One hundred and fifty years ago, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Initially drafted and circulated several months earlier, the executive order declared “that all persons held as slaves” in those states under Confederate control “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Though now considered a watershed document, the proclamation was contentious at the time. The following letter, sent by an anonymous African Canadian to Globe founder George Brown, sheds light on the mood in Canada. Published on October 8, 1862, it was reprinted in the American abolitionist press.
Sir,—I have read with much satisfaction your recent articles on the emancipation of slaves in the United States; they were in direct contrast and a just rebuke to that pro-slavery sheet the Leader. It out-herods Herod in its love and praise for the man-stealer, and his hellish institution. The coloured man, as well as every member of the human family, has much cause to rejoice that we have here such an advocate of the rights of man, without distinction of colour; one that is not dependent upon the blood-stained money of a few slaveholders and their sympathizers to keep up his circulation, but rises above low prejudice and pecuniary consideration to take up the cause of the oppressed. And, Sir, when the history of this rebellion is written, the Globe will hold a prominent place in that galaxy of stars which shall be noted for their advocacy of freedom to all men. The Leader has all his sympathy laid up in store for the Slaveocrat, who has grown fat, rich and arrogant upon the bones, blood and muscles of human beings, and deals it out with a profusion that knows no bounds; but he has none for the poor defenceless slave, who has been cut, slashed, burnt, and outraged in all manner of ways, his flesh been torn by bloodhounds, his daughters prostituted, his wife and children sold away thousands of miles from him, and the sleeping babe of his wife stolen from the cradle while its mother is absent on her daily duties.
Tracking human trafficking
The branding of slaves in America was no longer routine by the early eighteenth century, but anti-trafficking activists say the practice persists in a contemporary, streetwise form: the tattoo. Kimberly Ritter, a conference planner from St. Louis, combs online escort ads, scrutinizing photos for such decor details as curtains and pillows in an effort to locate underage sex slaves and alert the hotels that unwittingly host them. She then instructs hotel staff to look closely at the girls coming into their establishments. Neck tattoos are a telltale sign. Among the more common labels: “Daddy’s girl” or “Daddy’s princess,” bar codes, and graffiti-like images that are immediately recognizable to traffickers. “What it shows is ownership,” says Ritter, “that some other pimp owns that girl or that child.”
The Leader pretended some time since that, if the North was fighting for the freedom of the slave, he and the people of Canada could sympathize with her; but as soon as Congress passed the Confiscation Act, to liberate the slaves of the rebels, he laboured with all his might to prove it to be barbarous and unconstitutional. And when President Lincoln performs the crowning act of his administration, and issues his proclamation of emancipation, for which millions of hearts all over the world will beat in thanksgiving to God, the Leader, true to his instincts, commences to hurl his epithets against him and his proclamation.
It seems the Leader fears that emancipation will cause an influx of free coloured people into Canada. Nothing can be more erroneous. On the contrary, it will be the best thing that could be done to prevent an influx either into the North or Canada. And I think any one who asserts that the slaves will, when free, desert the places of their nativity in the Sunny South, and come to this cold and inhospitable climate, where they will be subject to the diseases incidental to it, and from which they enjoy perfect immunity there, to say nothing of the cold-hearted and cruel prejudice exhibited towards them here by certain evil-disposed persons, must either be a fool or a knave. But suppose, Mr. Editor, for argument’s sake, a few thousands of those stout fellows, with whom John Mitchell, the convict, wished to have a plantation down South well stocked, and who have made the South what it has been by the sweat of their brow, who have kept the Lancashire looms going so long, the stoppage of whose productions are now dealing such a heavy blow to Britain, and reducing her operatives to famine and beggary, were to settle upon some of our rich lands not now under cultivation, and make them to yield their natural productions so as to increase their value, what objection could there be to it? For the country is certainly in want of labourers, and it cannot be said that we have not good farmers amongst us; for it is proverbial that some of the best farms in Western Canada are owned by coloured men, and some, too, that they have bought from white men who had failed to succeed, and were obliged to sell out themselves, to prevent the sheriff from doing it for them.
