Abraham Lincoln and His Emancipation Proclamation, The Strobridge Lith. Co, 1888.  Source: LOC

Henceforth Free

The Emancipation Proclamation

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment’s passage through Congress. That was the amendment that did away with slavery once and for all. But on January 1, 1863, two years before, President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Today, Lincoln is remembered as “The Great Emancipator,” but the story of emancipation is complex and contradictory. And the question of how we choose to commemorate this anniversary can be touchy.

On this episode, we set out to understand the way Americans thought about emancipation in 1862, and reflect on its shifting meanings since then. Along the way, we make stops at the Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C., the Civil War centennial commemorations in the height of the Civil Rights Era, and the former capital of the Confederacy today. And we hear the voices of former slaves themselves, remembering their first experiences of freedom.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Full Episode Transcript

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

FOUNTAIN HUGHES: We had no home, you know. We was just turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in the pasture? Well, after freedom, you know, colored people didn’t have nothing.

PETER: That’s the voice of Fountain Hughes, a former slave describing his experience of emancipation. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln declared all slaves in the rebellious states to be free. Today on the show, the changing means of emancipation. What did Americans make of it in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle? And what should they make of it today?

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, the emancipation is really, really hard, especially for African Americans, because of the notion of having been free by someone else. Which is what the narrative of emancipation has been for so long. It’s just a hard one to swallow.

PETER: Grappling with emancipation. Today on BackStory. But first, this History in the Making.

Major production support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the University of Virginia.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: 18th century ago.

BRIAN: In a small park just east of the US capitol, there’s a tall monument depicting two bronze figures on a high pedestal. One is Abraham Lincoln, his right hand resting on a scroll. That scroll is the Emancipation Proclamation. His left hand is outstretched over the head of the second figure who’s crouched at Lincoln’s feet. It’s a newly freed slave, broken manacles hanging from his wrist. This man isn’t identified anywhere on the monument, but he was modeled on a real person.

KIRK SAVAGE: by the name of Archer Alexander, who was a man who had escaped from a Confederate-sympathizing slave owner in Missouri.

PETER: This is Kirk Savage, an art historian at the University of Pittsburgh. He explained that Alexander escaped from slavery in the spring of 1863, a few months after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. But here’s the thing. Alexander was from Missouri, and Missouri was a slave state that was loyal to the Union, and Lincoln’s Proclamation only applied to states in rebellion, which meant that under federal law, Alexander would still have been considered a fugitive slave. And he would have remained a fugitive slave until Missouri abolished slavery in 1865.

KIRK SAVAGE: So here’s the irony. You have the figure of Lincoln up above this man, Archer Alexander, who’s now modeled after Archer Alexander. And Lincoln is actually literally holding in his right hand the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that did absolutely nothing to free the man at his feet.

ED: Stories like Archer Alexander’s show us just how complicated the transition from slavery to freedom was. So today on the show, we’re marking the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation. We will look at what emancipation actually meant in 1863, and what it’s meant to subsequent generations of Americans.

BRIAN: Let’s return to that monument in DC. It’s the only national monument to emancipation, and it was conceived by former slaves as a tribute to Lincoln after his assassination. But the money those former slaves collected for the project was controlled by an all white charitable organization. And before that group settled on the design we just heard about– Lincoln standing, Archer Alexander kneeling– it considered a very different idea.

KIRK SAVAGE: They initially chose a design by woman sculptor, actually, by the name of Harriet Hosmer in 1866. And the design called for a huge, sculptural kind of assemblage that would have featured an image at the top of Lincoln on his sepulchre, you know, dead, horizontal at the top of the monument, surrounded at the base by a series of figures of African Americans that sort of told a archetypal story of African American History, starting with a slave figure and working its way around the pedestal until you get to a soldier figure adjacent to it on the other side, so that you had this pairing of the slave and the soldier in the front of the monument. It would have been about 60 feet high. Something like that.

BRIAN: Really? So monumental.

KIRK SAVAGE: It would have been the largest monument in Washington at that time by far. They were after really a big, bold statement. And the inclusion of the figure of the African American soldier was a really big and bold statement for that time.

BRIAN: With the prone Lincoln and the slave literally rising, this seems to convey a pretty front and center role for the formerly enslaved people.

KIRK SAVAGE: Absolutely. And that’s what’s so striking about that design, is that it really gives agency to African Americans and their history. It really puts them front and center in the story of emancipation. Because Lincoln is dead up at the top of the monument, he is no longer an agent in this monument. And it’s, in fact, the African Americans below him who become the agents in the monument. And this is a complete reversal of the history of representation of slaves and African Americans in the US.

