Thursday, January 1, 2009

Emancipation Day After Watch Night

For most, today heralds a 2009 bright with promise while still carrying the backpack of burdens from the last year. Seven score and 6 years ago, in a square "Oval Office" in the 1812 torched White House, now known as the Lincoln Bedroom, President Abraham Lincoln retired after a really well attended huddled masses meet and greet to sit down and sign one of this nation's most important documents. His hand swollen from having shaken so many others, he had to pause before putting quill to paper. The witnesses Secretary of State Seward and the office clerk, father and son, were aghast that maybe he had changed his mind like many were urging him to do to not inflame the Unionists or the Confederates. It was a temporary moment designed to let the swelling in his hand subside so his signature would be recorded as strong and firm for posterity on the Emancipation Proclamation. He also used his full first name to mark the formality and solemness the occassion required, the First Watch Night. (Watch Night, the painting is part of the White House Art Collection)
By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
Famous paintings depict the moment the Words of Freedom being carried forth into slave hovels
nation on Watch Night. It was literally symbolic on all levels. Everybody knew the hour was upon them on New Years Day as President Lincoln made his intent known to friend and foe alike. Lincoln told his Cabinet officers in July of 1862 once he settled on the idea many urged him to wait until the Union won a big victory to increase the power of a document that was in reality quite limited in its scope. It literally looks at slaves as the spoils of war with the victor setting the terms and conditions. (Painting by Henry Louis Stephens 1863)

All of the things that led to the war - the first Constitution and the 3/5ths accounting, the failed Missouri Compromise (1820), the La Amistad Mutiny (1839) one of the worst Supreme Court idiot decisions ever - Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), and the rebellion of abolitionist John Brown (1859). Through it all the Underground Railroad (National Geographic does a tour and puts you as slave making the intense decisions to stay or go on) carried people to safety out of slavery using clever gospel songs, quilts and the homes of complete strangers who Believed in the righteous cause.

Today around the nation, there are services marking the historic event that set in motion the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that nullified some portions of the racist lawmaking. This year, the advent of impending historic presidential change imbues the ceremonies at midnight with a lot more meaning and four hundred years of reflection. It is not without a full measure of devotion to historical symmetry that Lincoln freed the slaves and it is his bicentennial year of which a biracial president from the land of Lincoln will lead the commemoration.
The Emancipation Proclamation also will be read during Watch Night at the historic Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island. Its ceremony will begin around 10:30 p.m. Brick Baptist is the oldest church on St. Helena Island. The church was built by slaves in 1855 for plantation owners, and former slaves assumed control of the building in 1861 after the Battle of Port Royal.

"Watch Night is a way of thanking God and just being thankful because we're alive to see the dawn of another year," said the church's the Rev. Abraham Murray. "I think this year will be a little bit more significant. We're grateful that we have an African-American who will be installed as president, but our hope is in the Lord, so we just thank the Lord for what the Lord has brought us." (President Abraham Lincoln's March 4, 1861 Oath of Office)
The movie Amistad is just over a decade old now and has lost none of its power to provoke shock and thought at what America was into today's new dynamic. A must see DVD. Perfectly priced for a glorious viewing at under $10 for this and the next Watch Night Party.

Happy Emancipation Day!

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