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Declaration of Freedom

8/7/2017 • American History Magazine

As we approach the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 11 thoughtful voices explain why it still matters to all of us.

At the height of the Civil War, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order that still echoes today. He declared “that all persons held as slaves” in Rebel states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” It was a tactical move to bolster the Union cause—and yet so much more. Although the government had no power to enforce the decree, and abolishing slavery was not Lincoln’s apparent goal, the Emancipation Proclamation established a new moral foundation for the country.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, nor did it abrogate the state laws that created slavery. Only the 13th Amendment accomplished these things. Emancipation was a long historical process, not a single moment. But more than any other event, the proclamation sealed the fate of slavery. It made protecting the freedom of the slaves an obligation of the Union Army, guaranteeing that Union victory would mean the end of slavery. It also marked a transformation in Lincoln’s own outlook. Until January 1, 1863, he had insisted that monetary compensation to the former owners, and efforts to “colonize” former slaves outside the United States, should accompany emancipation. The proclamation made no mention of compensation or colonization. For the first time, it welcomed black men into the Union Army, allowing them to stake a claim to citizenship in the postwar nation. Overall, the proclamation was critical to changing the nature of the Civil War, and of American society itself.


Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

I have thought of the Emancipation Proclamation many times—and wondered what would have happened if everyone had really believed what it said. What if everyone were really adherents to the idea of freedom, and the idea that anyone could live wherever he or she wanted to live, and work wherever he or she wanted to work? What would have happened? Would we have come closer to being the United States instead of what James Baldwin called “these yet to be united states”? Suppose that one document, the Emancipation Proclamation, really was the magical element that by itself lifted the blight of racism, which affects us still today? We’ve made wonderful steps, butequal rights are not a fait accompli. Young people might look at the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys and Malcolm X, and say: “You mean to tell me that, with all of their efforts, we haven’t come further? There’s no point in me trying.” Lincoln, too, took a risk and got killed for it. Courage is the most important of virtues, because without it you can’t practice all the other virtues consistently. We have not done enough—we must do more.


Author, poet, educator and civil rights activist

In removing the shackles of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation completed the American Revolution and underscored the sanctity of human rights expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence—the natural rights of man to life, liberty, self-governance and the ownership of the fruits of one’s labor. It fulfilled the dreams and visions of founding fathers and mothers, white and black, who had inspired and sustained our American patriots throughout the seven years of struggle that ended British colonial domination. And it gave the Civil War its moral authority.


 Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and Professor of History, Northwestern University

The Emancipation Proclamation reminds us that we are a great and evolving nation. It did not just liberate blacks from bondage; it liberated America from one of her most glaring contradictions. The Emancipation Proclamation also humbles us. The myth is that all slaves were freed the day after President Lincoln signed it. The reality is that chattel slavery continued in the Southern states until the Union Army took hold, and in the Northern states until the end of the war. The National Archives even contains records of African Americans being held in slavery conditions, without pay, up through the 1940s. Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation inspires us. From South Sudan to South Los Angeles, the scourge of human trafficking can be stopped, and stopping it remains one of the most urgent and noble goals for all of humanity. The Emancipation Proclamation reminds us that any movement for justice takes vision and the commitment to see that vision through.


President & CEO of the NAACP

The Emancipation Proclamation reminds all of us, each and every day, of the power that can be found in doing what is right, even in the face of tremendous opposition. It’s easy to forget that when Abraham Lincoln was running for president in 1860, the issue of slavery was still being fought over within the Republican Party and Democrats were unequivocally proslavery. And while Lincoln was against slavery from an early age, he didn’t run for president on a platform that promoted emancipation. Yet President Lincoln found the courage to do what was right, because he understood that the reunited America he was fighting for was built on the belief that no one is more valuable to the Union than his or her neighbor. That America must be—as so many have said—a shining city on a hill.


Lieutenant Governor of Maryland

The Emancipation Proclamation represented bold government action to change the course of people’s lives for the better. Today’s right-wing rhetoric about curtailing the role of government is startlingly similar to that of the secessionists at the time of the Civil War. It’s worth considering whether that debate is holding us back today, when so much infrastructure is in need of rebuilding, when so many children are in need of a world-class education and when few individuals have the wherewithal or the will to do such things entirely on their own.


 Governor of Massachusetts

The Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure to deny the states still in rebellion the slave labor upon which the Southern economy depended. Though Lincoln had no power to free these slaves, this would be the first great step toward redefining the cause for which the Civil War was being fought. With the Emancipation Proclamation, then the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, Lincoln baptized and ennobled what had begun as a Northern war to prevent the South from winning its independence from the Union into a crusade to advance the cause of human freedom. Intended or not, Lincoln began to elevate the idea of the equality of all peoples into a universal truth that would be seized upon by successive generations to change the character of this nation and the world. The death knell of all the great empires, where Western men ruled peoples of color, was first heard in Washington on New Year’s Day in 1863.


Political commentator

We should care about the Emancipation Proclamation not only because it helps us to understand the past, but also because it confirms our ties to forebears whose names and lives we do not know. It helps create a sense of connection to the earliest generations of the black freedom struggle. Freedom did not occur instantly with the Emancipation Proclamation or with the war’s end and the subsequent ratification of the 13th Amendment. Rather, freedom unfolded over time and was informed as much by memories of the past as by expectations and visions for the future. Even today, with the rise of new forms of legalized exploitation and segregation, the Emancipation Proclamation serves to remind others of the promise of freedom from oppression.


Co-authors of Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery

Why should Americans care? The answer can be found in 1863 by really understanding what Abraham Lincoln meant and the pressure of the “controversy” coming from both sides of the choice. History. History. Oh what fun author Howard Zinn has learning the truth in “slavery without submission, emancipation without freedom,” which is chapter 9 in his book A People’s History of the United States.  


Comedian and educator

Slavery was a vicious evil that had to come to an end. The Emancipation Proclamation was a defining moment in human history that set this nation on a path to liberate one people from human bondage and another from the crime of human enslavement. Lincoln liberated not just a people, but our entire nation, and every nation we touch around the globe today. Human slavery still exists, and this proclamation still attests to the inalienable rights of every human being. It says in effect that humans were not created to be slaves, but in the image of God Almighty, a little lower than the angels.


Congressman from Georgia

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation offers us a new way to talk about the defining event in American history. The Civil War and emancipation simply cannot be understood apart from one another. We do not need to ignore or diminish one story to tell others; we can experience empathy for many people in the past. Like all new ways of talking, this conversation can seem a little awkward at first, especially because Americans have a strong tradition of trying to separate the Civil War from the slavery that drove it and the freedom that emerged from it. If the sesquicentennial can foster a new language, a new perspective, that would be something of enduring value.


President, University of Richmond, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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