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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

The Emancipation Proclamation

Jun 10th, 2013

From the moment Abraham Lincoln announced its preliminary version in late September 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation has been seen as a document of great import. At the time, soldiers and citizens on both sides understood that the proclamation had initiated a new kind of war. Not only did it clarify the North’s war aim so that a return to the status quo ante bellum that had sufficed as an explanation for the war early on (exemplified by the Crittenden Resolution of July 1861) was unthinkable, but it also helped settle a series of practical questions surrounding the status of slavery and escaped slaves that had alternately inspired, confused, and perplexed Union army commanders throughout the Confederacy.

For all this, however, it is remarkably easy for many in the rising generation of graduate students specializing in the study of the American past to sidestep the Emancipation Proclamation. In large part, this is because the scholarship has in recent decades dedicated itself to moving away from straightforward narrative history in favor of broader analytical studies of society and culture. Consequently, it is fairly easy for an aspiring historian to lose the Emancipation Proclamation amid the impressive literatures concerning soldier motivations, slave resistance, the northern political situation, the agency of African Americans (both free and enslaved, North and South), and attitudes toward race, slavery, and black Americans in the North, just to name a few. And yet, on the 150th anniversary of the final Emancipation Proclamation, there are increasing signs that the emerging literature on the northern home front—a literature that is starting to redress the gross disparity between studies of the South and studies of the North—is bringing the process of emancipation back into focus. Studies such as Leslie Schwalm’s Emancipation’s Diaspora, Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet, and Kate Masur’s An Example for All the Land have shown us the potential that surrounds new studies of emancipation but also implicitly remind us that considerable work remains for historians. As this work proceeds,importantly, the Emancipation Proclamation should remain a lodestar in any discussion of the coming of freedom (and its limits) to the nation’s nearly 4 million enslaved African Americans. The editors of Civil War History wish to further this discussion, both by printing exciting new scholarship (such as Brian Taylor’s impressive look at the debates over enlistment in the African American communities of the North, which appeared in our last issue) and by convening a panel of leading historians to discuss the Emancipation Proclamation proper.

Our participants in the forum come to us from a wide variety of scholarly perspectives:

• Martha S. Jones (MSJ) is an associate professor of history and Afro-American studies and an affiliate of the law school at the University of Michigan, where she directs the Program in Race, Law & History. Her 2007 monograph, All Bound Up: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900, explores debates over the status of black women in the nineteenth century. Her current book project is Overturning Dred Scott: Race, Rights, and Citizenship in an Antebellum Courthouse.

• Kate Masur (KM) is the author of an influential 2007 Journal of American History article on the various meanings of the word “contraband,” as well as the aforementioned An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle for Equality in Washington, D.C., a 2011 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title. She teaches at Northwestern University.

• Louis Masur (LM) is professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University. Formerly editor of Reviews in American History, he is the author of many works in American cultural history, including 1831: Year of Eclipse, The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked the Nation, and The Civil War: A Concise History. His most recent book, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, was published last fall by Harvard University Press. Louis is no relation to Kate Masur.

• James Oakes (JO) teaches at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and has published widely in the fields of slavery, southern history, and antislavery politics. The author of Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South and The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (among other works), he is currently finishing a study on emancipation.

• Manisha Sinha (MS) is professor of Afro-American studies and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and editor of the University of Georgia Press’s Race and the Atlantic World, 1700–1900, series. From her first book, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000), to her forthcoming The Slave’s Cause: Abolition and the Origins of America’s Interracial Democracy (Yale University Press), Sinha’s research interests have revolved around the history of slavery and abolition, the sectional conflict, and the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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