In Search of Our Better Angels

In Search of Our Better Angels

By David Shribman - December 31, 2012

DRYFORK, W.Va. -- In the course of one evening, American history changed, putting a mighty nation on the road to redeeming the signature declaration of its revolutionary founding document.

We pause now to mark the 150th anniversary of the most important New Year's Eve in American history. For it was at that moment that Abraham Lincoln determined to go forward with the proclamation that would begin the process of freeing America's slaves. It was also at that moment that Lincoln decided to permit West Virginia to secede from Virginia, the crown jewel of the Confederacy, and to join the Union.

Never has so much been accomplished affecting so many people amid so much tragedy in so little time. Never has a president spent a New Year's Eve remotely like the way Lincoln spent his, brooding until the breath of dawn. Never has so much imagination been applied to the American Constitution by one who looms so large in the American imagination.

Abraham Lincoln saved the country created by that Constitution. And he made the country worth saving.

Pilloried publicly by his opponents, ridiculed privately by his allies, weary of war, wracked with worry but possessed of an inner compass that pointed toward justice, Lincoln took two steps that made Union victory all but inevitable.

On that New Year's Eve, Lincoln fractured the South and convinced Great Britain -- whose need for Southern cotton had prompted it to contemplate aid to the Confederacy -- that the president who had spoken of the "better angels of our nature" was placing his country on the side of the angels.

The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in territory over which the Union government had no power, but it set in motion the transformation of the Civil War from a struggle over secession to one over slavery.

The proclamation had been the subject of tumultuous debate inside the Lincoln administration, and that New Year's Eve the president presided over a special Cabinet meeting for a final discussion. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase of Ohio suggested a "felicitous" conclusion, which took the form of Lincoln's invocation of "the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God." Later that day Lincoln met with abolitionist ministers, nervous that he might back away at the last moment. The president said only, "Tomorrow at noon, you shall know -- and the country shall know -- my decision."

Lincoln knew, of course, yet he agonized all night. The country had been bled dry, yet the battles continued. Victory was elusive, yet the president would not avoid the gesture needed to give meaning to the bloodshed.

So the next day he did it. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation, careful that his hand, numb from handshakes during his New Year's reception at the White House, was steady -- lest anyone read into a trembling signature any hint of "compunctions." And he said: "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper."

There was less certainty in the intellectual and legal gymnastics that led to the creation of West Virginia that New Year's Eve.

Dissident Virginians concentrated in the western part of the Old Dominion had long been uneasy about the state's secession and prominent role in the Confederacy. The movement to separate the West was in part a classic American fight about taxation and representation. It was also a question of home rule. Many residents of the "up-country," not only in Virginia but in South Carolina and North Carolina as well, felt that the old colonial capitals didn't give fair hearing to the inland counties.

Lincoln was torn. He abhorred secession -- that was, after all, the public cause of the war he was prosecuting to salvage the Union. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Chase supported the move. Others in the Lincoln Cabinet, including Attorney General Edward Bates, resisted. But Lincoln knew of the military and symbolic importance of what was to become West Virginia.

"We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in Congress and in the field," he said. "Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials."

The president acknowledged the contradiction implicit in admitting a seceded state into a nation at war over the principle of secession: "It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution and secession in favor of the Constitution."

The president's decision changed the map of the nation and the character of the region. "It resolved long-standing, simmering tensions and some outright conflict between the eastern and western parts of Virginia," said Aaron Sheehan-Dean, a West Virginia University historian. "It reflected a fundamental division in the Old Dominion about economic development, the place of slavery in public life and the orientation of the state."

Of even more importance is how that New Year's Eve positioned Lincoln and, ultimately, the bloodied but unified nation that would emerge from the Civil War.

Lincoln's conversion to abolitionism has long been debated by historians, who have tried to reconcile some of his remarks about relations between whites and blacks -- such as resolving problems by shipping blacks to Africa -- with his support of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"It should not surprise us that Lincoln was no exception to his times," Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in an essay, adding: "(W)hat is exceptional about Abraham Lincoln is that, perhaps because of temperament or because of the shape-shifting contingencies of command during an agonizingly costly war, he wrestled with his often contradictory feelings and ambivalences and vacillations about slavery, race and colonization, and did so quite publicly and often quite eloquently."

Much of that wrestling occurred 150 years ago tonight. Like Jacob of the Old Testament, Lincoln wrestled with an angel. "Let me go, for the day breaketh," said the angel in the story from Genesis. When the day broke in 1863, Lincoln's struggle was over, and in a way the nation's was as well, for Lincoln had determined to express the will of the better angels of us all. 

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

Copyright 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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