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.