, Salem, MA


December 29, 2012

Shribman: In search of our better angels


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.

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