," or "God bless our president."

"In the great Union Cooper Hall in New York City," Turner continued, "a colored man leaped and jumped with so much agility when the proclamation was read that he drew attention of every man and woman till Mr. Lincoln's proclamation was scarcely listened to. New songs were sung and new poems composed... On the first day of January 1863, odd and unique condition attended every mass meeting and the papers of the following day were not able to give them in anything like detail."

Turner also shared how he went by getting a copy of the emancipation. In a humorous story, Turner wrote:

I hurriedly went up to the office of the first paper in which the proclamation of freedom could be printed, known as the 'Evening Star,' and squeezed myself through the dense crowd that was waiting for the paper. The first sheet run off with the proclamation in it was grabbed for by three of us, but some active young man got possession of it and fled. The next sheet was grabbed for by several, and was torn into tatters. The third sheet from the press was grabbed for by several, but I succeeded in procuring so much of it as contained the proclamation, and off I went for life and death. Down Pennsylvania Ave. I ran as for my life, and when the people saw me coming with the paper in my hand they raised a shouting cheer that was almost deafening. As many as could get around me lifted me to a great platform, and I started to read the proclamation. I had run the best end of a mile, I was out of breath, and could not read. Mr. Hinton, to whom I handed the paper, read it with great force and clearness.

When the people heard the proclamation read aloud Turner wrote:

Every kind of demonstration and gesticulation was going on. Men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and colored people shook hands, songs were sung... every face had a smile, and even the dumb animals seemed to realize that some extraordinary event had taken place... Rumor said that in several instances the very thought of being set at liberty and having no more auction blocks, no more separation of parents and children, no more horrors of slavery, was so elative and heart gladdening that scores of colored people literally fell dead with joy.

Turner closed his essay with these words:

It was indeed a time of times, and a half time, nothing like it will ever be seen again in this life. Our entrance into Heaven itself will only form a counterpart. January 1st, 1913, will be fifty years since Mr. Lincoln's proclamation stirred the world and avalanched America with joy, and the first day of next January, 1913, our race should fill every Church, every hall, and every preacher regardless of denomination should deliver a speech on the results of the proclamation.

Hyperbole aside, Turner's "Reminiscence of the Emancipation" spoke to what he truly longed for in America for African-Americans -- a chance to be free and to be part of the American fabric. Despite his bitterness toward the country during this time, Turner could still reflect back on a time that America could have headed into another direction with the emancipation leading the way.

Works Cited:
Johnson, Andre E. (ed). An African-American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner, Vol. 1. Edwin Mellen Press, New York, 2010.