Cult of the Emancipation Proclamation, Part 2

Do not get me wrong: I have nothing but respect for the Emancipation Proclamation and consider it to be one of the most important milestones on the path to freedom for the slaves in the Civil War. But overemphasizing it at the expense of other important events/causes of emancipation distorts the truth that freedom in the Civil War was a process involving many people not the act of one man, Abraham Lincoln, even if he was very important.

This past June, I commented critically on the tendency to turn early copies of the Emancipation Proclamation into objects of reverence in American civil religion, akin to, if not quite as important as early copies of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. While I have no problem with people lining up to view copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, the exercise serves little productive historical purpose, if people gain no appreciation of its content and historical significance. That is one reason I was critical of Allen Guelzo’s essay in the National Review Online in July wondering why there was not a holiday to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. My point was the decentralized, ad hoc celebrations of emancipation that exist in the United States are appropriate for an event that occurred largely in a decentralized, ad hoc fashion.

So, not surprisingly, I was appalled by a newspaper article I ran across recently promoting the display of a hand-written copy of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in Syracuse, N.Y. The article made a big deal that the document was not only in Abraham Lincoln’s hand but also likely contained Lincoln’s finger prints preserved by an ink smudge on the paper. Intriguing perhaps, but so what? No doubt the prospect of seeing Lincoln’s hand writing and his finger prints will attract a few extra people to the exhibit, but will they learn anything about the story of freedom for the slaves in the American Civil War behind this hand-written copy of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation? Who knows? But I have my doubts.

They would do better to read the most recent piece in Disunion in the New York Times written by Paul Finkleman, entitled “From Union to Freedom.” Finkleman does a wonderful job of explaining the release of the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of the many other significant events related to emancipation in the spring, summer, and fall of 1862. He describes the Emancipation Proclamation, in other words, in the context of a larger process, not as the be all of emancipation, which public perception and even some distinguished historians try to make it. Bravo, Paul Finkleman, bravo!

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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3 Responses to Cult of the Emancipation Proclamation, Part 2

  1. And alot of that occurred way before the war as enslaved folks emancipated themselves and threw the South into a 24/7 tizzy when they got help North of the border and south of the border primarily from other folks of African descent free and enslaved. And at the out break war, a torrent of enslaved folks made it to Union garrisons and created Freedom Towns. I know Paul by the way and will look forward to reading his book.

  2. Glenn B says:

    You and I are very much in agreement on the Emancipation Proclamation, and also on the difference between these two articles. However, after reading Finkleman, I have to ask, “where is the war?” Other than discussing the fact that Lincoln intended to use black troops to fight the war, the conflict’s military battles and contingencies are missing. As you know, this type of interpretation of emancipation annoys me.

    • Hi Glenn. One of the things I like about your book is the seamless way you relate the military history of the war with emancipation. But in defense of Finkleman and scholars like my mentor, Ira Berlin, for a long time emancipation and African Americans were largely absent from the military history of the war (along with a lot of other people who were there, as well as the larger social history of the war). Their stories needed first to be told of their own to bring them to prominence. Now it is time to start reintegrating all the players, which your book does, bringing a new level of insight to scholarship on the Civil War.

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