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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

The Emancipation Proclamation

Jun 10th, 2013

4. What directions would you like to see future researchers pursue in terms of the Emancipation Proclamation and emancipation more generally?

LM: In my recent work, I have returned the discussion to Lincoln. We have had provocative and revealing explorations over the past twenty years of the role of the enslaved in driving the issue of emancipation. We have had studies of soldiers and civilians. What we need is to assemble the pieces and put the disparate parts in conversation with one another. We need especially to write with an eye toward the history of experience: Once it came, how did freedmen experience emancipation; how did whites in the border states react to the fact of emancipation; how did military strategy, beyond the enlistment of black soldiers, change with emancipation; what did the abolitionists now do with their time? Emancipation began long before January 1, 1863, and continued long after that date. I think we now understand the moment pretty well, but we need more and deeper work on the problem of effects.

JO: We still know much more about the aftermath than the origins of emancipation. We don’t really understand how the proclamation fit into the broad sweep of federal antislavery policy during the war, nor do we appreciate the role of Congress in the formulation of those policies. And though it’s shocking when you think about it, no historian that I know of has ever investigated precisely how the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented on the ground in the Confederate States. When you hear someone say “the proclamation freed all the slaves” or “the proclamation didn’t free a single slave,” the plain fact is that person does not know what he or she is talking about, because nobody has ever done the kind of research that would enable us to say just what the proclamation actually did. They’re just drawing inferences from the text of the document.

MS: It has become fashionable of late to see death and dying, at least since the publication of Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, rather than emancipation and black freedom as the central meaning and legacy of the Civil War. A recent article in this journal has dramatically revised the casualties in the war upward, from around 620,000 to 750,000, making this point moot. New work by Jim Downs on black mortality during the war and by others on black refugees (though we commonly associate “refugeeing” of slaves with slaveholders forcibly removing them from the path of the Union army) have drawn attention to immense black suffering at the moment of freedom. I am frankly worried at the neo-revisionist tone of this trend in Civil War historiography, which I hope will not come to resemble that of the Haitian Revolution, where generations of historians dwelt on the bloodbath at the cost of the tremendous achievement of slaves and free people of color in defeating the best European armies of the day and establishing the first modern black republic in the west. As Vincent Brown shows in The Reaper’s Garden on Caribbean slavery, enslavement rather than emancipation is associated with the metaphor of death in black history and memory. I would argue that this holds even in areas of the United States that witnessed a natural growth in the slave population and high mortality during the war.

KM: I think we have only begun to explore the connections between what are commonly called the “first” and “second” emancipations. The gradual end of slavery in the antebellum North created a vast and uneven border zone where the status of free, fugitive, and enslaved people was complicated and where most of the era’s central battles over slavery and citizenship occurred. Work that challenges a simple—and arguably ahistorical—North/South divide for the antebellum period has begun to open new ways of thinking about race, slavery, borders, and the nation as a whole. As I realized while researching my book, antebellum debates over emancipation and black citizenship in the North served as points of reference for northerners involved in the contest over how to implement and manage the end of southern slavery. In the context of state-based abolition, northerners had already debated many of the questions about civil rights and the limits of equality that came to the fore on the national level during Reconstruction. The major difference—and one whose implications should also be explored further—was that during and after the Civil War, the federal government played an unprecedented role in debating, establishing, and enforcing policy.

JO: I agree with Kate that emancipation has a “long contested history,” but I don’t see the collapse of a “simple” North/South divide as a recent development, much less an entirely welcome one. Nearly fifty years have passed since Leon Litwack introduced North of Slavery with the statement that “the Mason-Dixon line is a convenient but often misleading geographical division.” Ever since then, there’s been a strong tendency to collapse the distinction between slavery—which I understand to be “property in man”— and racial discrimination. I call this the U. B. Phillips move: redefine slavery as a system of “racial adjustment,” and suddenly the North/South divide disappears and the Civil War looks pointless not only because there was no meaningful difference between the two sections but also because the only thing the war accomplished was the replacement of one system of “racial adjustment” with another. More recently, this has become the standard neo- revisionist formulation: “The South had slavery, but the North was racist too.” What we need, I think, is precisely the long-term perspective that Kate calls for, but one that does not erase the fact that the North and South went to war over slavery, not racial discrimination. As James Huston showed in Calculating the Value of the Union, the political and ideological struggle over slavery was most often framed as a debate over the legitimacy of property rights in human beings. If we lose sight of slavery as a distinctive form of subordination, we can’t possibly understand the Civil War.