BRIAN: Now I do a lot of research in Washington. I have missed this monument that you just described. Did I take a wrong turn?

KIRK SAVAGE: [LAUGHS] No. Well, they simply didn’t get anywhere near the money that they needed to be able to erect this design. So they went to a plan B. And plan B was in a sense, almost the opposite of plan A. Plan B was a design that was kind of off the shelf, already made, by a sculptor named Thomas Ball.

Basically, it’s a rehash of the typical imagery of the slave prior to emancipation. The figure of the kneeling slave who implores an unseen kind of Savior around him, says, am I not a man and a brother?

BRIAN: Where would Ball have seen this before the war?

KIRK SAVAGE: Well, he would have seen it everywhere. I mean, it was in print form. It was circulated in prints. Women would create pin cushions with this image on it, and handkerchiefs, and all kinds of household items, and sell them at fundraisers for the Abolitionist movement.

And this was the most famous and the most common image of an African American really in the world. It was a loan slave figure. So there was nobody with him. That was part of the power of it. He’s sort of appealing, even though he’s shown in profile, he’s in a sense appealing to you.

He’s asking you, am I not a man and a brother? And it’s a notorious image nowadays, because it really expresses the kind of total lack of agency. The idea that the slave couldn’t possibly engage in any kind of resistance or any kind of effective action on his own behalf, but has to rely on a white savior.

BRIAN: And that white savior was Abraham Lincoln in this case?

KIRK SAVAGE: Then becomes Abraham Lincoln. So what Ball realized was that, hey, we can complete the image now. We can kind of complete the narrative. Right? This was a question mark before. Am I not a man and brother? Now we’ve answered it. And we can answer it with the figure of Abraham Lincoln, who comes in as the great white savior responding to the plea of the lowly slave.

BRIAN: So Kirk, help me understand, what do you make of all of this?

KIRK SAVAGE: Well, I understand all the reasons why it was made the way it was in its own time and place. But I think this could not be imagined and understood in any kind of way that was truly emancipating for the ex-slave population. The fact that they had to fall back on antebellum formula of the representation of the passive slave, and in a sense had to re-enslave this slave in the monument, I think speaks to a much larger cultural failure to actually rethink our society in the wake of the end of slavery.

BRIAN: Kirk Savage is a professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh. You can read more about the emancipation monument to his book, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves. And you can check out images of the monument on our website, backstoryradio.org.

Almost 100 years after Thomas Ball’s memorial was created, the nation had another big opportunity to commemorate emancipation. It was the 100 year anniversary of the Civil War, an event that Yale historian David Blight writes about in a new book called American Oracle. I asked David what Civil Rights leaders wanted to see happen for the centennial of Lincoln’s Proclamation.

DAVID BLIGHT: Within only a week or two of President Kennedy’s inauguration January of ’61, Martin Luther King, Junior and his aides, and SCLE, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, began to lobby the White House to issue what they explicitly called a second Emancipation Proclamation.

And by that, they meant an executive order, just as Lincoln had done during the Civil War, outlawing segregation. So in the summer of ’62, while the White House has this appeal from King, which they had no intention of really acting on as an executive order from the President, they did some what hastily plan a special event at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate emancipation.

Now initially, it was even announced that Kennedy himself would be the speaker. The keynote speaker would be the President. But because the Civil Rights Movement was so sensitive, within about two weeks of the event, Kennedy announced, or the White House announced, that Kennedy, because of a scheduling problem, was not going to be able to appear.

And the truth is he went instead to attend the America’s Cup Yacht Race off Nantucket. In his stead, somewhat hastily, the keynote speaker was announced as Adlai Stevenson. Now Adlai Stevenson was at that point the US Secretary to the United Nations, or the Ambassador to the United Nations. Now the event came off fine. But the speech that Stevens actually gave, the speech is essentially a Cold War speech to the Third World about how the United States, the United America, out of its divisive past was now your beacon.

And very little was said at this commemoration about the Emancipation Proclamation itself, how it came about, what it actually did, or for that matter the process of emancipation during the Civil War. And keep in mind, the Civil Rights Movement is out there roiling across the landscape of the South at the very time they had this commemoration.

This event was treated in the black press and black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier, and others as a missed opportunity, to say the least.

BRIAN: David Blight is a professor of history at Yale University. His book about the centennial is called American Oracle, The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.