It cannot be disguised, Mr. Editor, that both the North and South are getting well scourged for their oppression of the coloured man; and Canada may now learn a lesson from which she should profit, rather than take a retrograde movement to oppress the poor and helpless. And let her not forget the words of Thomas Jefferson who said, when I remember that God is just, I tremble for my country. But, says the Leader, you are better off as slaves than if you were free. Well, if slavery is such a benign institution, let him and his coadjutors make a trial of it, and as old uncle Abe is going to deprive the black race of its great blessings and benefits, they will have a good chance of monopolizing it.…
In conclusion, Mr. Editor, I have to express to you, what I am satisfied every intelligent coloured person feels, gratitude for your noble and manly advocacy of our cause, with a wish that God may speed you in the work of imbuing in the minds of the people pure principles of liberty and equality to all men.
I remain, dear Sir,
Your humble servant,
One of the Sons of Ham
Toronto, October 2, 1862
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Published by the Globe. Reprinted by the Cleveland Morning Leader on December 11, 1862
The Northern people desire to conquer the South, and no one who looks dispassionately at the matter can fail to see the advantages of emancipation as a means to that end. Democratic prejudices are opposed to its employment. The feelings engendered by a lifetime of doughfaceism are not to be eradicated in one year or two. But emancipation will, we venture to predict, grow in favour every hour, until it will include almost the whole Northern people, Democrats as well as Republicans, among its supporters. It has seen its worst days. It will prevent European intervention. It will open a fire in the rear of the slave oligarchy at Richmond which they cannot withstand. It will add thousands of contrabands to the Northern ranks, and give millions of earnest and hearty, though uneducated supporters of Northern rule in a country in which they can at present only count their friends by thousands. Let Mr. Lincoln but persevere in his policy, and not only will he be supported by his own countryman, but men of all nations will honor him, and his name will be handed down to posterity as one of the greatest benefactors of the human race is [sic] this or any other age.
Published by the Globe on January 3, 1863
President Lincoln has kept his word. On New Year’s Day he issued his proclamation, declaring to be then, henceforth, and forever free, all persons held as slaves within the rebel States. The war is now, therefore, on the part of the North, not a war for the Union merely, but is distinctly and avowedly a war of emancipation. From the very outset, we have never had a moment’s doubt that the cause of the North was the cause of freedom. It was in order to perpetuate slavery that the Southern States had gone into rebellion. They feared that some day it would fall before the enlightened public sentiment of the North, if North and South continued one nation. They thought that be dissolving the alliance, they could save their human property, and they set about establishing an independent Confederacy, of which slavery, as they themselves declared, should be the chief corner-stone. They had not fully reckoned on the increased danger to which the institution would be exposed, in the event of their secession being treated as a rebellion to be put down by force of arms. Yet it might easily have been foreseen that the North could not long make war on the rebellion, and continue at the same time to treat with sacred respect the accursed institution in which it had its origin. And more than this, it did not require very much sagacity to perceive, that the more stubborn the resistance on the part of the South, and the greater the effort needed to put it down, the more overwhelming would be the ruin in which the “peculiar institution” of the South would be involved, in the event of the North ultimately proving successful. It was hardly to be expected that, at the commencement of the war, the abolition of slavery would be proclaimed. Some time was required to free the Northern mind from the trammels which had fettered it, while the haughty slaveocracy ruled at Washington. But slowly and surely the process went on. The march of events accustomed men to see a natural connection between the success of the Federal armies and the giving of freedom to the slaves. And now, at last, President Lincoln has struck the nail squarely on the head, by declaring free all persons held as slaves in rebel territories. The friends of freedom throughout the world will applaud the act, and will pray God to bless it and grant it complete success.
