Emancipation Debates

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet by Francis Carpenter, circa 1864

Who freed the slaves? Can freedom be given or must it be taken? Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862 invited slaves held by members of the Confederacy to flee their owners. Some slaves were legally freed while others, held in the border states of Maryland and Delaware and in some Northern military barracks in the South, remained legally enslaved.

Were Lincoln's proclamations a defining moment in the conflicts driving the Civil War, or little more than a cunning military tactic for the mass seizure of rebel property? Years later, in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln reflected, "If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?" What do we make of this statement as to the role of emancipation in the purposes of the war? While we must be critical of the strategic and limited nature of slave emancipation, we must also be careful to consider Lincoln's alternatives. What would have happened if the Proclamation had granted the freedoms equivalent to the thirteenth amendment? Was anything required for slaves' freedom beyond the right to not be the legal possession of another?

Teacher Resources and Lesson Plans:

Slavery and the Legal Status of Free Blacks

This lesson plan for grades 9-12 suggests encourages students to debate the legality of slavery from the perspective of white statesmen in Illinois writing the Illinois State Constitution in 1847.  The exercise encourages students to grapple with primary documents and understand the way rhetoric was used in discussing the morality and legality of slavery. That is, we learn that some documents must be read deeply to understand how contemporaries understood and skirted the problems at hand. It also introduces students to the difficult choices involved in deciding what labor policies to permit and prohibit in the new state. An excellent plan in conjunction with discussions that problematize who had the authority to permit and prohibit slavery at all.

Lesson Plans:

Lincoln, Emancipation and the Constitution

This very classic, exam-driven unit plan traces emancipation in several steps that begin with 1850s debates over slavery and end with the Reconstruction amendments. What it lacks in creativity it makes up in coverage of the aspects of slave emancipation most likely to appear on state and AP exams. The unit raises in several different places the perennial questions of when and if the slaves were freed in legal terms. It is perhaps most successful at tracing the Constitutional debates at the backdrop of the war and Reconstruction.

The Emancipation Proclamation: Freedom's First Steps

Suitable for both middle and high school teachers, the site suggests many ways to introduce and contextualize a class day devoted to this important declaration.
One virtue of a focused lesson on the Proclamation is the opportunity for students to draw their own conclusions based on limited evidence. Links to other sites that help teach the Proclamation are superb.

The Emancipation Proclamation: Bill of Lading or Ticket to Freedom?

An excellent student-friendly essay with links to primary sources evaluates the components of the Proclamation and queries to what extent it freed the slaves. Written for an advanced high school or college audience, the piece encourages us to weigh not Lincoln’s intentions but the repercussions of the act.

The Emancipation Prolamation

This well-written overview of the Proclamation contextualizes the declaration within the military progression of the war. Maintained by self-identified “history buffs,” it is part of a growing, larger site that chronicles the people and battles of the war. What are the strengths and weaknesses to understanding emancipation as a military endeavor?

The President and the Prophet

This short essay by a premier historian of slave emancipation suggests that attention to Lincoln’s attitudes toward emancipation may not tell the whole of why emancipation happened as it did. He evaluates James Oakes’ suggestion that Frederick Douglas, though only meeting Lincoln a few times, was a co-participant with Lincoln in the history of freedom for African Americans. It, or an excerpt from Oakes’ book, may be paired well with some of the secondary sources on the “white” legal history of discussions on slavery.

Abraham Lincoln's God

Historian Jon Meacham suggests that Lincoln’s decision for slave emancipation was chiefly motivated by his personal promise to God after earnestly pleading for a particular military victory. How should we treat evidence of spirituality and prayer ? Does this evidence challenge or confirm or deny other interpretations of the event?

Primary Sources:

Letter from James Speed to Abraham Lincoln

Letter to George Robertson: Discussion on the disadvantages of gradual emancipation

Website on the Several Emancipation Proclamations

Initial Emancipation Proclamation:

Final Emancipation Proclamation:
In its original form: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/almss/ep001.html