Jane Cole ’21
Exhibitions and Collections Assistant
Tang Teaching Museum
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order asserting that all people held as slaves in Confederate states be permanently and unconditionally liberated. A recognized and frequently reproduced document, the Proclamation is thought by many to have revolutionized US race relations and the lived experiences of black enslaved people. Though monumental in concept, the Proclamation did not actually free any enslaved people in practice; it applied only to Confederate states, over which Lincoln did not possess executive authority. Thus, those enslaved both in the North and the South remained lawfully enslaved—until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment nearly three years later—in spite of supposed emancipation. Ultimately, the document’s value and impact were more symbolic than they were tangible. With its powerful language and insistence upon freedom for all, the Emancipation Proclamation laid the ideological foundations for a United States in which citizenship and basic human rights are, in theory, unbounded by racial classifications.
Just as the concrete impact of the Emancipation Proclamation is commonly overestimated, the objectives on which the document was founded can be similarly misunderstood. While President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to declare emancipation is sometimes revered as a bold abolitionist gesture, it was not necessarily the product of undiluted intentions. Above all, Lincoln was committed to ending the Civil War with a Union victory. He recognized that shifting the conversation to emancipation would communicate that the war was not merely a military conflict but an ethical one as well. He hoped that this moral dilemma would work in the Union’s favor by encouraging international support from countries like France and England, both of which had already outlawed slavery. Ultimately, the Emancipation Proclamation was more a camouflaged strategy for preserving the Union than it was an authentic denunciation or elimination of slavery.
It is crucial to acknowledge that President Abraham Lincoln’s desire to protect the Union was not the sole factor pushing him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; enslaved people of African descent fought to put their freedom on the war’s agenda. As Union troops descended farther into Southern territory, thousands of enslaved people in Confederate states escaped across Northern lines. Once in Northern territory, many escapees began providing noncombatant labor for the Union Army, which they knew would weaken the Confederacy over time. Indeed, Lincoln eventually acknowledged the military advantage of having escaped black laborers in the North, which led him to authorize the formal enlistment of black male soldiers in the Union Army in the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, the Proclamation was partially the product of the collective action of those who escaped slavery. It is a harmful misconstruction of history to credit Lincoln and his Proclamation with single-handedly “freeing the slaves” when many enslaved people acted as agents of their own freedom.
With the Emancipation Proclamation, black men were permitted to enlist in both the Union and Confederate Armies as military personnel (though they received lower wages and worse treatment than their white counterparts), whereas black women continued to work as noncombatant laborers without compensation. Escaped and formerly enslaved black women were critical assets to both the Union and Confederacy, serving as nurses, camp cooks, chambermaids, laundresses, and seamstresses, among other roles—however, their contributions are frequently forgotten or overlooked. Moreover, black women were continually subject to sexual, psychological, and physical violence from their male superiors, as was also commonplace for enslaved women. Even during the decades following emancipation and the resolution of the Civil War, black women were continually denied basic human rights and dignity and were forcefully excluded from feminist movements. For instance, several prominent white suffragists, such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began their activist careers as fervent abolitionists, yet continually failed to represent poor women and women of color in their fights for universal suffrage. In fact, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, composed entirely of white women, forbid black women from becoming involved. Instead, black women formed their own organizations in order to challenge the systematic racial discrimination in which numerous white women reformers were complicit. Today, many legal forms of racism may cease to exist in the United States, but the legacies of slavery and other racist institutions perpetuate vast inequities based on race, gender, and ethnicity.