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!