So as we heard, Civil Rights leaders were pretty disappointed with that official Centennial Commemoration of emancipation. And I think you could understand why. A year later, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and he commemorated emancipation in a very different way.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted.

BRIAN: A lot of people don’t realize it, but the famous “Dream” part of the speech was ad-libbed and comes at the very end. The majority of the speech was actually about emancipation.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free.

BRIAN: It’s time for a short break. When we come back, why Lincoln refused to end slavery in loyal states, like Maryland and Kentucky.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. 150 years ago this month, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, outlawing slavery in the rebellious states. Today on the show, we’re looking at the repercussions of that event in the months, years, and decades that followed.

ED: So you might be wondering why it took Lincoln so long to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. I mean, he’d been elected two years earlier on an anti-slavery platform. Well by 1862, a lot of his fellow Republicans were wondering the same thing.

MALE SPEAKER: On the face of this wide Earth, Mr. President, there’s not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that the rebellion, if crushed out tomorrow, will be renewed within a year, if slavery were left in full vigor, and that every hour of deference to slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union.

BRIAN: This is New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, writing in August of 1862. A month earlier, Congress had passed the Second Confiscation Act, saying that all slaves belonging to Rebel fighters should be considered free. But Greeley felt that Lincoln wasn’t doing much to enforce that law. Three days later, the paper printed a response from the President himself.

MALE SPEAKER: My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

BRIAN: Lincoln went with option number three. He would free some slaves, but leave others alone. In September of 1862, he issued what today we call to Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Basically, a heads up to the South about what was coming in the new year.

MICHAEL VORENBERG: You could see it as basically a big stick to get the Confederacy to stop fighting, with the carrot that if they do stop fighting, those that own slaves get to keep their slaves.

PETER: This is Michael Vorenberg, a legal historian who spent a lot of time studying the Proclamation. And again, this is the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The final Proclamation would come 100 days later, after the carrot and stick approach had failed. And it would come with a few key changes. Lincoln removed language about compensating slave owners and shipping freed slaves out of the country.

He also authorized the enlistment of African Americans in the Armed Forces of the United States. And finally, he specified the places where the Proclamation would take effect.

MICHAEL VORENBERG: And in the states listed, none of the border states are mentioned. Now border state, by which I mean a state that’s in the Union, but is still a slave state.

PETER: Maryland, for instance?

MICHAEL VORENBERG: Maryland was one of these. Delaware. No disrespect to Delaware, that was probably the least important. But Maryland is terribly important, because it borders Washington. Missouri is a very important state in the West. And Kentucky, I think Lincoln regarded as the most important of these states. He famously said, I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky. [LAUGHING]

PETER: Michael, when we look back at the Emancipation Proclamation, we tend to be disappointed. And we think it’s a bit cynical. I mean, why isn’t he doing something about slavery across the country, where he actually has power? Maybe you could make it clear to our listeners what the constitutional constraints were on Lincoln. What could he do? And was he pushing that to the absolute limits?

MICHAEL VORENBERG: Here, there’s a lot of controversy. And I would say he was pushing it pretty much to the absolute limits. It’s worth remembering that in areas where war is not going on, as commander-in-chief, he doesn’t have the power to simply free all the slaves in the Union States in other areas.

BRIAN: Just to be clear, Lincoln is acting under his conception of his War Powers under the Constitution.

MICHAEL VORENBERG: That is exactly right. He understood that if you wanted to abolish slavery, it had to happen through the states. That was the custom. It had become such a custom, such an accepted piece, it was almost as good as being explicit in the Constitution.

BRIAN: And might this constitutional parsing, this tight rope that he is walking, might this explain the really dry language of the Emancipation Proclamation? Is it possible that he was simply trying to dampen a more emotional, evocative approach?

MICHAEL VORENBERG: That is exactly why I think he uses this phrasing. Because he wants to make it clear that he is acting in his capacity as commander-in-chief. Not as the executive of the nation, and not as– and this is important– not as the spokesman for the nation. And when he gives a second inaugural and he deals directly with the issue of slavery in beautiful and really powerful words, he’s thinking about being a spokesman of the nation. But this is something different.

BRIAN: That’s Michael Vorenberg. He’s an historian at Brown University.

ED: We’re going to devote a little time now to an aspect of Lincoln’s thinking that seemed to stand in direct contradiction to emancipation. I’m talking about his support for colonization, the idea that freed slaves should be resettled outside the United States.

