The Wholly Misunderstood Emancipation Proclamation

More

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.
Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Wine Is Healthy—Isn't It? It Is—No?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Trading Stocks for Suckers?

If you think you’re smarter than the stock market, you’re probably either cheating or wrong

Video

I Spent Half My Life Making a Video Game

How a childhood hobby became a labor of love

Video

The Roughest, Toughest Race in the World

"Sixty hours. No sleep. Constant climbing and descending. You're out there by yourself. All day and night."

Video

The Gem of the Pacific Northwest

A short film explores the relationship between the Oregon coast and the people who call it home.

Video

Single-Tasking Is the New Multitasking

Trying to do too many internet things at once makes it hard to get anything done at all.

 

Video

New Zealand in HD

The country's diverse landscapes, seen in dreamy time-lapse footage

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In