The Cult of the Emancipation Proclamation

One of the things any serious student of emancipation in the American Civil War comes to realize, sooner or later, was that freedom for the slaves in the Civil War was not a simple story. No one person, group, law, document, etc., was solely responsible for the end of slavery in the United States. Yet there is a tendency, especially among history buffs, and even some academic historians, to want to simplify the story. So we get Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator” and the cult of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That is, if most people remember anything about emancipation, it was Lincoln freed the slaves and he did so through the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation has achieved a hallowed status as one of the great documents of the United States, almost on par with the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. One sign of the status it has achieved is every few years, the National Archives puts the original copy on display for a few days with the other great documents in the rotunda of their temple of Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., and people queue up to see it.

Another sign of its cult is a recent transaction that took place. A printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln was sold at auction in New York City this past Tuesday, June 26, for $2.1 million. It was bought by David Rubenstein, who manages the Carlyle Group, which speaks not only to the historical significance of this document, but the fact that hedge fund managers are grossly overcompensated. Interestingly enough, this is not the highest price ever paid for a printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln. Two years ago, another such document, once owned by Robert Kennedy sold for a cool $3.8 million. No doubt the Kennedy connection explains the premium paid for that particular signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In any case, while I’m grateful for the interest just about anyone takes in emancipation in the American Civil War, one of the goals of Civil War Emancipation over the coming months, as we approach the sesquicentennial of the release of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 2012) and the final Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 2013) will be not only to communicate the complexities and limitations of these documents, but also to place them in their proper context in the story of emancipation. Certainly, they were very important, but the revered status of the Emancipation Proclamation unfortunately has a tendency to distort the tale of how freedom came to the slaves. It was a much more complex and much more interesting story than simply this great document, and Civil War Emancipation intends to tell it.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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10 Responses to The Cult of the Emancipation Proclamation

  1. Margaret D. Blough says:

    It’s an important milestone, including representing an earthshaking change in the Union war objectives. However, Lincoln, more than anyone, realized that it was a first step. His much criticized meeting with black leaders about voluntary colonization before the preliminary EP centered on his certainty of the difficulties that freed blacks would face from angry whites if slavery ended. He also recognized the shakiness of the EP’s status as a presidential exercise of his war powers, which, in addition to the fact that the existence of war powers was by no means universally accepted, could be reversed not only by the courts but by a successor. In addition, there was no certainty as to how, even if the war powers argument was upheld, freed slaves would be treated once the war ended. That was why he was so adamant about pushing through the 13th Amendment through Congress, to the extent that he made his first effort before the 1864 presidential election.

    There were many northern whites, however, who very much felt that once the slaves were freed, the freed people were on their own.

  2. Edwin Thompson says:

    The Cult of the Emancipation Proclamation??? Earth shattering change in Union war objectives? Hummm – on the wider history, perhaps start with the 1688 Resolution of Germantown Mennonites who protested against slavery. Of course that document did not suddenly appear, there were objections to slavery long before this document became part of our history. The Magna Carta didn’t appear in 1215 either, but was penned 150 years after William of Normandy conquered England. The Lords finally challenged the king for their rights within a document (not serfs – that took more time). It was a start. What is the value of the Magna Carta? The Emancipation Proclamation?

    The 18th century brought other challenges. We created a Constitution that did not support the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. We were very far from “….all men are created equal….Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. The smartest Americans of the time wrote these words and then wrote a Constitution a dozen years later that defined a “new kind of man”. He was a slave who was represented in our government as 3/5ths of a man. All it did was give more power to slave holding states. The constitution was a start – but like the Magna Carta, was only the beginning.

    Then the 19th Century. The northern states abolished slavery, the southern states enshrined slavery. So we needed the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Then later, the Taney Supreme Court (this has been a good week to discuss the Supreme Court and its influence on American history) expanded the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott Decision. Without those decisions, who knows what would have happened in American history. The Taney Supreme Court removed legitimate reasons to abolish slavery via compensation. Why compensate, you could bring your property anywhere you wanted. And men like Lincoln (another constitutional lawyer), would have pursued that method as you have written about.

    The cult is the re-writing of history about slavery’s expansion and resulting war over slavery. The story of the Emancipation Proclamation is important because the document had to be written. And it had to be written because of our forefathers failures when they drafted the Constitution.

