As 1862 drew to a close, Rhode Island abolitionists, tiring of the bloody and expensive Civil War, waited eagerly to see what President Lincoln would do about slavery.
On September 22, following the Battle of Antietam, the President had announced that if the Confederate states did not lay down their arms by January 1, 1863, he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in the rebel areas. This Preliminary Proclamation was published widely; the Providence Journal, among others, praised the President’s prudence in giving ample advance warning of such a momentous change.
But would he actually do it? It would be a political gamble, and, some argued, unconstitutional. Abolition was an extreme measure, not universally welcomed even in the North. “I didn’t come here to fight for the N*****,” one Providence artilleryman wrote home from the battlefield.
Even abolitionists were doubtful. “It is useless to look for reform from politicians or government,” Elizabeth Buffum Chace of Cumberland, RI, wrote in despair to her sister. Others were more optimistic. On December 31, the Journal featured a circular from the London Emancipation Society that urged English clergy to support the upcoming Proclamation by highlighting emancipation in their New Year’s services. In New York City and around the country — including many Southern slave quarters — African-Americans held “watch parties” on New Year’s Eve to await the Proclamation.
Word came that the President would release the Proclamation at noon on January 1. In Providence, a “respectable number” of mostly African-American citizens gathered at Pratt’s Hall in anticipation. William J. Brown, grandson of a freed Brown family slave, presided over a full program of speeches and hymns. When the Proclamation did not appear at noon, the meeting adjourned until two. (As it turned out, the official copy brought to President Lincoln for his signature contained several errors, and he, a lawyer, sent it back and waited for a corrected copy.) At five, the gathering adjourned again until seven. Finally, as Brown described it, at nine o’clock “a man rushed into the room with a telegram from the President that the proclamation was issued. No one that was at the meeting can ever forget the sensation it produced. God was praised in the highest, and every heart swelled with gratitude. The meeting then closed, and thousands rejoiced that our prayers were heard and our country was free.”
The Providence Journal, like other Northern newspapers, printed the entire text of the Proclamation the next day, highlighting that it urged freed slaves to abstain from violence and to work for wages if offered. “We believe,” the editors wrote, “that the first day of January, 1863, will stand through all time as one of the bright days in the history of our country, of the African race, and of humanity.”
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