So guys, help me with this. At the very time that Lincoln is writing the Emancipation Proclamation, a truly revolutionary document, a document that is going to lay the foundation for the freedom of 4 million slaves, he’s also talking about shipping those freed people out of the country. And people look at this and they go, well, this just suggests that the whole Emancipation Proclamation thing is bogus. He’s still looking for a way to turn America white. To get rid of black people.

Is Lincoln a cynical racist? Is he a shrewd politician? So let’s start with the shrewd politician, Brian. I know that’s the kind of thing that you specialize in.

BRIAN: Right up my alley.

ED: So tell us the political situation, and why Lincoln might be talking about colonization in order to help get emancipation accomplished.

BRIAN: Well, in typical 20th century fashion, Ed, I’m going to use two sound bite phrases. The first is coalition politics, which I think even Peter would agree has a very long heritage in the United States.

PETER: Well, that’s the Constitution.

BRIAN: Exactly.

PETER: The result of a coalition.

BRIAN: Lincoln is trying to hold together a shaky coalition. Remember, you know, the Republican party’s a very new thing. He’s got elections coming up with today we called mid-term elections, in November, 1862. And states all across the North with crucial governorships and senatorial elections. So he is trying to hold together the more conservative elements of his Republican Party. And there are lots of folks in that coalition, lots of residents in the border states, who owed–

MALE SPEAKER: Kentucky and Maryland?

BRIAN: Yeah. Who still owned slaves, who really were very upset about not so much the end of slavery– some were upset about that in and of itself– but what would happen to all of these slaves. And that’s where the second sound bite comes in, and it’s exit strategy. He needs to at least have a plausible case for what’s going to happen to all of these enslaved people when they are free. So that’s kind of an instrumental, even cynical interpretation of things, as I’ve read about it.

PETER: Yeah. Brian, that makes a lot of sense. That’s, in effect, we might say pandering to the center.

BRIAN: Something I love to do, Peter.

PETER: Yeah. But what I think it fails to see is what colonization had meant throughout the Antebellum decades, where the idea comes from in the first place. If you go back to the period of the American founding, the American Revolution, and look forward– and I think that’s our challenge here– you can see that men and women of good faith would say, you know, this is the only plausible solution. That is, emancipation and expatriation. Because think about it. We’re in a state of war here in the American Revolution.

And of course, the great fear of slaveholders throughout the history of slavery is going to be servile insurrection. Well, guess what? When you’re fighting a foreign war against, let’s just say, Britain, then your slaves could become a fifth column. They represent a real security threat.

So to some extent, there’s a kind of a profound realism to this idea of colonization. This is going to be a solution to an intractable situation of conflict between different races. And that idea has legs, folks. It goes through the Antebellum period. And when Lincoln evokes it, it’s not just political calculation. It’s not just Lincoln pandering to the center. Lincoln comes from the center. He’s asking the American people, would you make this enormous investment in a solution which would enable black people and white people not to live together, but to live in peace as separate nations?

ED: That is ideas are changing because the war is changing. The report that he’s receiving every day from Washington tell one story after another of how black people are the best allies of the Union forces. They’re telling them which route to take. They’re telling them how the Rebels are massing somewhere. They’re telling them where they can find the cash, food.

And Lincoln looks at this and says, you know? Maybe these African American people aren’t an enemy in our midst. Maybe they’re the best allies in our midst that we have. And that any imaginable future for this country is going to have to acknowledge that. So even as Lincoln continues to mention colonization here and there, the great thrust of his ideas and of his actions are toward actually incorporating African Americans into whatever America is going to follow the end of this war.


BRIAN: OK. So far in this show, we’ve hard about how Lincoln’s thinking about emancipation had developed, and what he ultimately decided to do. Which was issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Ed, what was the response in January of 1863 to that Proclamation?

ED: Ah, Brian, you mean what were the responses to this document. Because Republicans, including many abolitionists, were very pleased at Lincoln had stepped forward. Democrats said, this is just what we were expecting. He is out there to help– well, they use all kinds of racist language, playing on fears of what was going to happen in the North as a result of this act.

And that range of opinions extended even into the Army itself. On the one hand, were soldiers who supported emancipation, a lot of whom were coming into contact with black people for the first time, and who were very impressed with what they were seeing. On the other hand, you still had people like George McClellan, the general in charge of the entire Union war effort. McClellan was adamantly opposed to emancipation, and in fact warned Lincoln many times not to make this into a war to end slavery.

In the South, the range of reactions was even wider. I recently sat down with Christy Coleman, who’s president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, to talk about some of those reactions. We begin with the point of view of enslaved people. And Christy pointed out that their fight for freedom started well before Lincoln’s Proclamation.

