Abraham Lincoln’s 100 Days


Lepore, J. 2009. “Abraham Lincoln’s 100 Days.” newyorker.com.


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Weary of the one-hundred-day-a-palooza? Not every span of one hundred days is as arbitrary as this one. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln signed a document called the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that he would free every slave held in every Confederate state in exactly one hundred days, on New Year’s, 1863. That’s a long time to wait. And not everyone was sure the President would stand by his pledge. “The first of January is to be the most memorable day in American Annals,” answered Frederick Douglass. “But will that deed be done? Oh! That is the question.”

As soon as word got out, though, a crowd came to the White House and spontaneously serenaded the President. (The District of Columbia’s thirty-one thousand slaves had already been emancipated, by an act of Congress, in April.) Elsewhere, the response was mixed. The New York Times deemed the Preliminary Proclamation as important as the Constitution. The Richmond Examiner called it “the inauguration of a reign of hell upon earth!” Within days, the news made its way to slaves in the South. Isaac Lane took a newspaper from his master’s mailbox and read it aloud to every slave he could find. One hundred days? Not everyone was willing to wait that long. In October, slaves caught planning a rebellion in Culpeper, Virginia, were found to have in their possession newspapers in which the Proclamation had been printed; seventeen of those men were executed.

The Proclamation has not always been highly regarded; many historians, like many abolitionists, think Lincoln did too little, too late; some see granting freedom to the slaves in Confederate states a purely military—and, finally, a cynical—maneuver. Whatever it was, it wasn’t unimportant. As the historian John Hope Franklin once observed (in a chapter called “The Hundred Days”), the Preliminary Proclamation “transformed the war into a crusade against slavery.” And that’s what gave Lincoln so much trouble: not all of his supporters were interested in fighting a crusade against slavery. As autumn faded to winter, pressure mounted on the President to abandon his pledge. Maybe he wavered. Maybe he didn’t. “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” Lincoln told Congress in December. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best, hope of earth.”

On Christmas Eve, day ninety-two, a worried Charles Sumner visited the White House. Was the President still planning on declaring an end to slavery, as promised? Lincoln reassured him: “He would not stop the Proclamation if he could, and he could not if he would.” On December 29th, Lincoln read a draft of the Proclamation to his Cabinet and he discussed it with them again, two days later. Cabinet members suggested an amendment, urging “those emancipated, to forbear from tumult.” This Lincoln did not add. But Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, suggested a new ending, which Lincoln did adopt: “I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of almighty God.”

Day ninety-six. “The cause of human freedom and the cause of our common country,” Douglass said, that Sunday, “are now one and inseparable.” Ninety-seven, ninety-eight. Ninety-nine: New Year’s Eve, 1862, “watch night,” the eve of what would come to be called the “Day of Days.” In the capital, crowds of African-Americans filled the streets. In Norfolk, Virginia, four thousand slaves—who, living in a city already under Union control, were not actually freed by the Emancipation Proclamation— paraded through the streets, with fifes and drums. (In other states, men and women and children simply headed north, in an attempt to emancipate themselves; they didn’t often make it.) In New York, Henry Highland Garnet preached to an overflowing crowd at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church. At exactly 11:55P.M., the church fell silent. The crowd sat in the cold counting those final minutes. At midnight, the choir broke into “Blow Ye Trumpets Blow, the Year of Jubilee has Come.” On the streets of the city, crowds sang another song:

Cry out and shout all ye children of sorrow,
The gloom of your midnight hath passed away.

One hundred. On January 1, 1863, sometime after two o’clock in the afternoon, Lincoln held the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand, and picked up his pen. “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”

See also: Opinion
Last updated on 12/04/2012