‘Chat’ underscores Lincoln’s decree
SPEAKERS OFFER THEIR TAKES ON EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION’S PLACE
IN NATION’S HISTORY
BY BRIDGET BALCH
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, warning Confederate states that if they didn’t return to the Union by Jan. 1, their slaves would go free.
On Friday, almost 150 years to the day, a group of nationally renowned Civil War historians gathered at the University of Mary Washington to discuss the document’s enduring legacy.
Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates William Howell welcomed the audience and speakers, remarking, “I can’t imagine a better location than Fredericksburg for this conversation.”
James I. Robertson Jr., a Civil War expert and retired history professor at Virginia Tech, opened the “fireside chat” before a crowd of about 300 in Dodd Auditorium. The stage was modeled after a sitting room in the White House, complete with armchairs and a projected fire.
“The Emancipation Proclamation has been described as the single most significant proclamation in history,” said Robertson.
He was joined by three key speakers: Edna Greene Medford, history department chair at Howard University; Frank Williams, retired chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court; and Harold Holzer, vice president for government relations and public affairs at New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Each speaker approached the proclamation—issued in its final form on Jan. 1, 1863—from a different perspective.
Holzer shared a series of Civil War-era drawings, paintings and photographs that depicted the various responses to the Emancipation Proclamation.
One drawing showed President Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation in his study with the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and an American flag in the background, illustrating Lincoln’s patriotism in authoring the document.
Another drawing from the Confederate perspective depicted Lincoln writing the document with his foot on the Bible, and a devil-shaped inkwell, a vulture’s head and a glass of whiskey on the table in the background, demonizing Lincoln in this act.
“Why [pictorial images are] important is they’re not just pictures . They reflect passionate points of view, pro and con, North and South,” said Holzer.
‘A TRANSFORMATIVE MOMENT’
Williams, the retired judge, began with a story of how he became infatuated with Lincoln when he was in the sixth grade.
“I spent my lunch money buying Lincoln books—all of 25 cents a day,” he said. “One of the reasons I became a lawyer [was] because Lincoln was a lawyer.”
He later explained how Lincoln used his powers as commander in chief during wartime to write and enforce the controversial document, something he would not have been able to do during peacetime.
Williams said the proclamation was a combination of social, moral, military and political factors.
“It was a transformative moment in American history, probably as transformative as the Declaration of Independence,” he said.
Medford approached the issue more from the African–Americans’ perspectives. She emphasized two clauses in the proclamation: first, the entreaty to the slaves not to resort to violence unless it was in self-defense, and second, the inclusion of African–Americans in the Union Army.
Not all slaves followed the course of nonviolence, said Medford, citing uprisings in which slaves seized firearms and attacked their former masters.
But many did opt to join the military. Former slaves played a very important role in the Union victory, according to Medford. They were involved in at least 400 battles, and 39 of these were very important in the outcome of the war, she said.
Because they had fought in the war, the African–American men believed they were entitled to full citizenship, voting rights, landownership, education and fair treatment.
“They believed that, in issuing the proclamation, that’s what Lincoln was offering them,” said Medford. “The first generation came to revere Lincoln because they thought they would receive, not only freedom, but equal treatment. When they realized they weren’t getting that, they became very disillusioned.”
It was a disillusionment toward Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation that, according to Medford, still persists today among many African–Americans.
FOR FREEDOM, EQUALITY
Medford noted that there was also a small African–American press whose papers wrote scathingly critical editorials on Lincoln before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
“The proclamation was extremely important at the time that it was issued, on Jan. 1, 1863. It remains important because what it does is it helped to recommit the nation to freedom and equality, and, although it did not end slavery throughout the country, it was a major step toward that end, and so it leads to the 13th Amendment,” Medford said.
Holzer tried to use a modern example to explain the document’s importance. In terms of its impact, he said the Emancipation Proclamation is in many ways comparable to President Barack Obama’s DREAM initiative, which defers deportation for some illegal immigrants who came to this country as children, opening the door to potential citizenship.
Likewise, the telegraph cables of the Civil War era are comparable to Facebook and Twitter messages nowadays, he said. And the Republican and Democrat papers of that era aren’t much different from today’s MSNBC and CNN, he added.
As for the claim that many African–Americans supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, “It’s just not true,” he said.
He referenced a situation where a Virginia elementary school textbook taught that African-Americans served in the military for the Confederacy. When questioned where she got the information, the author said she had found it on the Internet.
According to Holzer, “Secession occurs because of slavery, the war occurs because of secession, and the end result is the war to restore the Union and destroy slavery.”
Robertson concluded the discussion saying, “this evening we have all been witness to one of the most remarkable and concise discussions ever conducted on the Emancipation Proclamation.”
One attendee of the discussion, Ida Jeffries, drove from Stevensville, Md., to hear the scholars speak.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn about the Civil War,” Jeffries said.
One attendee, Latika Le, came from Midlothian “to learn more about the background of the proclamation, the document that so many black Americans, African–Americans, consider the document that freed our ancestors.”
Howell emphasized the importance of Virginia’s involvement in the sesquicentennial celebrations and how events, such as this discussion, bring educational and tourism opportunities throughout the state.
Heralded as a historical triumph on behalf of equality and freedom, the Emancipation Proclamation was a risky document for its time—one that took moxie to write.
“There are very few people in world history who possessed the courage of Abraham Lincoln,” Williams said. “He learned to trust his own judgment. He knew his own mind, despite criticism . He was obsessed with character, selflessness and honor.”
Bridget Balch: 540/374-5444