Thoughts on the Emancipation Proclamation

On Sept 22nd, many commemorated the 150th anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. My twitter buddy @SlaveryDatabase participated in an event that celebrated the crossing of the Rappahannock River. In 1862, slaves crossed this river in Virgnia in an act of self emancipation. The images by Timothy O’Sullivan capture refugees crossing at Tinpot Ford and they speak volumes. The reenactment on Saturday saw a large group of participants make the same trek to freedom in what I’m sure was an emotional and almost haunting experience. Knowing that you were literally following the footsteps of those who 150 years prior used this route to claim freedom had to be absolutely incredible. There are some fantastic images at Historic Wanderings, so feel free to head over and check them out. (image from the Library of Congress)

Rappahannock River, Virginia. Fugitive Negroes fording the Rappahannock. (During Pope's retreat)

The New York State Museum has an amazing traveling exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation that looks pretty dern spectacular. Among other amazing pieces of history, the exhibit The First Step to Freedom: Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is traveling with a hand written draft of the prelim proc. The beauty of this (teachers, I’m looking at you!!) is that even if you cannot make it to the exhibit in person, you can (teachers this includes your classes) still discover everything via the website. Not only that, there is an Education Packet that provides pretty much all the material you need to make lessons POP.  The packet is in a .pdf so feel free to download and take a look.

Now how do I feel about the famous proclamation? Honestly, it’s one of those documents that I see at face value. In my face, it looks like a document that just exerts executive power and was not written with the meaning that we’ve given it. Lincoln found himself between a rock and hard place. First and foremost, he wanted to preserve the Union. It didn’t matter if African Americans received freedom as long as the United States were once again united. I look to a quote from Lincoln from a letter to Horace Greenley of the New York Tribune where he said “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” While I am of course grateful that he opted to use Emancipation as a war tactic, it leaves me uneasy that he finally acted upon the requests of many like Frederick Douglass as a means to get what he wanted…preservation of the Union. I give Lincoln the proverbial side-eye especially when reading the proclamations that gave freedom only to those slaves who lived in the states that were in rebellion. It tells me that if you were a slave fortunate enough to live in a state where they gave the middle finger to the government, then you would be “rewarded” with freedom, but if you happened to live in a state that was sympathetic to the Union, yet still held slaves, then you were rewarded with a pat on the head and continued enslavement. What I also look at with skepticism is this whole colonization issue. Yes, I know and understand that there were Blacks who were indeed in favor of going back to Africa or pretty much anywhere but these here United States…after all, look at how they were being treated. But my question has always been, “How do you have the unmitigated gall to forcefully import a people and then ain’t got to go home but you got to get the hell outta here?” Where in the world do they do that at? Oh yea, these United States. I wonder often how those who were in states that sided with the Union felt seeing their counterparts who lived in those rebellious states get the freedom that rightfully belonged to them, unsure of when their moment would come. It’s moments like that where I find pride in those who snatched freedom whenever and however they could. Why wait for someone to give you freedom when they really don’t want to when you could get it yourself? I think that’s why the crossing at the Rappahannock River resonates so soundly for me.

What I do see in the Proclamation is finally an opportunity to be seen as somebody. Not a piece of property. Not a name on someone’s inventory.  I see Lincoln putting all his chips out there, betting the house and eventually winning. I see generations before and after rejoice in the opportunity to regain their culture. I don’t see a savior in Lincoln (I just don’t), instead I see a small piece of justice being served…by any means.

Read both the Preliminary Proclamation of 1862, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and tell me what the documents mean to you.

Emancipation Proclamation, page 1

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2 Responses

  1. GregMc says:

    Good point. Conflating the EP with abolitionism (and thereby putting Lincoln up on the shoulders of the people who had been trying for so long to get rid of slavery) is sort of a weird Union version of what Confederate sympathizers do with slavery. (Let’s see if I can make myself clear here . . .) People who thought/think that slavery was evil project that onto the Union cause, even though Lincoln, among others, made it clear that he was not fighting the war to get rid of slavery. For people who romaticize the EP, John Brown led the Army of the Potomac. Similarly, the (neo) Confederates are generally unwilling to come right out and say they pine for slavery, so they prefer to pretend that secession was about something vague and noble-sounding like “states rights”. I’m convinced that’s one reason so many of them worship Lee: they had ONE guy who wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about slavery and so he must be cherished. (p.s. I know Karen Cox, which is why I’m bothering you with my two cents)

  2. Karen L. Cox says:

    You need to add a Twitter button to your blog so it can be tweeted! Great post!!

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