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In many ways there were a range of ways we reacted to the emancipation, that many European nations saw it as putting sort of a right authority on the war and so, as an outcome of, places like England and France said well, we will keep in place out. We won’t support the Confederacy. But these were places that made a lot of money based on the cotton that the slaves produced. So there was a fear that France or England might recognize the Confederacy and give it legitimacy. So the Emancipation, on the one hand took away that opportunity, because otherwise it would seem that they would be endorsing slavery. But the other thing is that while there were many abolitionists who really rallied round this – and especially the free black community.
But the other thing is that while there were many abolitionists who really rallied round this – and especially the free black community – felt that this was really the beginning of the end of slavery, there were many others who basically felt why is Lincoln making this war about slavery? While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave, it was an important turning point in the war, transforming the fight to preserve the nation into a battle for human freedom. And there were many in the U.S. military, in the Northern Army, who basically felt that we really didn’t join up to free the slaves. So there were a variety of conflicting notions. But what I think is very powerful about it is Lincoln knew that his actions would begin to transform the country when it came to this issue and that was his genius.
Because in some ways what Lincoln had to do is this wasn’t just for the public. He had to make the kind of intellectual argument about why he did this and what was the benefit to the North of this happening. So that’s why you see that he lays out what areas of the country are influenced by this or under the impact, what are not. But I think for me what is so powerful – and this is where Lincoln the wordsmith comes in – is very early in the document he talks about that they would be forever free. And to me, that is the most powerful part of the Emancipation Proclamation, that basically puts the power of the United States government saying ultimately, these individuals will be forever free From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically. As a milestone along the road to slavery’s final destruction, the Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom.
There is no doubt that Lincoln was both pulled, pushed, and he had some of his own momentum. So it wasn’t necessarily that Lincoln said this is something I want to do for my whole career. But I think what’s important to realize about this is that this document is so important because of what doors it opened, what possibilities it opened. And I think the debates around it are really fascinating because I think in some ways what has changed now, hopefully around the sesquicentennial rather than the centennial, is the realization that Lincoln didn’t just free the slaves, that the enslaved population took a major role in their own liberty and their own freedom.
This quote during the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, 1862. . . on the first day of January . . . all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. President Abraham Lincoln, preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862
President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War, announcing on September 22, 1862, that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.
So here you have troops coming into Virginia or North Carolina and these enslaved people free to the lines. They ultimately begin to be put into dirt and camp, that the Union called contraband camps, but we like to call them Freedman’s villages. And that in these villages many of these people began to push to join in the Army, to play a role in terms of providing their labor for the Union, and they began to sort of force the country, and force Lincoln especially, to recognize that there’s great political military benefit from having more people leave the South and become part of the war effort for the North. So in some ways the contrabands really forced the federal government to create policy. So in some ways the contrabands really forced the federal government to create policy. They forced them to figure out well, do we return them or do we not? Do we put them up in camps or do we not? What, can they be part of the military or can they not? All of this began to push the federal government leading to the Emancipation Proclamation.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.“Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.
I would love people to realize that African-Americans were agents in their own liberty. I think that that’s an important piece, rather than simply the notion, if you look at the movie “Lincoln”, it seems as if Lincoln freed the slaves, rather than it’s part of a complicated nuanced puzzle that led to emancipation.
But I think the other part that’s so important to me about this moment is this is a moment for Americans to remember that you can believe in a change that you can’t see. That the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was something that everybody knew was going to exist forever except for a few fanaticals. But suddenly the Emancipation Proclamation began America on a trajectory that ultimately led to a fundamental change in citizenship and equality. And so what I hope is that people would realize that they have a right to demand and effect change because change is possible in this country.
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