What The Emancipation Proclamation Didn't Do

The Emancipation Proclamation celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. But not everyone knows the real story behind the document. Host Michel Martin speaks with historian Lonnie Bunch, about what the Emancipation Proclamation did - and didn't do.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll check back in with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. You might remember he made some waves earlier in the season with his strong support of marriage equality in Maryland, where he plays ball. Today, though, we're going to find out what kind of music he listens to to get pumped up or calmed down. That's our segment we call In Your Ear.

But first, we want to talk about an important anniversary, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. That took place on January 1, 1863, 150 years ago. The original document itself was seen briefly in public for three days leading up to the 1st. It's so fragile, it is rarely publicly displayed, but just as important, it turns out, it's one of the more misunderstood documents in American history.

Here to tell us more about that is Lonnie Bunch. He is an historian and founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture and he's kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us and Happy New Year to you.

LONNIE BUNCH: Same to you. It's my pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: What exactly did the Emancipation Proclamation do? It's commonly understood that it freed the slaves. I mean if you were to stop five people on the street, I'm sure everybody would say it freed the slaves. Right?

BUNCH: The Emancipation Proclamation is without a doubt the most misunderstood document in American history, that on the one hand the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery was ended when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But what the Emancipation Proclamation does that's so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end.

MARTIN: Well, how did Abraham Lincoln do this? Under what authority did he do this, since, as you pointed out, it was not - it didn't end slavery. It didn't - it wasn't a law. Right?

BUNCH: Well, what the Emancipation Proclamation was was a presidential proclamation and it was part of the war plans, so that in essence what the Emancipation Proclamation did was, Lincoln realized that two things were happening. One is that there was a worry that European nations might support the confederacy. There was also a worry about - how do we get more and more people to fight for the Union cause? After the initial year, people were saying, well, you know what? I'm not sure I want to fight for this.

Suddenly Lincoln realized that he could have an impact on the South by taking away workers and labor from the South, encouraging people to then come north, join the Union Army, so therefore you'd have more soldiers, and add a moral tinge to the war. So all of that was behind Lincoln's thinking when the emancipation was issued.

MARTIN: What about the timing of it? Why did it come when it came on that day at that time? And as you were just telling us, the U.S. was already two years into the war by the time it was signed. Why that timing?

BUNCH: Well, what's clear is that Lincoln felt that if he could end the war and restore the Union without ending slavery, that would be OK with him, but by the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Lincoln realized that he had to do something bold, and part of the timing was that he had been working on this for the whole summer. But he realized that he didn't have the sort of moral power to let this go until there was a Union victory, because after all what had happened was, if he had announced the Emancipation Proclamation and then there was a battle where the Union lost, it would seem like just words on a paper.

So what he did was he waited to release the emancipation till after they won the victory in Antietam in 1862. That then made it seem, in the minds of many, Europeans and non-, that the Union was winning and it gave more power, more moral authority to the emancipation.

MARTIN: Are you saying that this was a step that he had always planned to take from the start of the war or was it something that - was he dragged to? Was he pushed? Did he jump?

BUNCH: It was an evolving thought. I would argue that the Emancipation Proclamation is not just about Lincoln, that in essence what happens is, is that as soon as the war breaks out, hundreds, then later thousands of African-Americans flee to the Union lines. They began to put pressure on the North to say, what are we going to do with these people? It led to a series of actions that culminates in the Emancipation Proclamation. So in some ways Lincoln thought about ending slavery as part of his evolving thinking, but part of that thinking was pushed by black people saying we're free, now what else can we do?

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Lonnie Bunch about the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. He's telling us that it's actually one of the most misunderstood well-known documents in American history.

What was the reaction to it, by the way? I mean I know we live in a 24-hour news cycle now where people - if the president says something, interested people can know about it in 30 seconds via Twitter and every other means of communication, but things obviously, clearly, didn't move that quickly then.

BUNCH: Right.

MARTIN: But how was it received? Was it perceived as this powerful, important step that we now believe it to be?

BUNCH: I think in many ways there were a variety of ways we reacted to the emancipation, that many European nations saw it as putting sort of a moral authority on the war and so, therefore, places like England and France said well, we'll stay out. We won't support the Confederacy.

MARTIN: Well, these were places where slavery had already been outlawed.

BUNCH: But these were places that made a lot of money based on the cotton that the slaves produced. So there was a fear that France or England might recognize the Confederacy and give it legitimacy. So the Emancipation, on the one hand took away that opportunity, because otherwise it would seem that they would be endorsing slavery.

But the other thing is that while there were many abolitionists who really rallied round this - and especially the free black community - felt that this was really the beginning of the end of slavery, there were many others who basically felt why is Lincoln making this war about slavery? And there were many in the U.S. military, in the Northern Army, who basically felt that we really didn't join up to free the slaves. So there were a variety of conflicting notions. But what I think is very powerful about it is Lincoln knew that his actions would begin to transform the country when it came to this issue and that was his genius.