It has been shown by the discussions which the anticipated issue of the proclamation has called forth, that there will be some who will cavil at it. They say it does not go far enough; the President should have proclaimed freedom to all the slaves in America, instead of confining the boon to those who are held by rebel masters; and not only so, but in proclaiming emancipation, he should have put it, not on the narrow basis of military expediency, but on the broad grounds of Christian morality and the obligations of eternal justice. The philanthropy of these people is so wide and all embracing, that they spurn an Act of Emancipation, however large, if it does not include absolutely all that are in bondage, and their sense of justice is so exquisite that they would rather let the slave remain in his bonds than that he should go free under a proclamation which is based on the low ground of expediency. President Lincoln has done what he could. Made by the American people the executive of their will, clothed by their suffrages with the mighty influence which is vested in their Chief Magistrate, more especially in a time of war, he has used the strength so imparted to deal to slavery, hitherto the curse and disgrace of his country, a staggering and fatal blow. We do not blame him that he has not done more than declare the slaves free in the rebel States. Had he gone further, and declared universal emancipation for all the slaves within the United States, and based his action on the principles of philanthropy and justice to the oppressed, his proclamation would have been worth no more than a piece of waste paper. For in issuing it he would have exceeded the powers conferred upon him by the people whose servant he is. The Courts would have declared that such a proclamation was unconstitutional, and absolved all the subordinate military and civil authorities of the nation from any obligation to obey it, and, it would have been utterly void and useless. But, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, Mr. Lincoln has authority to make use of all fit and necessary war measures for the suppression of the rebellion, and properly regarding slavery within the revolted States as the main-stay of the rebellion, he acts strictly within his powers in proclaiming that all persons held in bondage by rebel masters shall be free. He brings his authority to bear against slavery just so far as that authority extends, and then, where authority ceases, he shows his philanthropy by recommending to Congress measures which have for their object the universal emancipation, by ordinary constitutional means, of all the slaves within the United States. With regard to the slaves held in the loyal States, he has no more power as President than the Governor General of Canada has to emancipate them by proclamation, but he recommends a scheme of gradually setting them free, and at the same time compensating their owners, in the same way that England abolished slavery in her colonial possessions. Already his recommendation is bearing good fruit, a bill being before Congress to accomplish the work of emancipation in the State of Missouri, and similar steps will doubtless be taken in due time to root out the accursed thing from the rest of the loyal States. Has not Mr. Lincoln, then, done enough? He has proclaimed emancipation as far as the utmost limit of his constitutional powers permitted him to act by his own sole authority, and having no authority to go farther, he has recommended Congress to complete the work in a constitutional way.
It may be said that the President proclaims emancipation where he has no power to enforce it, and that his proclamation is therefore only a worthless paper edict. It is true that it applies to many whom at this moment he cannot reach. But even now a large portion of the rebel territory is occupied by his armies. There at least New Year’s Day might be hailed by the coloured population as giving them the priceless boon of freedom in reality as well as on paper. And there is every prospect that the area of freedom will be rapidly extended. The most valuable slave territory is that which is watered by the Mississippi and its tributaries. Much of it is already under the Federal guns, and unless the Banks expedition moving up the river, and the Sherman expedition moving down, meet with more serious resistance than there is any reason to expect, there is every probability that in a few weeks the whole valley of the Mississippi will acknowledge Federal authority, and that at least a million slaves will receive their freedom. As for the interior, a knowledge of the proclamation has gone where no Federal soldier has yet been seen. Testimony from various sources warrants the conviction, that before the first of January there was scarcely a slave throughout the rebel States who had reached the years of reason who had not heard of the forthcoming proclamation. This knowledge on the part of the slaves will paralyze the rebellion. They know now that it is the will of the North that they shall be free, they know that the less they work for their masters the sooner will the North prevail, and they themselves be emancipated, and under those circumstances, even if there should be no open outbreak, it is not likely that the service they will render to their masters will be of much value. Then, too, a feeling of insecurity, a dread of risings among the slaves, will have the effect of inducing many who are in the Confederate armies to go home to protect their own families against the dangers which threaten them, and to that extent the resistance to the onward march of the Federal hosts will be weakened. As a war measure, the proclamation is certain to give the rebellion by far the most powerful shock it has yet sustained, and as the rebellion is put down, the emancipation now decreed by the President will be practically carried out.
This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.