Tag Archives: Emancipation Proclamation

“… Thenceforward, and Forever Free …”: The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Happy New Year. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the implementation of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Although I have noted at length elsewhere the significance of this document and how it changed the goals of the U.S. Civil War, it is still fitting to acknowledge this noteworthy day in U.S. history.

Lincoln issued the preliminary preliminary proclamation on  Sept. 22, 1862, when  it served as a warning to those states in rebellion that if they did not return back to the Union within 100 days, all the slaves in those states would be set free. It also issued an invitation to black Americans to join the Union Army and Navy. This two-pronged economic and military strategy that targeted slavery’s importance to the Confederacy as “the engine of war” (as Lincoln put it) ultimately became one of the chief reasons the North was victorious. With its issuance, both Northern Copperheads and Southern Democrats claimed Lincoln had transformed the Civil War into a race war. Black Americans celebrated its practical effect: More than 50,000 slaves in territory under Union control were immediately freed, despite the obvious fact that the Confederacy would ignore the war-time order and millions remained in bondage. Yet, slaves escaped from the South by the tens of thousands, bound to cross Union lines and join the republic’s military in a fight for their freedom.

Traditionally, the Emancipation Proclamation has fared poorly when estimated by many historians. Richard Hofstadter famously and bluntly stated the document “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading and did not in fact free any slaves.  Surprising no one who knows Howard Zinn’s work, the late Howard Zinn called it a sop given by a racist Lincoln to Radical Republicans in order to maintain unity in a fractious Republican Party. Despite the renown of both scholars, their assessments miss the mark. Lincoln, a man who repeatedly embraced Jeffersonian principles in his personal struggle for success and his political development during public life, issued what Allen Guelzo called the last great Enlightenment political document of 19th century America. Lincoln would expand his understanding of Jeffersonian liberty further in the Gettysburg Address, a rhetorical explanation of the Civil War’s role as bloody midwife during the country’s new birth of freedom.

The Emancipation Proclamation was no empty gesture, no piece of political wheeling and dealing.  “When the Proclamation was issued,” one former slave told a congressional committee, “that was when I decided to flee my master.”  Another said, “I have been a slave from my childhood up to the time I was set free by the Emancipation Proclamation.” As one Union officer noted, the slaves then had “a spirit of independence—a feeling they are no longer slaves.” You cannot enslave a people who know they are free.


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What the American Revolution began, the Civil War completed: Allen Guelzo on the Emancipation Proclamation

Paul Huard (left) and Allen Guelzo (right). I regret the stupid grin on my face, but Dr. Guelzo had just cracked a typically clever joke.

In 2010, I was fortunate to study for a week under the direction of Allen Guelzo, professor of history and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College. The summer institute was the result of the generosity of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, an organization I have only half-jokingly described as treating historians and teachers of U.S. history like rock stars. The seminar on Abraham Lincoln was easily one of the best scholarly experiences I had in recent years and it was a pleasure to finally meet the man whose works (such as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America) are among the most insightful tomes on Mr. Lincoln and the U.S. Civil War. Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Dr. Guelzo about the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Now that the piece is no longer subscriber-only content, I can share the essay. Though brief, it captures what Lincoln thought was at the heart of the U.S. Civil War. “The American republic was an ‘experiment’ to see if ordinary people, living as equals before the laws and without any aristocratic grades or ranks in society, really were capable of governing themselves,” Guelzo writes. Emancipation, he says, was Lincoln’s “central act” of the presidents administration and “certainly there has been no presidential document before or since with quite its impact.” I consider that assessment a concise expression of a reason why Lincoln is often considered the man whose Romantic sense of nationalism and liberty finally added the “complete” understanding to the Declaration of Independence that was already there for all to see. But it took the deadliest war in American history to complete what Jefferson and the Patriot cause began.

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Let Freedom Ring: 150 Years Since The Emancipation Proclamation

Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President, 1809-1865

On this day a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln issued the first version of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of this nation’s most important political documents and the beginning of the official transformation of the Union’s wartime strategy to the goal of freeing enslaved Americans. His proclamation warned the Confederate states that if they remained in rebellion against the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln as commander-in-chief would on that day declare all slaves to be free in areas under Confederate control. Lincoln’s measure came just five days after the agonizingly costly Northern victory at Antietam, easily the bloodiest single day in American military history. 

The decision to issue the proclamation may have been one of the most politically dangerous wagers ever made by an American president. An essay in yesterday’s New York Times by Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, points out that Lincoln received warning from fellow Republicans that he had just lost the upcoming elections for the Republican Party. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair warned that it would “endanger our power in Congress, and put the next House of Representatives in the hands of those opposed to the war, or to our mode of carrying it on.” Southerners would be outraged by the decision, seeing it as confirmation of every fear that had driven them to secession and war.

