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Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation: Enter Abraham Lincoln



Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin origins, two decades of which shaped his world. His immediate family owned no slaves, but extended family did.

Growing up in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, Lincolnʼs physical world included few slaves and freedman, so the question of one man owning another was more of a moral debate than family situation.

The macro world was in transition, emerging from an agricultural economy to that of an industrial one.

The term “slave wage,” already in use, was couched in the observation that wage earners were not owned by their employer; they were free to “rent” their individual labor for exploitation or partnership with a capitalist who would apply that labor to raw goods (or land) to produce a final product for profit. The employer was not responsible for feeding, clothing or sheltering the wage employee, thus the beginning emergence of unions which addressed the resultant working and living conditions. In the observation of some, persons could sell themselves into slavery.

Without real property, heretofore the means to wealth and the basis of civil rights (ability to vote and run for office), all women and a sizable number of white males were not enjoying the “fruits of liberty” as espoused in the United States Constitution.

The Lowell Mill Girls labor protests in 1836 used and bandied the term “wage slave.” Lincoln’s world, however, was that of the old Northwest Territories, wherein the 1787 Ordinance prohibited slavery but through which fugitive slaves were still pursued.  Increasingly, the lands were settled by southerners moving north, bringing their institutions and customs with them. New state constitutions banned the introduction of slavery but did not free those already there. Indentured servitude was allowed. Voting and public education were denied to blacks.

Continuing U.S. acquisition of continental lands during Lincolnʼs first half century gave many the hope they could attain wealth and prosperity based on understanding of the agricultural age from whence they came. For those who understood the coming Industrial Age, the acquisition of new lands was key for tying together two coasts over which to distribute and vend new products.

Lincoln, himself, left the land, becoming a lawyer. His income, and then his politics,  were based on ideas – legal theory, precedence and philosophy, not labor. His marriage represented a tie to landed gentry and wealth. A man of his times, he was caught midst unresolved conundrums. Slave trade was pretty much abolished; the ownership of another human was not. Stasis achieved by the founding fathers in 1789,  the Compromises of 1820 and 1850 was unravelling with additions of new territories aspiring to statehood. Would federal policy or state legislatures determine the outcome?

For the years 2012-2013, Our Story, Inc. will be be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Project and its legacy in Nevada. This article is part of a series that will be published during that time. Please feel free to circulate and share (credited), comment or submit your own articles.

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