On Sept. 22, 1862 — 150 years ago today — Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, promising to free the slaves in any state still in rebellion on Jan. 1, 1863. Americans have celebrated Lincoln’s proclamation, and argued about its meaning, ever since. But there’s a surprising legacy that few Americans know anything about, one that historians have overlooked, even though it shows just how thoroughly American ideas of freedom reshaped the globe. Emancipation touched off a crisis for the principle of humanitarian limits in wartime and transformed the international laws of war. In the crucible of emancipation, Lincoln created the rules that now govern soldiers around the world.
I continue to be amazed whenever I hear the myopic argument: “The Civil War started because of states’ rights” — and from otherwise educated people and Civil War experts in 2012. I always ask a salient follow-up question to anyone who tries to sneak this Lost Cause myth into a conversation: “States’ rights… to do what?” The obvious answer: “To preserve slavery.” That was the real reason for Southern secession. Preserving slavery. The reactionary fear, especially during the election of 1860, was that Lincoln was going to either free the slaves or incite a slave rebellion and subsequently, in the parlance of fire-eater propaganda, foster “miscegenation.” Much like opponents of our current president, anti-Lincoln activists were clearly attacking Invisible Fictional Lincolns — the truth is, Lincoln didn’t take a formal pro-emancipation position until well into the war. The upshot of which came to fruition on this day 150 years ago, with the 13th Amendment to follow (the ratification of which is evidently covered in the forthcoming Lincoln feature film).