We often forget that Lincoln was an unpopular president, a plurality president elected with about 40 percent of the popular vote in an election with three other candidates, and a president during a controversial war killing more Americans than all of the nation’s other wars combined up to that time. With that in mind, I have often considered the Emancipation Proclamation, written as it is in the dull prose of a lawyer, the greatest and most principled statement of moral leadership by any president. Lincoln lived by the words of the Declaration of Independence and those words are ringing enough for all times. It was through that presidential proclamation, its twin issued in 1863, and the gutsy decision to fight a great war to purposeful victory that made the words of both documents matter for all Americans. Liberty is measured by results, not by the number of rhetorical flourishes in an executive order or the flowery prose displayed on a TelePrompter.

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A Review of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln And American Slavery”

Eric Foner

Understanding the intellectual processes of Eric Foner has always been a problematic exercise for me. He is one of the most respected and honored historians in the United States: student of my idol Richard Hofstadter;  one of only two persons to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians; and one of perhaps a half-dozen historians to win both the Bancroft Prize (the “Academy Award,” if you will, of professional historians in the scholarly academy who acknowledge the best book of history published during a given year) and the Pulitzer Price for non-fiction in the same year.  Recognition like that isn’t exactly the historian’s equivalent of a free prize in every package of cereal.  Yet, perhaps one of the surest signs of brilliance is inconsistency. He readily recognizes the unique qualities of American freedom but possessed little more than the expected academic liberal’s knee-jerk reaction to the U.S. war in Iraq.  For example, he rejects American exceptionalism but readily concedes  that “in every index of power — military, economic, cultural, scientific — the United States far exceeds any other country,” an exceptional status unlike any other except Rome’s. (I have found that many scholars are very comfortable with the idea of American exceptionalism when it is applied to the idea of how uniquely wrong or bad the U.S. is.)  It’s silly of me to accuse him of ideological faults when I obviously have my own ideological underpinnings.  But, outside of his neo-Marxist interests in “people’s history” he has landed on both sides of the fence when examining a historical issue more times than not. My goodness, the man had a hand in revising the Disney Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World.

But Foner stands out because of his long-standing respect, admiration, yet intense scrutiny of Abraham Lincoln. For 50 years, Lincoln has been one of the biggest heroes in the American pantheon to take down a notch.  I won’t take time to write a histriographical essay on Lincoln revisionism, but I urge readers to consult Thomas L. Krannawitter’s Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President to get some sense of the mud that has been slung at the marble statue called Abraham Lincoln. However, I have to give the late, great Howard Zinn honorable mention.  In his A People’s History of the United States, Zinn described Lincoln as man who only became interested in the question of slavery when it was politically expedient to do so, and he was motivated to end slavery only when it would be done under the control of white business elites.

However, Foner recognizes something very human and very relevant about Lincoln: The man changed during his lifetime, and he changed with the times. In Foner’s latest book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln And American Slavery, he explains that Lincoln always said slavery was unjust and there is no proof anywhere that he thought otherwise. The crux of the matter is the obvious question: If slavery is unjust, what do you do about it? Lincoln, a man fascinated with politics and the pursuit of office for much of his adult life, absolutely examined the political issues around slavery, proposed policies, and had a view of what good policies toward the elimination of slavery would be.  That doesn’t mean that Lincoln knew exactly how abolition would take place, or what kind of abolition the American people would stomach. In 19th century America, who did? We tend to think of abolition as a monolithic political movement. It was not. William Lloyd Garrison and his followers were the radicals who called for the secession of the North from the South and the destruction of the U.S. Constitution as a policy that would end slavery. John Brown wanted military uprisings. Various northern Whigs, then Republicans,  floated policy ideas centered on containment. Not surprisingly, Lincoln was heavily influenced by his beaux ideal, the Great Conciliator Henry Clay who supported the colonization movement from his earliest days in Kentucky politics. Foner does a superb job of examining Lincoln in the light of the various strains of abolitionism, the support each garnered, and the practical questions of whether the legislative branch would be willing to support anything that eliminated slavery rather than limited it.

But Foner is at his best when he sees Lincoln aroused by the events of the 1850s, a period I will always call the Decade of the Impending Crisis thanks to my professor in those matters. From the Peoria Speech until the war, Lincoln embraces colonization, sticks with the idea of limiting the expansion of slavery (one of Henry Clay’s signature achievement is the Missouri Compromise), and sees political abolition as the route for the nation. However, Foner’s examination of the Emancipation Proclamation, proclaims that it is a radical document (that’s an opinion far removed from Hofstadter’s assessment of the proclamation) that is among the most important presidential decisions in U.S. history. In addition, Foner examines how Lincoln did two things that changed the nation forever: He withdrew any comment regarding compensation for the freeing of slaves and placed slaves in a position to seize their own freedom as soldiers in the Union Army.  Throughout his lifetime, Lincoln had seen nothing but the clashes that occurred in inter-racial society. Now, he would as president begin the nation’s quest for an inter-racial society that treated black Americans as human beings.  Not a surprising result from a man who said publically that all of his political thoughts stemmed from the Declaration of Independence.  Foner’s book is my pleasant surprise during my summer review of the latest titles I can find in U.S. history.


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