July 22, 1862 is certainly a notable day in the history of emancipation in the American Civil War. It was on this date, 150 years ago today, that Abraham Lincoln presented the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his “Team of Rivals.” In other words, a momentous occasion where Lincoln briefed and sought reactions from his cabinet to a major shift in administration policy away from encouraging gradual compensated emancipation by the states toward embracing immediate uncompensated freedom for the slaves enforced by the federal government at gun point.
The meeting is famous and others scholars have spent great pains describing it, so I won’t waste this blog’s space of detailing it yet again. If readers want a decent account of the July 22 meeting to remind them of its particulars, <click here>. And, of course, there is the famous Francis Bicknell Carpenter painting below celebrating and depicting it as a moment akin with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
In a recent essay in the National Review Online, Allen Guelzo, Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, asks a trenchant question. Starting from the 150th anniversary of Lincoln presenting his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, he ponders why isn’t this document celebrated more? Guelzo writes:
The Emancipation Proclamation did more, and for more Americans, than any other presidential document before or since. It declared that over 3 million black slaves (representing some $3 billion in capital investment) would “thenceforward, and forever, be free” (thus transforming that $3 billion into a net zero, overnight) and turned the Civil War from being a police action against the breakaway southern Confederacy into a crusade for freedom. It was, as Lincoln himself said, “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century.”
Allen Guelzo then provides his readers with some probable reasons why the Emancipation Proclamation is not more celebrated. The first problem, Guelzo suggests, is the document’s highly legalistic language. As he writes, “the language of the proclamation is so stultifyingly and legally dull, full of whereases and therefores, that the whole thing leaves approximately the same impression on the spirit as a lump of coal.”
The next problem, Guelzo acknowledges is that the Emancipation Proclamation kept in slavery large numbers of African Americans, in both the loyal Border States and in parts of the Confederate South then under Union occupation. “If the proclamation was indeed about freeing slaves,” he writes, “then the slaves in those places must have had an interesting time understanding why they didn’t qualify.”
Also problematic, Allen Guelzo asserts is the fact that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation solely by virtue of his authority as commander-in-chief, as a war measure aimed at suppressing a rebellion. In other words, it is hard to celebrate a document that did not stem from altruistic idealism, but from military necessity. “No parting the Red Sea, no making the world safe for democracy” exclaims Guelzo sarcastically. “The proclamation is presented as nothing more than a military tactic for subduing the Confederacy.”
Finally, Guelzo suggests the last reason for lack of celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation is that modern audiences, especially African Americans, do not like the idea of freedom for the black slaves granted by the fiat of a lone white politician. As Allen Guelzo puts it, “that the proclamation is just one more self-righteous reminder to African-Americans that they have no agency of their own, but must rely on the goodwill of white folks, even for freedom.” In other words, that it tends to diminish African-American agency and their very real contributions to the coming of freedom in the Civil War.
Guelzo then goes on to defend some of the less admirable qualities of Emancipation Proclamation. For example, he argues that Lincoln, a skilled lawyer, had to write the document in a particularly legalistic way with very precise language to defend it against the constitutional challenges it would conceivably face from slaveholders about to be divested of billions of dollars of their property by the stroke of the President’s pen.
He also contends, that although the slaves did everything in their power to obtain their freedom in the war, that ultimately they could not emancipate themselves. Guelzo writes:
One thing they could not do, however, was emancipate themselves. The runaway slave would always remain, legally, a slave. And if the day ever came when the Union grew tired enough of war to open negotiations for some amicable settlement with the Confederacy, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that southern negotiators would not have made the rendition of those runaway slaves part of the settlement — or that war-weary northern whites would not have agreed to it. Emancipation had to be de jure, not just de facto, and that required a legal action. And the only man with the power, the authority, and the wisdom to do it so that it could never be undone was Abraham Lincoln.
So Guelzo, predictably given his past scholarship on the subject, seeks to restore Abraham Lincoln to his central role in emancipation during the Civil War–no surprise there. But then he goes further to assert that the desire for black agency and participation in freedom for the slaves is at the heart of why the Emancipation Proclamation is not celebrated more. Guelzo asserts, “Precisely because notions of self-emancipation are more a matter of sentiment and pride than of footnotes, they pose the most intractable resistance to restoring the honor of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Allen Guelzo provides insightful discussion on why the Emancipation Proclamation is not more celebrated. However, what is missing here is an important question. How did the former slaves commemorate their freedom after emancipation and how do their descendants and others continue to celebrate it today? Guelzo is no doubt correct “that white and black owe each other far more than either can pay off.” But the simple fact is that until recent decades few white Americans were willingly to acknowledge that interdependence and African Americans largely were left to their own devices in celebrating emancipation–and celebrate it they did. Scholars have begun studying these celebrations in recent years, most notably Mitch Kachun in his book, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).
One important point about black celebrations of freedom was liberated slaves did it on a schedule that was meaningful to them. For example, one of the most famous emancipation celebrations is Juneteenth, typically celebrated on June 19. On this date in 1865, Union general Gordon Granger, recently arrived in Galveston with 2,000 federal troops, issued an order enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. So July 22, 1862 had no particular meaning to the Texas slaves because they did not effectively become free for nearly three more years. Neither did September 22, 1862 (when Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation public) or January 1, 1863 (when it became final) because on those days Texas slaves were still in bondage. So understandably, former Texas slaves began in 1866 commemorating the day they actually gained their freedom.
The same thing is true elsewhere in the United States. In Florida, May 20 is the unofficial emancipation commemoration day because on that date in 1865, Union general Edward McCook read the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, bringing slavery there to an effective end. In Columbus, Mississippi, Emancipation Day is May 8, locally called “Eight o’ May,” commemorating the day the slaves there learned of their freedom. In Paducah and McCracken County, Kentucky, Emancipation Day is August 8, again when the slaves there learned they were free. Emancipation Day in District of Columbia, which falls on April 16, is the day Abraham Lincoln signed congressional legislation freeing slaves there, effectively making slaves there free (although in modern times, in practice the commemoration is shifted a day or two some years to give government workers a three-day weekend).
The commonality here is that ex-slaves commemorated their freedom when they actually became free as opposed to when Abraham Lincoln shared his decision with his cabinet to issue an Emancipation Proclamation (July 22), announced it (September 22), or finalized it (January 1).
This is not to say that Abraham Lincoln was not involved, as the Emancipation Proclamation formed the authority by which freedom which the Union Army implemented freedom in the Confederate South, and Lincoln signed the D.C. emancipation bill. So, Allen Guelzo is absolutely correct that Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation played an important role in bringing freedom to the slaves. But we must acknowledge that emancipation is an event larger than even a historical giant such as Lincoln. There were lots of other key players in the historical drama of emancipation in the American Civil War, including the U.S. Congress, the Union Army, and the slaves themselves.
In short, if the emancipation’s celebration in the United States was and remains a rather decentralized, ad hoc affair, perhaps it is because emancipation itself was a rather decentralized, ad hoc event. First, it effectively occurred at many different times in many different places. Second, Abraham Lincoln could exert his considerable executive power to make it happen, but in the end many other people’s cooperation was required to implement it against the wishes of millions of Americans in opposition. So it is not wise to suggest, as Allen Guelzo does that African Americans pose the biggest obstacle to a national holiday commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation. Emancipation was an event much bigger than this admittedly key document or its author, and the decentralized and largely informal nature of its celebration currently and in the past, ironically captures that truth better than would a national holiday focused on the Emancipation Proclamation.