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Editorial: A presidential legacy marked by bells

On this day 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, greeted hundreds of guests at a New Year’s Day reception at the White House. The crowds included dignitaries as well as plenty of common folk who just felt like showing up for a party at the president’s house.

Around 2 p.m., Lincoln went to his office and — after remarking that his hand was tired and trembling from having shaken so many hands — signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The five-page document stated that all persons held as slaves in states that had seceded from the Union “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Today at 2 p.m., bells will ring out in Amherst to mark the anniversary of that moment. Plans call for a reading of the document on the town common, along with a performance by gospel singer Michelle Brooks-Thompson of Sunderland.

In Florence, also at 2 p.m., there will be a gathering next to the Florence Civic Center to ring the Cosmian Bell.

As recounted by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of “Team of Rivals,” the book upon which the movie “Lincoln” is partly based, the story behind Lincoln’s proclamation was more textured and complicated than simply wanting to do the right thing.

Abolitionists had loudly and often castigated him for moving too slowly and tepidly to oppose and eradicate slavery. Others, meanwhile, urged him to leave the issue alone for fear of alienating those in pro-Union border states where slavery was still legal. Emancipation, they argued, would only deepen the South’s resistance, push border-state moderates into the secessionists’ camp — and prolong the war.

As Lincoln saw it, his job was to build public and political support for the measure — and, overriding all, to save the Union. Slavery was wrong, yes, but in his view, the proclamation’s purpose, at least in part, was to deprive the Confederacy of the slave labor being used to support the secessionists’ efforts. In its final form, the proclamation stated that former slaves would be permitted to fight in the Union army. Nearly 180,000 of them eventually did.

Lincoln weighed his options regarding emancipation for months, as Kearns Goodwin writes in “Team of Rivals.” He read his first proposal to his Cabinet on July 22, 1862; only two of those present voiced strong support.

Heeding the suggestion of Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln held off taking any public action until Sept. 22 — after the Union had at last won a major victory at Antietam. The proclamation would carry no weight, Lincoln was convinced, if he issued it from a position of weakness while the Union was suffering one setback after another on the battlefield.

The proclamation did not go into effect until it was signed on Jan. 1. According to accounts of the day, when he put pen to paper, Lincoln said, “I never, in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”

That night, writes Kearns Goodwin, serenaders came to the White House to celebrate Lincoln’s action. “The president came to the window and silently bowed to the crowd. The signed proclamation rendered words unnecessary.” The document’s reach was modest, she writes, but its significance was profound.

“While its immediate effects were limited, since it applied only to enslaved blacks behind rebel lines, the Emancipation Proclamation changed forever the relationship of the national government to slavery,” she writes. “Where slavery had been protected by the national government, it was now ‘under its ban.’ The armed forces that had returned fugitive slaves to bondage would be employed in securing their freedom.”

And what of the man who had written and signed it? Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who had pushed hard for emancipation, called it a significant “first step” taken by a leader who had moved deliberately — but always in the right direction.

“Abraham Lincoln may be slow ... but Abraham Lincoln is not the man to reconsider, retract and contradict words and purposes solemnly proclaimed over his official signature,” Douglass wrote. “If he has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word.”

Not a bad legacy to consider on this Jan. 1.

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