CHRISTY COLEMAN: When the conflict first begins, you have African Americans in the South being brought into the war effort as general laborers with certain specialization and skills that are needed to support the Army that is being developed. But it becomes really fascinating when these folks decide, I’ve had enough of this. I really want to go on the other side of this to the Union forces.

And we see that most notably with what happens at Fortress Monroe here in Virginia, where you have three African American men who had been assigned to digging trenches by their master, to dig the canal. And they managed to steal away on a boat and make their way to Fortress Monroe. And once they get there to offer themselves as labor, as information source, what have you, to Union forces and General Butler.

And Butler decides to give them respite. He gives them their freedom, if you will. And this is happening to Union officers in the Western theater, into the South. Slaves are running away and getting to Union forces. And they are doing this before there’s ever the first confiscation after any of that. I mean, they’re just they’re doing this. They understand that they have to be active in their own freedom.

ED: Now you remember that when Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, it was intended as a kind of warning to the Confederacy. And many enslaved people weren’t sure if he would follow through on it come January.

But even so, throughout the fall of 1862, tens of thousands of African Americans continued to risk their lives to escape to Union lines, wherever they were, whether they were in New Orleans, or South Carolina, or Virginia, or Tennessee. And how did white Southerners respond to all this? Christy Coleman says that there was a combination of dismissal and of horror.

CHRISTY COLEMAN: They claimed that this was an action to incite their happy, peaceful Negroes into insurrection, and insubordination, and murderous rampages. But politically speaking, they recognized that the Proclamation really didn’t have any power, because they didn’t recognize the United States. They were their own sovereign nation as far as they were concerned. So it had no impact.

And I would relate predominantly to what Jefferson Davis’ response to this was. Essentially saying, your Proclamation means nothing to us. I mean, he uses a tad more flowery language than that. But in essence, you’re the criminal. You are the one who is creating unrest. And you are the one who has violated this Constitution. And we don’t care what you say, because in this respect, we have the moral superiority here.

ED: Do you think other white Southerners– did non-slaveholders buy this idea?

CHRISTY COLEMAN: I think they were more likely to buy into this idea that you’re getting ready to unleash something pretty horrible on society as a whole. And it’s going to come back to bite you. Don’t think it’s just going to be contained in the South. It’s going to come into the North as well if you free all of these people.

So I think that the non-slaveholding white, whether, they were North or South, there are many who have the same concern. What does it mean once you free all of these people, who the vast majority of Americans at the time, white Americans at the time, did believe were absolutely inferior?

ED: So what I hear you saying is that in the South, to both black and white people, this document doesn’t really make that much difference.

CHRISTY COLEMAN: The document doesn’t– well–

ED: Because here’s what I just heard you say. African Americans are doing everything they can in every way to make themselves free. And all the Congressional acts along the way that said, you may not return the slaves who come to you to their masters, it basically already has created the main thing they need, which is a refuge.

And the white South, it strikes me that the main result of this could be to solidify them against the Union force. Because it says, not only are we fighting for our national independence, but we are fighting for the very foundation of the society, which is based on racial slavery. Would you give any stock to that? That it actually has a galvanizing effect in the South?

CHRISTY COLEMAN: Yes. I would say it does in that regard. It does have a galvanizing effect.

ED: However grudgingly.

CHRISTY COLEMAN: No, no, no. Not necessarily grudgingly. Because it makes sense. Because here’s the other thing too. For the first time, you have– with this Proclamation, the aims of the North changes. Essentially, it’s going up against what the South was fighting for to begin with. And there are a lot of people who have used and said over these past 150 years, no, no, no. This real war was really about our constitutional rights as Southerners. It was really about our rights to property. It was about state’s rights, and all of those other things. And we understand very clearly that the core of that is the right to the institution of slavery, and to use that and grow that.

Now for the north, starting into this war, it was a war to preserve the Union. Lincoln has just changed the game with this Proclamation. So yes, it does galvanize the South. But at the same time, I think it has an equally interesting shift in the North. So I think it’s a mistake to even try to make this document simple. It is not enough to say, well, the truth of the matter is, the document didn’t really free anybody because the Confederacy didn’t recognize it. And the slaves that were already under Union control in the border states, it didn’t impact them at all. So it really didn’t mean anything.

The psychological effect of this document was enormous.

ED: For everyone involved?

CHRISTY COLEMAN: For everyone involved. Because now we have a date. So now we sit. Now we wait. Now we watch to see what it is really going to happen come January 1.

