The Wholly Misunderstood Emancipation Proclamation

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One of the more interesting arguments I've had to adjust to since diving into the Civil War is the cynic's denunciation of the Emancipation Proclamation as a document which didn't do anything. I assume this is a reaction to a point in our history when people went around claiming that the Proclamation "freed the slaves."


It did not. But, as historian Eric Foner notes, the Proclamation is still one of the most important documents in American history:

A military order, whose constitutional legitimacy rested on the president's war powers, the proclamation often disappoints those who read it. It is dull and legalistic; it contains no soaring language enunciating the rights of man. Only at the last minute, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, did Lincoln add a conclusion declaring the proclamation an "act of justice." 

Nonetheless, the proclamation marked a dramatic transformation in the nature of the Civil War and in Lincoln's own approach to the problem of slavery. No longer did he seek the consent of slave holders. The proclamation was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of compensation for owners, and made no reference to colonization. 

In it, Lincoln addressed blacks directly, not as property subject to the will of others but as men and women whose loyalty the Union must earn. For the first time, he welcomed black soldiers into the Union Army; over the next two years some 200,000 black men would serve in the Army and Navy, playing a critical role in achieving Union victory. And Lincoln urged freed slaves to go to work for "reasonable wages" -- in the United States. He never again mentioned colonization in public.

One part of the problem is that there is a left-radical strain descending from the days of the abolitionists that has trouble crediting Lincoln with anything. (I am partial to Frederick Douglass's ultimate assessment.) And there's a right wing quasi-libertarian strain which fashions Lincoln a tyrant and believes black people should have remained slaves waiting on a compensated emancipation which was never in the offing

Another part of the problem is the idea that, with something as dramatic as emancipation, there should be some break point, some specific document that freed the slaves. But as Foner points out, emancipation is a process (one that I would argue begins with slave abscondance and the Underground Railroad), not so much a point. And emancipation is itself a part of an even larger process -- integrating African Americans as citizens of equal standing. That effort continues even today.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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