, Salem, MA


December 29, 2012

Shribman: In search of our better angels

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 prepare 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.

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