MARTIN: What do you think about - well, first, before we talk about sort of how we think about this document today, let's talk about the document itself. And I think most people think of President Lincoln as a great speechwriter, one of our great, greatest presidential wordsmiths. But the first, you know, the opening lines of the Emancipation Proclamation are actually - how can we put it - kind of turgid legalese? Legal - is that harsh? But I mean why is that?

BUNCH: Because in some ways what Lincoln had to do is this wasn't just for the public. He had to make the kind of intellectual argument about why he did this and what was the benefit to the North of this happening. So that's why you see that he lays out what areas of the country are influenced by this or under the impact, what are not. But I think for me what is so powerful - and this is where Lincoln the wordsmith comes in - is very early in the document he talks about that they would be forever free. And to me, that is the most powerful part of the Emancipation Proclamation, that basically puts the power of the United States government saying ultimately, these individuals will be forever free.

MARTIN: Here in Washington, D.C., as I mentioned, the original was on view just for three days under some very strict conditions. The lighting was very low, obviously under heavy guard. Thousands of people lined up in the cold to view the document. First of all, why is it so rarely seen publicly? And why do you think so many people wanted to see it?

BUNCH: Well, I think that it is so fragile and that in some ways when you go to the National Archives and you see the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, that early on in the creation of the archives the Emancipation Proclamation wasn't considered its equal. But what has happened is as a result of everything from civil rights to the changing diversity of our workforce, the archives realized this is one of the most important documents.

And I remember when they first put it on display, it must've been 15 years ago, and they weren't sure whether people would come out to see it. And I remember taking my young daughters, and we stood in this line that was so long and that convinced us that for people, the Emancipation Proclamation, even if you don't know what it is, has this amazing power.

I mean, I'm always struck by the fact that I was once in South Africa, in the bush, in the middle of nowhere and I was following a woman from a tribe because candidly she was walking and I was afraid of snakes, so I was walking very close to her. She turned around to me and she said you're an American; do you have your copy? And I thought she meant the pass laws. She turned around and said, do you have your copy of the Emancipation Proclamation? So here I am in South Africa, in the middle of nowhere and a woman saying to me, do you have a copy because this means so much. It symbolizes the possibility of freedom globally.

MARTIN: What do you make of the argument that the Civil War really wasn't about slavery, that it wasn't that significant a document, that Lincoln was grudgingly pulled into the emancipation?

BUNCH: There is no doubt that Lincoln was both pulled, pushed, and he had some of his own momentum. So it wasn't necessarily that Lincoln said this is something I want to do for my whole career. But I think what's important to realize about this is that this document is so important because of what doors it opened, what possibilities it opened. And I think the debates around it are really fascinating because I think in some ways what has changed now, hopefully around the sesquicentennial rather than the centennial, is the realization that Lincoln didn't just free the slaves, that the enslaved population took a major role in their own liberty and their own freedom.

MARTIN: Describing that, by what? Like fleeing or by fleeing to Northern lines or...

BUNCH: Well, think about what happens. So here you have troops coming into Virginia or North Carolina and these enslaved people free to the lines. They ultimately begin to be put into dirt and camp, that the Union called contraband camps, but we like to call them Freedman's villages. And that in these villages many of these people began to push to join in the Army, to play a role in terms of providing their labor for the Union, and they began to sort of force the country, and force Lincoln especially, to recognize that there's great political military benefit from having more people leave the South and become part of the war effort for the North. So in some ways the contrabands really forced the federal government to create policy. They forced them to figure out well, do we return them or do we not? Do we put them up in camps or do we not? What, can they be part of the military or can they not? All of this began to push the federal government leading to the Emancipation Proclamation.

MARTIN: Is there something you hope that this anniversary - the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation - will encourage people to think about that they might not otherwise think about?

BUNCH: Well, I think that on a very specific notion, I would love people to realize that African-Americans were agents in their own liberty. I think that that's an important piece, rather than simply the notion, if you look at the movie "Lincoln," it seems as if Lincoln freed the slaves, rather than it's part of a complicated nuanced puzzle that led to emancipation.

But I think the other part that's so important to me about this moment is this is a moment for Americans to remember that you can believe in a change that you can't see. That the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was something that everybody knew was going to exist forever except for a few fanaticals. But suddenly the Emancipation Proclamation began America on a trajectory that ultimately led to a fundamental change in citizenship and equality. And so what I hope is that people would realize that they have a right to demand and effect change because change is possible in this country.

MARTIN: Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture here with us in Washington, D.C.

Lonnie Bunch, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BUNCH: My pleasure as always.

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