Lincoln’s Legacy, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Modern Slavery

This wasn’t the review I thought I was going to write. But in answering the last question of the evening, Allen Guelzo reminded the audience that ‘Emancipation has a past and a present. A past, that we are right to celebrate. But it also has a present, that we need to do more to work towards.’ An important reminder that whatever we think about the achievements of the past, it shouldn’t blind us to the problems of the present. And so an evening that had interested, but troubled me, was ultimately redeemed.

The event to which I refer was the 10th annual Lincoln Legacy lecture, held at my new employer, the University of Illinois at Springfield. Two lectures were delivered – Allen Guelzo, speaking on ‘Four Roads to Emancipation’, and Ron Soodalter, talking about ‘A Blight on the Nation: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today’. The idea was to demonstrate that the issues covered in the historical lecture were still, in some way, issues that confront us today. Yet in the prepared talks, that link was not always clear.

Professor Guelzo’s lecture outlined the fact that emancipation, at least in the form outlined by the Emancipation Proclamation, was not really the preferred option of anyone in 1861. Lincoln himself preferred a system of gradual, compensated emancipation, and indeed had tried to instigate a gradual emancipation scheme in Delaware that he hoped would lead to the other Union states adopting a similar plan, which would then eventually spread further south.

This was insufficiently radical, however, for many other Northerners, including Congress in its Confiscation Acts – the second of which provided for captured Confederate slaves to be freed. Others who tried to unilaterally abolish slavery in other areas – such as John C Fremont in Missouri, or General David Hunter in South Carolina, found themselves relieved of their command. In Guelzo’s telling of the story, Lincoln was terrified that too hasty action would be challenged in court, where Chief Justice Roger Taney, of Dred Scott fame, would be all too happy to pass a legal judgement prohibiting federal officials from interfering in slavery.

(A third road – that of slave self-emancipation through running away – was also offered by Guelzo, although this was a road left largely unexplored. This was a shame, as it left the audience largely unaware of the role that fugitive slaves had played in tipping the hand of generals like Butler and Hunter into radicalizing their anti-slavery stance).

To Lincoln, therefore, it became clear that a Presidential decree using his broadly defined ‘war powers’ could be used to force the pace of emancipation without being subject to legal challenge. For this reason, Guelzo argued after questioning, Lincoln deliberately left the Emancipation Proclamation entirely devoid of reasons justifying emancipation.

In this telling of Emancipation, Lincoln emerges very much as an unmitigated hero. Indeed, Guelzo made his adulation of Lincoln clear from the start – saying that only a man with the depths of Lincoln’s revulsion against slavery would have pursued emancipation in the face of such big disincentives, constitutional and judicial.

The problem with all of this is that it seemed to present too unambiguous a hero narrative. There is one key question – why did Lincoln take 22 months to act on what was supposedly such a strong moral conviction? Citing gradual emancipation doesn’t really cut it – the situation was pie-in-the-sky, and even if Lincoln thought it was a sensible and moderate plan, it wasn’t going to work. Similarly, when presented with potential ‘outs’ by men like Fremont and Hunter, Lincoln didn’t take radical steps, but rather distanced himself from them. In short, the lecture all seemed a little too convenient, a little too hesitant to think about setting blame at Lincoln’s feet – a little too self-congratulatory.

By contrast, Soodalter’s lecture erred, if anything, too much on the other side. Whereas Guelzo ended his lecture on the optimistic note of ‘henceforth and forever free’, Soodalter reminded the audience of the systematic economic, legal and political removal of rights from freed slaves in the American South, before moving on to warn of the modern presence of human trafficking and slavery worldwide.

It was a jarring talk, one that did not sit easily with the optimism or the congratulatory tone of Guelzo. It reflected two things. Firstly, that political advocacy leads itself to much clearer and more pointed lectures than history. Guelzo himself acknowledged that one of the tricky aspects of his lecture was that all four roads, and none of them, led to emancipation directly. Transmitting that level of nuance in a public lecture is a tricky task, and it’s not surprising that can lead to the hero narrative. Soodalter’s plaintive cry for greater attention to modern-day slavery, by contrast, was able to focus its anger and its message much more directly.

Secondly, it showed that using history to shine a lens to the present can be troubling and controversial. There was a clear change in the atmosphere in the audience, with several bristling at the political overtones of Soodalter’s talk; others (as became clear in questioning) disliked the implicit undercutting of Lincoln’s agency in ensuring that Emancipation had a positive legacy.

This was certainly the case. Soodalter erred on the side of emphasizing continuity in the history of slavery. I suspect this was more of a rhetorical device than anything; he admitted openly in questioning that the difference between legal slavery and slavery existing only underground was a critical difference – though that did not exculpate us from doing more to spot the problem where it still existed. The emphasis on continuity also highlighted a point that has become increasingly crucial in my own historical thinking; namely that it doesn’t matter what the law says if it is neither respected nor enforced.

After the lectures had finished, I intended to write the following: that though the lectures had been interesting, they sat uncomfortably with one another. That (as much as it might be heresy to say it in this town) Lincoln needed considerably greater critical reflection; and that this had been highlighted by Soodalter’s calling attention to the ways in which the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation hadn’t been fulfilled.

About halfway through the questioning, though, someone raised that very issue – that neither speech seemed to sit comfortably with the other. And then the whole tenor of the evening changed. Soodalter softened his tone; Guelzo (perhaps freed from the tyranny of the lecture) gave a little ground, even if still reluctant to criticize Lincoln’s actions explicitly. And it was his reminder at the end – that slavery and emancipation and slavery have a past and a present – that helped the evening leave with a useful reminder of how appreciating the past can inform us in making a better future.


About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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