KM: I agree that it’s crucial to distinguish between arguments over slavery itself and arguments over racial equality. Indeed, I think Gallagher and other historians—perhaps these are the “neo-revisionists” Jim is talking about—get it wrong when they interpret northern racism as evidence that white northerners were not really fighting to end slavery. In the nineteenth century, it was relatively easy for a person to oppose slavery (even on moral grounds) but also to oppose equal rights for blacks and whites. It’s also the case, though, that the abolition of slavery—whether in the northern states before the Civil War or in the South during the war itself—spurred crucial debates about rights and equality. Were newly freed former slaves entitled to the same rights (and responsible for the same obligations) as white people? Would government attempt to obliterate the racial order that had undergirded slavery, or would they allow it to continue, even after slavery itself was gone? Although these questions are not about slavery as such, they flowed inevitably from slavery’s abolition, particularly in a nation that talked so much about the equal rights of individuals.

MS: I think Jim makes a valuable point on not letting ideas of “race” flatten out important sectional differences over slavery. But we could also look at the coming of emancipation beyond a national perspective. Transnational approaches to history, much in vogue currently, might bear fruit here. A recent book by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohun Gandhi compares the war with the Great Revolt of 1857 in India, and Stephen Platt, my colleague at the University of Massachusetts, is working on a comparative history of the Taiping rebellion in China and the Civil War. An internationalist take on the Civil War might well illuminate the world historical significance of the demise of racial slavery and emancipation in ways historians of the United States have not yet considered. I also think that the tendency to view emancipation as just a war measure has obscured the role of abolitionists, black and white, men and women, in the coming of emancipation. Except for a couple of historians of abolition, abolitionists have gotten short shrift in the history of emancipation. But social movements, especially those that encompass the disfranchised, always expand political possibilities. I hope future historians of emancipation will study its long-contested history, starting with gradual emancipation in the North, rather than view it as an emergency measure born only because of the fortunes of war.

JO: It’s important to be very clear about the relationships among race, slavery, and antislavery: to warn against collapsing the distinction between slavery and racial discrimination is not the same as saying race was irrelevant to the either proslavery or antislavery politics. The irreconcilable conflict over slavery that led to the Civil War came down to a fundamental difference over the right and wrong of “property in man,” not the right and wrong of racial discrimination. This is why historians who define slavery as an extreme form of racial discrimination, what I call “racial consensus history,” inadvertently obscure the issue that led to the Civil War, by making blanket assertions about American or northern racism that render murky the very real conflicts over race that erupted periodically in the republic’s history before the Civil War.

By casually assuming that all Americans shared in the same basic racial prejudices, by focusing almost exclusively on the limits of racial egalitarianism among Republicans, we too easily blind ourselves to the immense conflict over race raging in the middle of the nineteenth century. We make everything Republicans actually did about race during and after the war into the byproduct of the war itself, when, in fact, Republicans warned openly all through the secession winter that secession meant war and war meant immediate, uncompensated emancipation. They offered peaceful, gradual abolition as the alternative to war and a brutal militaryemancipation, but the secessionists rejected that alternative. Republicans said all of this as clearly and unambiguously as it was possible for them to say it. Yet Gallagher and others repeatedly claim that when the war began “nobody” was talking about slavery’s destruction. In fact, everybody was.

MSJ: I hope future research will help us better understand the memory of the Emancipation Proclamation, particularly its endurance as a cultural touchstone into the twenty-first century. In June 2011 at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the Emancipation Proclamation was on display for thirty-six hours, in cooperation with the National Archives. From a Monday evening at six o’clock to a Wednesday morning at seven o’clock, thousands upon thousands of visitors lined up to see it for themselves such that at its peak the wait time was eight hours. Attendance records were shattered as just over twenty-one thousand visitors streamed through the exhibit. When the doors finally closed, hundreds were still in line and had to be turned away. Visitors—old, young, black, white, families, and dignitaries—all came to witness the document. These were not naïve guests. They had not come pay homage to Lincoln as the “great emancipator.” Nor did they misunderstand the proclamation to have wholly abolished slavery. Why then were they there? Future scholarship may help us explain the near-sacred quality of the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps it is one key to better understanding the roles that slavery and its abolition play in our contemporary identities as Americans.

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