“To-day Unbind the Captive”

January 1: Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law on this day in 1863; on the afternoon of the same day, at Boston’s Music Hall, Ralph Waldo Emerson read his commemorative poem “Boston Hymn,” the reading a prologue to an afternoon of music celebrating the long awaited event. Later that evening, Emerson read the poem again at a private gathering attended by, among others, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott and Julia Ward Howe (who read her “Battle Hymn”). Emerson’s poem was published the next month in the Atlantic; below, two of the twenty-two verses:

To-day unbind the captive,

So only are ye unbound;

Lift up a people from the dust,

Trump of their rescue, sound!

Pay ransom to the owner

And fill the bag to the brim.

Who is the owner? The slave is owner,

And ever was. Pay him.

The following recollection of the momentous day is from Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery:

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom…. Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper-the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.