|Thomas Ball's familiar statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing a slave.|
During the last half century, however, American historians have made the case for a different emancipation narrative. They argue that by fleeing to Union armies and to contraband camps and later by volunteering for military service, the slaves freed themselves. This argument diminishes Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was, after all, a legalistic document that freed only slaves in Union-occupied southern territory – and not even all of them.
I decided to ask an expert about the controversy this revisionist narrative has caused. The expert is Allen C. Guelzo. Known as a superb lecturer and a fine writer and historian, Guelzo is the Henry C. Luce professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, Years ago, over lunch, he pulled a small box from his pocket to share with me. Inside was the pocket Bible carried during the Civil War by a soldier from the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers. I had recently co-authored My Brave Boys, a history of the 5th under Col. Edward E. Cross, and I was thrilled to hold this relic in my hand.
Lively narrative prose and innovative research are the hallmarks of Guelzo’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. Although I am a devotee of Stephen Sears’s Gettysburg, I can’t wait to read Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. It is due out next month, shortly before the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Although I sensed from the subtitle as well as the text of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation what Guelzo’s answer would be, I asked him this question:
What is your view of the argument some historians make that President Lincoln’s role in emancipating slaves was less important than the self-emancipation of slaves who fled to the Union lines and, in some cases, joined the Union army?
|Allen C. Guelzo|
Here is Guelzo’s response:
“For a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s claim to be the Great Emancipator stood virtually unchallenged, and especially among African-Americans, who revered Lincoln as their Liberator. But as the Proclamation approached its centennial, emancipation had been followed by segregation, Jim Crow laws and racial terrorism, and a vast disenchantment with Lincoln and his Proclamation settled in. Beginning with Vincent Harding and Barbara Field, a ‘self-emancipation’ thesis emerged which questioned the importance of Lincoln’s role in black freedom, and emphasized instead the many ways black slaves freed themselves.
“Part of this thesis recognizes an element of truth: black slaves did not merely wait to be freed, or to receive freedom purely as a gift from white men. From the outbreak of the war, they fled northward, or to wherever Union military authority prevailed. They gathered in ‘contraband’ camps, served as teamsters, cooks and laborers for the Union armies and eventually volunteered for combat service in those armies after 1863.
“But another part of the ‘self-emancipation thesis’ was political: it embraced the notion that self-emancipation is the only authentic emancipation, and it sought to underscore the validity of black agency in a conflict which had for decades been interpreted largely as a white man’s war.
“But the ‘self-emancipation thesis’ suffered at many points from fully as much naïveté as the traditional storyline of Lincoln as the new Moses, single-handedly leading the slaves to freedom. Slaves who ran north for freedom, either to the army or the cities, were indeed making themselves free, but only free de facto. In law, they were still simply fugitives, and liable to rendition under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850.
“And if the Civil War had ended at any point short of an unconditional Confederate surrender – if, for instance, George McClellan had won the presidential election of 1864 and opened negotiations with the Confederacy to end the war – it is very likely rendition of those fugitives would have been a condition the Confederates demanded. To get peace, I am not sure a McClellan administration would have been able to resist that demand, or that war-weary Northern whites might not have complied. It might not have amounted to a very successful rendition program, but rendition of fugitive slaves had been a condition of our peace treaties with the British after the Revolution and the War of 1812.
“Lincoln’s Proclamation, however conditional and limited it is in specific terms, did this one incontestable thing: it declared the slaves it itemized free de jure. They now became legally free, and it was a free status which could be (and was) defended in court. It may be wondered just what legal significance a de jure proclamation might have when its subjects were securely behind Confederate lines. On the other hand, law has never lacked for effect merely because enforcement has yet to catch up with it.
“Lincoln was not the sole proprietor of freedom – even Lincoln’s de jure freedom had to be carried on the point of the Union armies’ bayonets, and the fugitives and ‘contrabands’ helped to destabilize an institution which could not stand much instability. But far from diminishing Lincoln’s role, these events only underscore how vital a part the Emancipation Proclamation played in the overall equation of liberty.”