President Abraham Lincoln’s initial proclamation to free U.S. Southern slaves, issued 150 years ago this week, is enjoying a public showcase to match its rising profile among historians.
Lincoln released his lesser-known preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862 — 100 days before the more famous final version. The first of the two documents has gained importance among scholars as a turning point in the Civil War, where northern and southern states clashed over fundamental questions over the power of the federal government and the power of states. It was the deadliest war in U.S. history.
Slavery and its abolition were once treated by historians as minor parts of the story behind the Civil War, but that began to change after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, said historian Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond. That turbulent era featured marches and landmark court cases as Blacks fought for equal access in voting, education and other major parts of everyday life.
“All our thinking about this has undergone remarkable recasting over the last 50 years,” Ayers said. “People begin now with slavery as the fundamental fact and emancipation and less with union as being the sole focus of attention.”
Commemorations began Monday at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Meanwhile, the only surviving version of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln’s handwriting will make an eight-city tour this fall.
The preliminary proclamation served as a warning that if the Confederacy of southern states did not end its “rebellion” against the United States and voluntarily abolish slavery, then Lincoln would order the slaves freed on the first day of 1863. Lincoln believed it was a way to use his military powers to push to end slavery.
Even before the preliminary emancipation, Lincoln floated several ideas about how to end slavery. He even studied ideas about encouraging slaves to return to Africa or Central America to separate the races, historian Eric Foner of Columbia University said.
The government issued miniature copies of the preliminary emancipation that were distributed widely to soldiers in the field. Some survive and have been traded by collectors.
Views on the history and impact of emancipation continue to evolve, Ayers said, while many people still separate Black history and white history.
“What historians have shown us over the past 50 years is that these are all part of the same history,” Ayers said. “Listening to just one of those stories is like listening to half a conversation.”