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Harvey Alvy

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The Emancipation Proclamation, Presidential Growth, and Seizing the Moment: What Are the Lessons for School Leaders?



I think we have reason to thank God for Abraham Lincoln….With all his deficiencies, it must be admitted that he has grown continuously; and considering how slavery had weakened and perverted the moral sense of the whole country, it was great good luck to have the people elect a man who was willing to grow.

(The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, in Eric Foner’s, The Fiery Trial, 2010)

The Mission: Preserving the Union Through Emancipation

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The commemoration has renewed interest and debate about the document, Lincoln’s intent, and what the Emancipation Proclamation actually accomplished.  However, one fact is rarely disputed: Lincoln’s overriding goal upon signing the document was to strengthen the position of those dedicated to preserving the union.  He certainly knew the document was not perfect.  Before issuing the proclamation he must have pondered: Will this act strengthen or weaken the nation?  The proclamation would affect the perceptions of those on both sides of the conflict.  Frederick Douglass noted that the plight of the slaves “and the cause of the country” were now in unison (Foner).  Some northern soldiers were pleased with emancipation; others thought that the war aims should not have been broadened.

A President Willing to Grow

Lincoln continued to receive criticism from all sides. Opponents accused him of being an undeclared abolitionist.  Others stated that he was timid and conservative on abolition.  Lincoln did not let these critics determine his actions: he kept his eyes on the prize.  Importantly, Lincoln’s ideas on extending freedom evolved based on events on and off the battlefield.  These events included the courageous performance of Black soldiers.  Battlefield actions inspired Lincoln to issue a letter in August 1863 that was specifically written for wide distribution.  This excerpt is prophetic, 

And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.

Events in 1863-64 were moving the nation toward a more perfect union.  For example, during the 1864 presidential campaign Lincoln supported a Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.  This certainly was not an 1861 war aim for Lincoln!   The national mission expanded as battlefield events changed hearts and minds—including the heart and mind of President Lincoln.  The founding principle that “all men are created equal” emerged as more than just a vision. 

Today’s School Leaders: Learning From Lincoln

It is presumptuous and dangerous for leaders to believe that they alone can trigger a series of specific events and outcomes.  But the ability to view and analyze events in motion, seeing both the narrow plain and broad landscape, and then taking the right action is a mark of exceptional leadership.  Ineffective leaders miss opportunities and act imprudently.  In his prize winning book April 1865, Jay Winik reflected, “As every historian well knows, in the end it is not brilliance but judgment that separates the great leaders from the routine.” 

Obviously today’s school leaders cannot always determine the issues, initiatives, or policies they would prefer to tackle.  But just as Lincoln was driven initially by the question: What must I do to preserve the union and the nation’s founding values?—School leaders must ask: What must I do to implement the nation’s founding values, especially those related to equality?  Pursuing this question mandates that all school leaders—administrators and teachers—follow social justice goals, “such as closing the achievement gap, academic excellence for all, educating worthy citizens, pressing for gender equality, tackling the high school dropout crisis, reducing school bullying, and educating the whole child” (Alvy and Robbins, Learning From Lincoln ASCD, 2010).  

Lincoln’s pursuit of the nation’s founding principle that “all men are created equal” helped to bring ideals closer to practice.  This is an ongoing challenge, the “unfinished work” of the Gettysburg Address.  School leaders who seize opportunities and pursue social justice goals for their students help make Lincoln’s vision a reality. 

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