Commemorating Emancipation

If we understand the years 1861-1865 to be the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, we must also recognize that period as the sesquicentennial of the destruction of American slavery.  So, on the 198th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, how might Americans mark what was one of the most significant events in our nation’s history?

First, one might note that I could have also raised this question some two weeks ago, to mark the 145th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Indeed, to focus on the Emancipation Proclamation in constructing a narrative about the destruction of slavery during 1861-1865 offers a skewed if altogether familiar perspective to the story.  We’ve had a lively debate among historians and other interested parties for a while based on the answer to the question, “Who freed the slaves?”  Those discussions tend to concentrate on the events leading to the Emancipation Proclamation.  Should we tell the story of how Lincoln approached the issue?  What about the arguments that the slaves freed themselves?  What about the role of the Union army as liberator, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes eagerly?  What role did the policies of the Confederate government play in destroying the very institution it was established to protect?  These are interesting question, best answered, I think, by asking, “How did freedom come?” Some might reword that as “How and why did slavery collapse?”  I prefer these latter approaches, because the story of emancipation is too important to be reduced to the story of distributing credit for who did what.  Moreover, the story continues after January 1, 1863, and, indeed, it is best to understand Lincoln’s own policies on slavery and emancipation by treating the Emancipation Proclamation as one step, however big, in a continuing journey.  It’s also important to recall that many people resisted that journey, and not all of them came from the South.  Emancipation sparked controversy and violence on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.  One could also add that “What did freedom mean?” was answered during Reconstruction, although some of the answers first appeared during the war.  After all, in concentrating upon the destruction of slavery, we sometimes overlook the discussion over the shape post-emancipation society should take, from Lincoln’s colonization plans to the notions of confiscation and redistribution embraced by some radical Republicans.  Even as Robert E. Lee accepted black enlistment in 1865 and maintained that it come with a guarantee of freedom for the soldiers, he had to be wondering about what post-emancipation society might look like in the Confederacy should it gain its independence.  And how did free blacks, from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Sojourner Truth and Martin Delany, to say nothing of many others, advance the cause of freedom?

To me this is an interesting subject, in part because we have no single book that explores it in depth as a process (we have a wonderful amount of scholarship on aspects of this process which are essential to constructing a larger narrative).  Yes, I’m thinking about helping to fill that void, but I struggle with how to do it … writing a big book, or writing a shorter book that inspires more research and advances arguments and offers interpretations that may or may not be supported by subsequent scholarship.  I say that because in the world of American historical scholarship, some of the most provocative arguments, such as Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, came in small packages, and as I doubt I’ll be the last word on this subject, at least I might be one of the first people to try to pull it all together in a succinct fashion.  It’s something I think about a great deal.  But I also ponder how other Americans will view the events and processes that led to the destruction of slavery and the embrace of freedom.  For the war itself we have reenactments, battlefield tours, nice big and smart little books on battles and leaders, and all sorts of documentaries, conferences, and so on.  We’ve had debates on secession balls and Confederate history months and the presence (or absence) of sesquicentennial commissions.  How will we observe the Confiscation Acts, Lincoln’s annual messages on slavery, actions at the state level, and so on, let alone how freedom came to millions of African Americans during the course of four years … and how many of them played a major role in taking that freedom for themselves?  In short, how will we as Americans reflect upon and commemorate, even celebrate, the destruction of slavery and the emancipation of four million Americans (just as much Americans as any other Americans) from enslavement?

Happy New Year indeed.