Up Close: Lady Macbeth, America, and the stain of slavery

In a famous scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the sleep-walking Lady Macbeth desperately attempts to scrub her hands clean of the (invisible) blood stains from the murders committed by her and her husband. “Out, damned spot, out, I say!” she says, as her gentlewoman and a doctor secretly observe. “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (Macbeth 5.1.37, 45)

Pictured below, this 19th-century ink drawing for a political cartoon takes Lady Macbeth’s famous line and applies it to the American context in the Civil War era. The artist and date of the drawing are unknown, but it’s one of many items in the Folger collection that show Shakespeare’s words and scenes being used for political and social commentary. Here, Lady Macbeth represents the United States in the figure of Columbia, the spot on her hands is slavery, and the background observers are President Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley. Zoom in to see the details of the drawing.



Greeley was an influential newspaper editor and publisher who pushed Lincoln to take action on emancipation during the Civil War. His newspaper, The New-York Tribune, printed a letter from Greeley to Lincoln called the “Prayer of Twenty Millions,” on August 20, 1862. In it he urged Lincoln to fully implement the Confiscation Act, which would emancipate any slaves from rebel states who came within Union lines, but he also called for Lincoln to make a clear stand against slavery as an institution:

“On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile–that the Rebellion, if crushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor–that Army officers who remain to this day devoted to Slavery can at best be but half-way loyal to the Union–and that every hour of deference to Slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union…”

Though Lincoln was already making plans to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, in his response to Greeley he wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, announced that if the Confederates did not surrender and rejoin the Union by January 1, all slaves in Confederate states would be declared free. In keeping with this preliminary version, the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln ended up issuing on January 1, 1863, applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, without addressing slavery in the states that were under Northern control.

However, enforcement of this emancipation depended on Union military might, and it would be more than two years before Union troops arrived in Texas (two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia) and announced an end to slavery there by reading General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865 — the day that would go on to be celebrated as Juneteenth. The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865.

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