An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Reflecting on the Emancipation Proclamatio

Jun 21, 2012 by

Emancipation Proclamation

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, this year, we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the ” Emancipation Proclamation”. When exactly was this document put forth?

Abraham Lincoln moved cautiously on the issue of slavery during the Civil War. Not wanting to alienate slave states that had remained loyal to the Union (such as Maryland and Kentucky), he had made no attempt to strike a blow against the institution prior to the summer of 1862. But by July of that year, he had determined for a number of reasons that the time had come to act. He proposed the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet at a meeting, but Secretary of State William Seward suggested that since the war was not going well for the Union at that moment the act would appear one of desperation. Lincoln agreed, and waited to announce the Emancipation Proclamation until he received favorable war news. That came when the Union won the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Lincoln issued the proclamation on September 22, and it would go into effect on January 1, 1863.

2) Were there events, and what were some of the events that led up to the Emancipation Proclamation?

Even before the firing on Ft. Sumter, African-Americans had been trying to use the impending hostilities as a way to become free. Three slaves being used by Confederates to build gun emplacements to fire on Ft. Sumter, for example, had stolen a boat and rowed out to the fort seeking sanctuary. After the war started, other blacks followed suit. Some union officers refused to return these runaways to their masters, a policy that Lincoln tacitly accepted. Congress began to pass laws affecting the status of slavery, including abolishing the institution in Washington DC and the territories. It had also passed two Confiscation Acts, allowing slaves owned by Confederates their freedom. Lincoln, however, believed that only the president could legally free slaves, and only as a wartime measure. That’s why he acted when he did.

3) Now, this may be a difficult question, but did Lincoln himself write the entire proclamation or were other involved?

From all we know, Lincoln wrote every word. He was a skilled lawyer, and wanted everything in the Emancipation Proclamation to be legally valid.

4) What was the reaction of the North and the South, in general?

Reaction in the North was mixed. A significant portion of the populace didn’t like it. This group was made up both of individuals who had favored the war only as long as it was simple a struggle to restore the Union and those people who hadn’t supported the war in the first place. But the majority of Northerners, either because they agreed in principle with freeing slaves or because they thought it would help win the war, supported Lincoln.

5) Some historians link the Emancipation Proclamation to the beginning of the Civil War- others, the bombing of Fort Sumner, and still others reflect on the publication of ” Uncle Tom’s Cabin “. Or were all these events, including slavery, part and parcel of the Civil War?

I am of the opinion that the firing on Ft. Sumter begins the countdown to the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln seems to have genuinely wanted to leave slavery alone in states where it legally existed prior to the Civil War. What he and the Republicans wanted was to prevent it from extending anywhere else. Once the war started, it brought Lincoln closer every day to the realization that a decisive blow against slavery could help the Union prevail.

6) I have been to Washington D.C., and know the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are there- but what about the Emancipation Proclamation- is it available for public viewing?

The Emancipation Proclamation is also in Washington DC, in the National Archives.

7) Certain documents, like the Magna Carta are revered and studied. Do historians reflect back on the language of the Emancipation Proclamation or reflect back on it’s impact and what it accomplished?

The actual document itself does not make for very inspiring reading. Indeed, one historian said that it had all the drama of a bill of lading. But Lincoln, as noted above, was very cautious when writing the document, trying to make it absolutely unassailable from a legal standpoint. Thus, it is akin to a lawyer’s brief, rather than an inspirational message like his Gettysburg Address. But the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation was profound, helping to put us on a path towards a more perfect union regarding civil rights for all.

8) From a historical point of view, this may be a difficult question, but is there any one person who promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation- or was it ALL Abraham Lincoln’s idea?

There were a number of people, both black and white, who called on Lincoln to take action against the institution of slavery during the early months of the Civil War. And, as noted above, Congress was clearly taking steps that were undermining the institution of slavery. But Lincoln chose the time, and the method, for announcing his plan to bring freedom to a portion of the slave population.

9) I believe it was William Wilberforce who fought against slavery in England. In terms of a time line- when did Wilberforce accomplish his fight against slavery?

William Wilberforce is one of the truly great people in history. He led the fight in Parliament against slavery, and won his first victory in 1807 when that body voted to end the slave trade. Sadly, Wilberforce would not live to see slavery abolished within the British Empire: he died in 1833, and slavery was abolished as of August 1, 1834. But he had certainly paved the way for that event, and knew as he was dying that the institution of slavery was meeting its demise as well.

10) Now, the 13th, 14th and 15 th Amendments could be directly related to the Emancipation Proclamation- could you provide a link between the 13th , 14th and 15th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation?

There is a direct link between the Emancipation Proclamation and the XIII Amendment. Lincoln believe that the Constitution gave him the authority as a wartime measure to free slaves, but no one knew if that would stand up in a court of law. For that reason, Congress chose to create an amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery, thus making the legality of Lincoln’s action a moot point. Moreover, the amendment went further than the Emancipation Proclamation in that Lincoln’s order had only freed slaves in areas controlled by the Confederacy as of January 1, 1863. He had done that to avoid alienating pro-Union slaveholders. The XIII Amendment meant that anyone who was a slave was now free. The XIV and XV Amendments had to do with the political and civil rights of people of color, and so had less to do with the Emancipation Proclamation than with the XIII Amendment.

11) Now, final wrap up question, was the Emancipation Proclamation basically an ” executive order ” or ” executive decision ” and did Lincoln have the authority to do what he did with this document?

It was indeed an executive order. Whether it was legal or not is unclear, even from a distance of 150 years. Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order to relocate Japanese-Americans during the Second World War offers a possible insight into the answer. It was ruled by the Supreme Court in 1943 that his action was constitutional, so my sense is that Lincoln’s action would therefore be constitutional as well.

12) Is there anything I have neglected to ask ? I think we’re good!

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