How Did the Emancipation Proclamation Change America? A Discussion Hosted by the NEH

In the summer of 1862, Abraham Lincoln often occupied an open desk in the War Department Telegraph Office, quietly drafting a secret document. At moments of peace during the day, Lincoln would slip away to his desk to write a few words or sentences. The draft would later be revealed to be the Emancipation Proclamation—an executive order that proclaimed the freedom of slaves in rebellious states. Lincoln revealed his plans to only a few, but rumors spread for months that his policy on slavery was wavering. Indeed, Lincoln publicly announced his policy change on September 22, 1862, and with that announcement took the first step toward the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Last week, the National Endowment of the Humanities organized a panel of five leading Civil War scholars to discuss the unfolding drama that accompanied the preliminary proclamation. Historians Ed Ayers, Thavolia Glymph, Gary Gallagher, Eric Foner, and Christy Coleman entertained an audience of 250 undergraduates, and offered knowledgeable insight into the pressures coming to bear in the months before the proclamation was announced.  

Panel moderator Ed Ayers adeptly organized the speaker’s comments to unfold as a narrative, allowing each scholar to provide the audience with a glimpse at the national atmosphere just short of the emancipation announcement. Gary Gallagher began by pointing out that in the summer months of 1862, military momentum swung dramatically between the North and South and the nation was consumed with uncertainty. In effect, no one knew how the war would turn out, and if the future of the Union would remain. In response to this uncertainty, Lincoln and his Union generals focused on ending the war quickly by crippling the South’s slave labor. Thus, Gallagher perceptively noted that military strategy is interconnected with the story of the proclamation, and one cannot be understood without the other.

Ayers then prompted Foner to offer insight into Lincoln’s motivations for writing the proclamation. Foner briefly summarized Lincoln’s metamorphosis as he moved away from a belief in gradual emancipation to a much more drastic approach to abolition. Coleman pointed out that for many slaves freed under the preliminary proclamation, it was a confusing period in the war where many simply adopted the mantra “wait and see” because they did not know how the war would end.

But for the thousands of slaves who were granted freedom under the proclamation, waiting out the war was simply not an option. As Glymph noted, freed slaves faced an enormous challenge of “actualizing” their freedom—the act of becoming a free citizen. Lincoln purposefully did not offer details about how freed slaves would hold citizenship, and many whites both in the North and South feared the transformative power the pronouncement would have. 

Arguably the best panelist contributions came in response to questions by the audience. Student Lee Showden asked, “Should a person of color still associate prejudice with a celebration of Confederate culture?” Showden’s question is a key question many scholars face. Coleman jumped on the opportunity to answer the question and pointed out her own experience as a female African American leading the American Civil War Center—a center that was the first organization that explored the Civil War from the Union, Confederate, and African American perspective. She stressed that her job has allowed her to recognize the position many Confederate soldiers were in, and that the motivations for southern civilians to join the cause were often distinct from politicians who advocated secession.

Another question from the audience was more provocative. Undergraduate student Sean Smith meaningfully asked the panel how we can truly understand the document when the existing historiography has been proven to be distorted at various points in history. This question elicited a discussion amongst the panelists about how historians have struggled over the years to grapple with the existing historiography, including the infamous “Dunning School.” Ayers interjected by simply remarking that “the only way to have command over it [history] is to understand it.” 

Ayers was certainly correct in his point, and Smith’s question demonstrates the delicate position teachers face when educating students. Historians often complain that history textbooks rarely interact with historiography and remain static vestals of information. Perhaps teachers can note this particular interaction as an example of why it is important to introduce students to historiography early so that they can approach it with the same critical eye that historians are also trained. In this particular instance, the panelists acknowledged the past misuses of history but also showed that it is a valuable tool for understanding our own pasts.    

The NEH discussion was taped by both C-SPAN and the History Channel. A video of the discussion can be seen here.

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