Christianity and the Emancipation Proclamation
David Gilmour Blythe
In the artist’s imaginative portrayal of Lincoln’s drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, the president appears in a moment of reflection. He sits in the dawning light of a new day, surrounded by a mess of documents and other decorative items, each of which is meant to symbolize a source of influence on the text.
Sitting at his desk, his hand resting on a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, an exhausted Lincoln pauses in his labors. On his lap, he holds a copy of the Constitution, and on top of that, a copy of the Holy Bible. While the room is strewn with myriad other artifacts and papers, the proximity of these two texts to both the author and the subject of the painting, the Emancipation Proclamation, make it clear that the artist intended us to take them as the fundamental sources upon which Lincoln based his understanding of the necessity and legitimacy of abolition.
To underscore his view that the Emancipation Proclamation was a necessary war measure, the artist has placed a gilded inscription across the bookcase in the back of the room: “Without slavery, the war would not exist and without slavery, it would not be continued.”
Located on the far right side of the image and slightly in the shadow, these documents nonetheless continue to convey the relationship the artist perceived between the abolition of slavery represented by the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and American Christianity. Note the large figure of a cross on the sheet in the middle of the pile, and the large paper with the heading “Memorial from the Quakers” on the far right side of the image, just above Lincoln’s discarded coat. While there were Quakers who owned slaves, in general, the sect was vocally and consistently opposed to the institution from the seventeenth century onwards, decrying it as “man-stealing.”