ED: That’s Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center at historic Tredegar in Richmond.

BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll bring our story up to the 21st century. How do people understand emancipation today?

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, your 18th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th Century Guy.

ED: Today, we’re talking about in Emancipation Proclamation on its 150th anniversary.

PETER: As we do each week, we’ve been fielding your comments on the topic at backstoryradio.org. And we’re going to hear from one of those commenters right now. It’s Alan from our nation’s capital. Alan, welcome to the show.

ALAN: Oh, thanks a lot. I just wanted to get your opinion on this. It seems to me that for a lot of people, the discussion about the emancipation policy has been Lincolnized. So Lincolnized. So what do I mean by that? Well, the thing is that Lincoln wasn’t the sole force behind the Union’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Like, we know for example that in 1861 Benjamin Butler helped get the ball rolling when he gave asylum to three escaped slaves in Virginia. And the Union Army would continue to give de facto freedom to thousands of slaves, even before the Proclamation was issued. But it seems like people don’t talk about that.

Another thing. It was the US Congress that passed the Confiscation Acts and the Militia Act in 1861 and 1862. Now those authorized the use of black soldiers, and they also granted freedom to the slaves of Rebel slaveholders. And it was the second Confiscation Act that actually has the language that these slaves would be forever free. And of course, Lincoln uses it that in the Emancipation Proclamation.

So it just seems to me like the focus is Abraham Lincoln all day, all the time. And I just wonder why all these other important players don’t get any attention and notice. Because they’re pivotal as well.

ED: Yeah. It’s such a good question, Alan. Just recently, I was studying the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. And at the New York Public Library, they have a copy of it. And what you see is he literally took scissors and cut out those Confiscation Acts and passed them in his draft of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. So if you’re looking for material evidence of your argument, there you are.

PETER: You win.

ED: I think that people at the time knew that there were all these other forces pushing toward emancipation. And they’re wondering, what is taking Lincoln so long? It’s not as if, hey, wait, suddenly the Great Emancipator comes out with this document. Everybody’s going, well, what took you so long? They’ve been waiting for this. Because Congress is pushing. His party is pushing. Parts of the Army are pushing. The Abolitionists are pushing.

He would have been seen at the time as a foot-dragger. He would not have been seen as a pioneer. So why do we Lincolnize it? Well, part of it is is that we tend to personalize history in general. We tend to imagine that Winston Churchill won World War II, and that sort of thing.

But it’s also the case is that we think about what the Proclamation implied, which is that only the President of United States, with his role as commander-in-chief, had the authority to end slavery as a war measure.

BRIAN: It’s the War Powers.

PETER: Yeah, exactly.

ED: It’s the War Power, right? Until he acted, Congress by itself, or the Union Army by itself, could not bring formal emancipation. So that’s my swing at your excellent question. What do you think?

ALAN: I totally agree with that. It seems like even a lot of scholars don’t give these other people the credit they’re due. And so we don’t really appreciate how many hands went into making this policy. And you know, the fact that they should be congratulated.

BRIAN: Well, Alan, talking about so many hands, I’m surprised that you haven’t talked about the role of enslaved people themselves. Because in many ways, it’s those people taking freedom into their own hands and forcing the hand of Lincoln on the one hand, and demonstrating to the Union troops and to Lincoln himself the valuable asset that these African Americans can be to the Union. That really is an important part of this emancipation story.

PETER: Brian, I think Alan put his finger on it when he uses the word credit. Who deserves credit for what happened? But it seems to me at the end of the day, the American people have to credit themselves. And Lincoln stands for the American people. This is not to denigrate anybody else’s contributions. No president operates on his own. But he is the person who can symbolize, embody, epitomize everything that’s happening to make victory in this war possible.

BRIAN: Well, I want to introduce another element in our answer to Alan’s good question. And that is, the way we view Lincoln, I’m quite convinced, has been very influenced by the way the Presidency itself has changed. And in the 20th century, there is what is known as the imperial presidency.

ED: Sort of the Mount Rushmore-ization of our presidents, right?

BRIAN: Yes. Perfect.

ED: If you think about when the Lincoln Memorial goes up, for example, and that whole kind imperial appearance that he has– I was just there last week and struck by how unhumble and how unLincoln-esque the Lincoln Memorial is. And I was thinking in some ways, it’s in the wake of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Their idea of what a president is becomes imperial. So I think we’ve forgotten the homespun nature of 19th century America and of Abraham Lincoln.

