The Emancipation Proclamation: Panel Reflects on Emboldening the Fight Against Slavery
Ask a modern day student what caused the Civil War, and “slavery” is likely the response. However, as guest and faculty panelists explained during a Tuesday event, when the war began, Abraham Lincoln was trying to preserve the Union.
As Christy Coleman, the director of the American Civil War Center in Virginia explained, it took dramatic actions, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, to fortify the Northern cause as a fight not just to put the Nation back together, but to permanently obliterate a terrible institution.
“Slavery was dead, and its death was hastened by this document,” Coleman said.
On Tuesday, Goodwin College, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and Connecticut Humanities hosted a retrospective panel on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a document with significance that has been challenged in recent years.
In addition to speakers from Goodwin and the Stowe Center, the event featured a performance by a recognized Lincoln portrayer, Howard Wright, who stayed in character throughout the evening is his portrayal of the 16th President and American hero.
Coleman, the event’s keynote speaker, explained to the audience that in recent history, the Proclamation has gotten a “bad rap” and its significance has been taken for granted. No, the document did not free all slaves, nor did it make the practice of slavery illegal.
It did, however, embolden the Union’s cause that all slaves in the Confederate states would be free, and strengthened the Northern army by escaped slaves who enlisted to join the cause. In essence, Coleman said, the Civil War became a fight over slavery, and the North had a cause worth pursuing.
Coleman discussed at-length the atmosphere that led to Emancipation Proclamation. In 1862, the Union and Confederate forces had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. Lincoln was at ends with his military leadership, particularly General George McClellan, who had strong and even personal ties to officers commanding the Confederate forces.
Escaped slaves fleeing from the South were joining the Union army in great numbers, made possible through the Confiscation Act. This was a growing problem for the South, as slaves were an integral part of preparing cities for defense and providing manual labor to benefit the war effort.
The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle of the entire Civil War, was fought on Sept. 17 in Maryland. The result of the battles was fairly inconclusive, but Lincoln was encouraged by the Union’s fortitude. The president decided the time was ripe for bold action, and on Sept. 22, he would issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, setting a timeline of 100 days for it to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
In between the preliminary announcement and implementation date, Coleman explained, the United States was in an extremely tense situation. Foreign powers had yet to recognize any difference between the North and South and negotiations were underway for the South to begin trading with Europe.
The Emancipation Proclamation became a turning point for the rest of the world to side with the North and recognize the Civil War as a just cause to end slavery. During the 100 days between Lincoln’s initial push and implementation, Europe was held at bay from developing trade with the South, despite the rich cotton industry that lay in the balance.
“For 100 days, the eyes of the world were on this country,” Coleman said.
Earlier during the event, Wright read parts of the Proclamation and provided Lincoln’s perspective on its importance. He quoted what Lincoln is purported to have stated at the signing of the Proclamation, declaring “If I go down in history it is for this act and my whole soul is in it.”
Looking the part perfectly, Wright, as Lincoln, explained that there was great uncertainty over what should happen to freed slaves. Many, like Lincoln, believed racial equality was impossible, and the best course of action would be for freed men and women to colonize in the Caribbean or South America.
But, as Coleman detailed, the prevailing black scholars of the time refused any such overtures from Lincoln. Frederick Douglass, a good friend to the president and a frequent adviser, was among those who felt that the United States had been built largely by black men and women, and they would not be expelled from a nation they were so vital in developing. Eventually, Lincoln acquiesced.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments abolished slavery, took measures to ensure rights for freed slaves, and gave all men the right to vote, regardless of race or color. Coleman said that Lincoln’s push for black suffrage was ultimately what motivated John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the president.
Following Coleman and Wright, panelists discussed the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation, including its significance today.
Dr. Randy Laist, a Goodwin College English professor, noted that Lincoln is quite in vogue at the moment. Laist discussed the Stephen Spielberg film about the president currently a favorite to win an Oscar for Best Picture, as well as some more farcical interpretations of Lincoln that have him battling vampires and zombies.
Laist said there was something about Lincoln that personifies American idealism of strength, morality, and cause, with the Emancipation Proclamation as a significant tipping point in the Lincoln legacy.
“The Emancipation Proclamation is the tipping point, from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama,” Laist said.
Katherine Kane, executive director of the Stowe Center, discussed Stowe’s legacy as helping to lay the seeds for the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a neighbor of Mark Twain in Hartford, stirred emotional responses to human bondage when she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.
Kane said that even today, Americans are inspired to think about the issues on which the nation was founded, and how historical figures like Lincoln and Stowe continue to steer the conversation.
“We now know how much further we have to go, and we’re working together to do it,” Kane said.