On December 1, 1862, during his second annual message to Congress (a written equivalent to today’s State of the Union Address), President Abraham Lincoln reminded his fellow citizens of the grave dangers faced by the nation – a nation torn apart by civil war, the outcome of which was unpredictable at that time.
Lincoln used his annual message to Congress to make a clear connection between the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. "Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue," he argued.
President Lincoln believed that permanent abolition of slavery was essential to the survival of the nation. In this address, he likened the war to a “fiery trial,” and summoned the Union to the great task of abolishing slavery, declaring that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free…”
Lincoln used the address to present a moderate message concerning his policy towards slavery. Just 10 weeks before, he had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves in territories still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would be free. The measure was not welcomed by everyone in the North – it met with considerable resistance from conservative Democrats who did not want to fight a war to free slaves.
As he concluded his message, Lincoln reflected on the importance of adopting a plan of Emancipation, as follows:
I do not forget the gravity which should characterize a paper addressed to the Congress of the nation by the Chief Magistrate of the nation. Nor do I forget that some of you are my seniors, nor that many of you have more experience than I, in the conduct of public affairs. Yet I trust that in view of the great responsibility resting upon me, you will perceive no want of respect yourselves, in any undue earnestness I may seem to display.
Is it doubted, then, that the plan I propose, if adopted, would shorten the war, and thus lessen its expenditure of money and of blood? Is it doubted that it would restore the national authority and national prosperity, and perpetuate both indefinitely? Is it doubted that we here — Congress and Executive — can secure its adoption? Will not the good people respond to a united, and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means, so certainly, or so speedily, assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
Just one month later, on January 1, 1963, the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect.
The Union ultimately prevailed, the nation was reunited, and the United States of America remains “the last best hope of Earth”.
Let’s hope it stays that way!