ALAN: Just to be sure, I don’t want to take anything away from Lincoln. Certainly, he took a lot of risk in that policy to be sure. But I’m wondering as the sesquicentennial goes on, how many– for example, if you watch C-SPAN, how many forums are there going to be about Lincoln and emancipation, and how many about what the Union Army did, and how many panels are going to be about what the Congress did. And what will people really remember about the role of others after all this is over. But I guess I’ll see what happens.

BRIAN: So Alan, I have a question for you.

ALAN: Sure.

BRIAN: What car would best represent the true story of emancipation? If it’s not the Lincolnization, what is it?

ALAN: I mean, it would probably be the minivan because you have to put all the people inside of it.

BRIAN: The minivan. Now that’s good. That’s very good. I like that.

ED: So there’s room for everybody. I love it. Thank you so much, Alan.

ALAN: All right. Thank you.

PETER: Bye-bye.


BRIAN: We spent most of our show today focusing on how past generations of Americans have understood emancipation. So we’re going to take a moment right now to ask what emancipation means to us today.

ED: You know, in the former capital the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, universities and other public institutions are holding events to try to figure that out. One held recently at Virginia Commonwealth University was called “The Civil War and Emancipation in the Age of Obama.” [INAUDIBLE] Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, who for the past several years has been writing and blogging about the Civil War and its relevance to Americans today. One of our producers, Eric Mennel, caught up with Coates after the event.

TA-NEHISI COATES: The emancipation is really, really hard. Especially for African Americans, because the notion of having been freed by someone else, which is what the narrative of emancipation has been for so long, is just a hard one to swallow, given current African American identity.

ERIC MENNEL: Do you think there’s a better way to think about it?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. And I can take no credit for this at all. I think the Academy has really caught up on this. And if you talk to historians, what’s in vogue, and I hope it stays in vogue, is emancipation is a very, very old idea in the African American mind and in African American politics. And Lincoln was pushed to it.

Not that Lincoln doesn’t deserve credit for doing it. But this is a manifestation of a fight. The African Americans have waited since we got here 1619. This is a long process of accepting all people in this country as full citizens, as full stakeholders. You can stretch it back, again, from 1619 all the way up to Barack Obama.

ERIC MENNEL: One interesting thing I think you brought up in the talk was that people don’t need to keep defending their grandfathers, and their decisions, and things that they’ve done. And so I’m wondering– and you’re speaking specifically about Confederate heritage, I think, if I’m not mistaken. Right? And so I’m wondering if there’s another side to that argument that says, is there a place for emancipation in American history for the African American community today?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. The other side of that is that you don’t have to be ashamed that your great-great-great-grandfather was a slave. Your great-great-great-grandfather was doing the best he could. Great-great-great-grandmother was doing the best she could.

I went through this when I first started getting into the Civil War. There is an immense attraction to find people who emulate what you think, what you like to think you would do. So there’s an attraction to the USCT. There’s an attraction to Nat Turner. There’s as an attraction to people violently resisting. But there’s reason why people did and didn’t do certain things.

So, it ain’t a balance sheet. That’s the best way I can put it. You know what I mean? It ain’t about you in that sort of way, at least not that sort of small you. Oh, this blood is in my veins, so that means I did X, Y, and Z, or I could be X, Y. That’s not what it’s about.

ERIC MENNEL: What is it about?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, see, here’s the contradiction it is about you. Right? It’s about you as a human being, OK, and understanding how human beings react to certain processes, react under certain conditions in certain places, in certain times. Can I say under the condition that I would have freed all my slaves? I mean, that’s easy to say, right? It’s easy to look at Robert E. Lee and say, what a horrible, horrible person. But what would you have done? Who would you have done?

When you understand what slavery was in this country, you understand that manumitting all of your slaves, while you were alive, would’ve made you a pariah among your society. This is a means of social organization. Can you say you would have done anything better? And that’s like a profound insight to me. So it’s about you in that sense, where you are confronted with your own frailty and your own weakness.

So when I say it ain’t about you, it ain’t about you making like you was big, or you would have done better. What you have to say is, I would have been just like them. Because it’s probably true. The Frederick Douglasses are the exception. These are exceptions to the rule. These are not the rule. You are the rule, and you probably would have been the same way. So it’s about humility.

ED: Ta-nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic. You can find links to some of his articles on our website, backstoryradio.org.

PETER: We’re going to end our show today with the voices of those most affected by emancipation, former slaves themselves. Beginning in the 1930s, federal projects like the Works Progress Administration sent unemployed writers around the South to record the stories of freed people. In those interviews, we hear descriptions of life under slavery. And in a few cases, of the first moments of freedom.