  3. RonFCCC says:

    To speak of “the cult of the Emancipation Proclamation” seems to imply that the issuing of that document is now held in greater regard than it deserves. It seems to me that it’s more the other way around. There is plenty of modern criticism of the proclamation as being incomplete, late, and for the wrong purposes. It is said Lincoln was driven to issue it only because the Union would otherwise lose the war, so he deserves no credit for freeing slaves. In fact, critics love to say that not a single slave was actually freed by the proclamation. In my estimation, such criticisms miss the point (besides being simply inaccurate). Given the political, military, social and Constitutional realities of the time, what superior course of action was open to Lincoln? I think a fair assessment of the Emancipation Proclamation in its historical context will elevate rather than lower the regard in which it is now held.

    • My point is the reverence that the Emancipation Proclamation elicits oversimplifies the complex story by which slavery ended in this country. And I stand by that point because it’s true. Should be people revere the Emancipation Proclamation? I can think of worse things to revere, but it encourages people to give Lincoln too much credit and to cut out other important players such as Congress, the Union Army, and the slaves themselves. It is wonderful myth and civil religion. It is bad history.

  4. Edwin Thompson says:

    You ask the question “Should be people revere the Emancipation Proclamation?” Absolutely. Lincoln was a lawyer who was sworn into office to uphold the Constitution. He understood that the Constitution was deeply flawed by identifying a man who was only 3/5th of a person and allowing this person to be represented in the House of Representative. We can blame the Constitution for the war, since it gave southern slave holding states excess representation. At the same time, northern states and the world were abolishing slavery.

    Lincolns said it best in his second inaugural address. “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    Lincoln words could be John Brown’s. I always like this statement because Lincoln did not distinguish between northerners and southerners. He blamed all Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation should be revered. The fact that a document like the Emancipation Proclamation was written speaks to our American Southern culture. A culture that lost its soul to slavery.

    • I’ve got no problem with people revering the Emancipation Proclamation, if it doesn’t cause them to have a simplistic understanding of how slavery ended in the United States. I’ve also got no problem with admiring Abraham Lincoln for his role in emancipation, as long as it doesn’t stop people from understanding the role played by the many and myriad individuals that contributed to emancipation. Unfortunately, I have found too often this aspect of American civil religion does detract from good history.

      • Edwin Thompson says:

        I agree that a simple understanding on the elimination of slavery is bad history. And there were many important people besides Lincoln. But Lincoln was a giant. The American landscape would be different without his legacy. Lincoln deserves tremendous credit – he kept his oath to uphold the Constitution, and changed it when the opportunity presented itself.

        Keeping a democratic republic in the mid 19th century had to be a grave concern to an American President. Lincoln saved the republic.

      • RonFCCC says:

        Amen! I think Lincoln, with his outstanding and often underrated political skills, was the single most important human factor in the defeat of the Confederacy and the destruction of slavery. Just think, for example, of how different the world would be today if Douglas had won the presidency in 1860.

      • I agree, Lincoln is a giant. But even a giant could not save the Union or end slavery by himself. Indeed, it is debatable how much Lincoln led on this issue and how much he was pushed along by forces and events beyond his control. He certainly should be honored for embracing emancipation and sticking with it in the dark days of the summer of 1864. He is my personal choice for the best president in American history. But emancipation is much, much bigger than even this giant. And in giving Lincoln his considerable due, we shouldn’t cast a shadow on the rest of a much larger story. That is why I am critical of the cult of Lincoln and the cult of the Emancipation Proclamation. They suck up the historical oxygen. Again, let us not let civil religion get in the way of good history.

  5. Edwin Thompson says:

    It sounds unfair to say that Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation “sucks up the historical oxygen”. With people like John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Horace Greeley, and Fredrick Douglas, there is only so much oxygen left. The larger picture is that slavery was disappearing long before our civil war,

    The American south was unique in that they were willing to die to protect their right to own people. And Lincolns intent was clear – he outlined it in his Cooper Union Speech which won him the election. The end of slavery was near. Right makes might.

    I would respectfully say that there is no cult of Lincoln or Emancipation Proclamation. Just people who are amazed that a self-taught country lawyer, who never went to school, who had relatives in both the north and south, healed America’s greatest sin. That is good history, and a great story.

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