On New Year’s Day, celebrations across the U.S. will mark the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued by the Civil-War president which declared perpetually free the millions of slaves held as the personal property of their owners in the breakaway Confederacy. At the National Archives in Washington D.C., visitors will inspect the fragile original, with a privileged few hearing a “dramatic reading” of the document.
You don’t need to be an apologist for slavery to question whether such commemorations are warranted. Even Lincoln’s contemporary critics warned the Proclamation did not go far enough. Take for example a source I’ve just been reading: a letter from a citizen in postwar Massachussetts to a New York weekly, which noted that while ‘Slavery is abolished throughout the United States…. where exists the evidence that America has ever repented of holding men in bondage?’ Re-reading the Emancipation Proclamation, he couldn’t ‘help feeling this is a weak document,’ and was left wondering how ‘far better it would have been for the national cause – how much better a record for history – if, instead of the halting, hesitating, qualifying, circumscribing “proclamation,”’ Lincoln had opted for a full declaration of political and civil equality. 1 Almost a century later the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter echoed the citizen’s critique with customary pithiness. To Hofstadter the Proclamation ‘had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.’ 2
Why would a document that shares its Washington home with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution attract such derision? Perhaps because as an assault on slavery it seemed so half-hearted. Lincoln had announced his intention to issue the Proclamation weeks before and offered slaveholders the chance to hold on to their flesh-and-blood property if they abandoned the rebellion. The order, moreover, excluded slaves in Border States that had remained loyal to the Union and in some pockets of territory already under Northern occupation. Just about the only chattel “henceforward… free” were in Confederate-controlled parts of the South over which the United States had no jurisdiction. It is not quite true to say that the Proclamation failed to liberate a single slave on 1 January, 1863, but it certainly didn’t bring about an abrupt end to three centuries of unfree labour.
Meanwhile, the tendency to focus on Lincoln’s document may obscure the role slaves themselves played in the breakdown of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’. From the earliest days of the Civil War, enslaved Americans, realizing that a Northern victory offered their best hope for freedom, fled to Union lines, aided Federal troops, and generally made life difficult for their owners. Yet until well into 1862 – over a year after the first shots at Fort Sumter – Lincoln insisted he was prosecuting the war purely to preserve the Union, with or without slavery, and sometimes ordered the return of runaways to their owners to prove the point. The president’s moral objections to slavery are well documented, and no serious scholar would question his desire to ultimately rid his country of its scourge, but it was only when slaves began to undermine the chattel system from within that he began to contemplate an emancipation decree. If we focus on Lincoln’s proclamation at the expense of the struggle going on across the plantations of the South, then, freedom becomes a gift bestowed by the White House on passive African-Americans. This may be the danger of celebrating a moment rather than remembering the destruction of slavery as a process. Interestingly, Eric Foner (a former student of Hofstadter’s) and Kate Masur have accused Spielberg of making a similar error in his highly regarded Lincoln, which in scrutinising the politics of passing the constitutional amendment of 1865 that banned ‘involuntary servitude’ implies abolition was forged by whites in Washington.
Spielberg’s decision to all but ignore the 1863 Proclamation – Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln barely mentions it, except to wonder whether its legal foundations were sturdy – may reflect the low esteem in which the document is held among historians who reject the mythology of a ‘Great Emancipator’ freeing the slaves with a wave of his pen. Yet there is good reason to mark the anniversary. However inelegant and self-limiting it might have been, the Emancipation Proclamation turned northern troops into an army of liberation, and encouraged former slaves to join the Union army. Despite unequal pay, harsh conditions, and the threat of execution as rebellious chattel if they were captured, 180,000 African-Americans – many of them erstwhile field hands – served in Federal blue. Their military service helped secure support for the postwar extension of civil and political rights, and though in the South these were all too quickly lost, they provided a foothold for the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The Proclamation may be uninspiring to hear – I don’t envy the visitors to the National Archives on New Year’s Day in that regard – but slaves hardly needed inspiration from Washington to claim their freedom.