BRIAN: You’re going to hear three voices in this next piece. The first is Fountain Hughes of Charlottesville, Virginia. Second is Billy McCrea of Jasper, Texas. And the third is Laura Smalley of Hempstead, Texas.

FOUNTAIN HUGHES: My name is Fountain Hughes. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather was 115 years old when he died. And now I’m 101 years old.

BILLY MCCREA: Things come to me in spells, you know. I remember things more when I’m laying down than I do when I’m standing or when I’m walking around. We had no home, you know. We were just turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in the pasture? Well after freedom, you know, colored people didn’t have nothing. After we got freed and they turned us over like cattle, we could, we didn’t have nowhere to go. We didn’t have nobody to boss us. And we didn’t know nothing. There’s wasn’t no school.

The dogs have got it now better than we had it when we came along. Colored people that’s free ought to awful thankful. And some of them are sorry they are free now. Some of them now would rather be slaves.

HERMOND NORWOOD: Which would you rather be, Uncle Fountain?

FOUNTAIN HUGHES: Me? Which I’d rather be? You know what I’d rather do? If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again, I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog. You’re not a thing but a dog.


BILLY MCCREA: And the Yankees would come. And after a while, they’d be a whole troop of men come. They say they was Yankees. All walking. All walking. Next time you see, there come a whole troop of Yankees, all riding horses, big guns a-hanging on in there, all like that, you know. Yeah. We all would stand looking at them, all going home.

And I said, I’d say, Mama, where they going? She said, they all going home now. And old Col. McRae, that was our master. And said, well, Harriet, all of you niggers are going free now. Yankees all going home. I remember that just as well.

FEMALE SPEAKER: You were born right there and never did leave? You were?

LAURA SMALLEY: Born right there and stayed there until I was about nine, 10 years old. Maybe more. Stayed right there. We didn’t know where to go. Mama and them didn’t know where to go, you see, after freedom broke. Just turned, just like you turn something out, you know. Didn’t know where to go. That’s just, where they stayed.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Mm-hm. That’s right.

LAURA SMALLEY: Didn’t know where to go. Turned us out just like, you know, you turn out cattle. I say. And old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free.

JOHN HENRY FAULK: He didn’t tell you that?

LAURA SMALLEY: No. He didn’t tell. They worked there. I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that. Colored folks, celebrates that day.

JOHN HENRY FAULK: Can you remember any that the slaves sung? Did they ever sing any songs?

LAURA SMALLEY: No. You know, I never sat there in slavery. But I hear them sing some after freedom. I know some. But I didn’t know, thems way back songs, I can’t hardly sing any of them. And one of them I seem to remember. My old step-daddy used to sing it, by the thunderbolt a rattling, a poor sinner stands so [INAUDIBLE]. Lord, I got a union in my soul, and I ain’t got long to stay. Didn’t I told you that one, yeah?



FEMALE SPEAKER: That’s a nice one.

LAURA SMALLEY: [SINGING] The thunderbolt a rattling– Oh, poor sinner stands so [INAUDIBLE], but I got a union in my soul, and I ain’t got long to stay.

JOHN HENRY FAULK: I’ve heard it. Can you sing the rest that? That’s a gift. That’s a sure thing.

LAURA SMALLEY: [SINGING] Lord, I ain’t got long to stay. Lord, I ain’t got long to stay in the world, ain’t got long to stay. God’s calling me and I ain’t got long to stay. Lord, I ain’t got long to stay in the world, I ain’t got long to stay.

Goodbye and I ain’t got long to stay, Lord, I ain’t got long to stay in the world, I ain’t got long to stay. God’s calling me and I ain’t got long to stay. Lord, I ain’t got long to stay in the world, I ain’t got long to stay.

Farewell, I ain’t got long to stay. Lord, I ain’t got long to stay in the world, I ain’t got long– I ain’t got much a voice for singing.

JOHN HENRY FAULK: Oh, you got a good voice. Lord have mercy, child. I didn’t you could sing that good.

LAURA SMALLEY: I ain’t got no voice for singing.

PETER: Those were the voices of Fountain Hughes, Billy McCrea, and Laura Smalley. The recordings and hours more like them are available to us, thanks to the Library of Congress and American Folk Life Center. You can download them at backstoryradio.org.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nell Boeschenstein, Jess Engebretson Eric Mennel, and Allison Quantz. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Allen Chen is our intern. Special thanks this week to Robert Cook.

PETER: Our senior producer is Tony Field. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Major supporter for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.