Understanding Emancipation and Gettysburg

Online Lincoln course tackles some big topics; End of Slavery and the War's "Turning Point"

  1. (July 1-3, 2014) From Carlisle and (virtual) Gettysburg, the "Understanding Lincoln" course used the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg to focus attention on two of the most teachable subjects in the K-12 and undergraduate history curriculum:  the evolution of Union emancipation policy and the question of Gettysburg as the war's turning point.
  2. Truly understanding Lincoln as an emancipator, or more precisely, as The Great Emancipator, requires a great deal of skill in navigating documents and generations of contested scholarship.  Participants in the course, however, received a quick primer in some of the most sure-handed and concise summaries of the debates over Lincoln's attitudes toward both slavery and race from short, highly readable articles by three leading historians:  Eric Foner, Allen Guelzo, and the late Philip Paludan.
  3. Foner's New York Times op-ed argues that despite the fact that emancipation was most most definitely "a process" and "not a single event," there is something pivotal about the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) which makes it, in Foner's opinion, "the crucial turning point in this story."  He labels it a "double emancipation," not only for many of the slaves themselves, but also for Lincoln, "for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life."  Guelzo's longer article from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association tackles a different aspect of the emancipation policy, but he agrees with Foner's assessment of the proclamation's importance, calling it squarely, "the most socially revolutionary pronouncement of any American president."  Guelzo's purpose, however, in this piece is to examine how the once venerated presidential proclamation fell out of favor over the years, especially in the African-American community.  His summary of the "fate" of Lincoln's action is incredibly useful for any classroom teacher and helps put the Foner op-ed, for example, into its own powerful context.  By contrast, Paludan appears more skeptical than either Foner or Guelzo about the "revolutionary" nature of Lincoln's pronouncements on slavery.  He agrees with the other scholars that Lincoln considered slavery "evil morally," that he believed it raised a host of problems for the nation, both at home and abroad, and that it should definitely have been abolished, but the scholar also notes in his perceptive 2006 article that the flat legalese of the Emancipation Proclamation was not at all uncharacteristic for Lincoln's approach to slavery.  He writes that what was "missing almost everywhere" from Lincoln's writings on slavery was a recognition of "the fundamental horror and sin of slavery."  Paludan then details what he considers to be the few exceptions to this rule before concluding, quite provocatively, in words which perhaps Foner and Guelzo would accept, that when it came to slaves, Lincoln "spent very little time weeping over their plight—all he did was to free them."
  4. Course participants debated these points of view through a careful consideration of documents featured at the Lincoln's Writings "Great Emancipator" theme page.  They also reviewed an essential question posted at Quora:  Why did Lincoln try to separate some aspects of equality from emancipation?"  And they considered other forms of questions that might help provoke good classroom discussions on this topic:  "Did Lincoln Deserve the title Great Emancipator?" (Gilder Lehrman Institute); Could Lincoln be considered both a Great Emancipator AND a racist? (Stacy Hoeflich); "How does Lincoln's emancipation policy support or contradict his claims that he was 'controlled by events'?" (Jim Buck); "To what extent did Lincoln's own views on slavery address concerns about racial equality?" (Evan Oftedal); " What role did politics, social context, and military progress play in Lincoln's position on emancipation?" (Emily Schagrin); "Based on your reading of these documents, what was Lincoln's primary motivation for emancipation?" (Kaellagh Cassidy).
  5. As Matthew Pinsker pointed out, many of these questions come down to definitions.  How you define certain terms helps determine how you portray Lincoln's positions.  Pinsker raised questions about how teachers define terms such as "abolitionism," "colonization" and "citizenship" in their classrooms.  He noted that there were different types of abolitionists and that many students would be unfamiliar with the policy differences which separated all of those who opposed slavery and wanted to see it "abolished" --figures such as William Llloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln.
  6. During this part of the seminar discussion, Pinsker introduced the recent arguments of historian James Oakes from his prize-winning book, Freedom National (2012).  Oakes's important new work helps to redefine how teachers might choose to characterize the evolution of the antislavery movement.  Oakes sees more continuity than change.  He points out, for example, that even the most extreme Garrisonian abolitionists acknowledged what he calls a "federal consensus" that Congress had no authority to simply abolish slavery in the states where it already existed, but he claims that all anti-slavery figures believed that their "containment" policies would "turn" the institution towards its "ultimate extinction." This insight helps put Lincoln's apparent caution about souterhn slavery expressed in numerous pre-war speeches ("I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.") into a more understandable context. Oakes has also offered some helpful context about rights and citizenship from the nineteenth-century perspective.  And finally, his book does a remarkable job of explaining both the importance of emancipation BEFORE Emancipation (i.e. contraband and confiscation policies) and the "counter-revolution" after the January 1st proclamation that made the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment a startling new necessity for the anti-slavery northerners.
  7. Henry W. Spradley, Citizen
  8. There was no expert panel during this week for the "Understanding Lincoln" course, but instead, the participants used their course time to review a recently created video tour of the Gettysburg battlfield, written and narrated by Matthew Pinsker from Dickinson College and produced by Lance Warren from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.  The entire video takes about one hour to view, but each segment of the tour (arranged in chronological order across the three days of battle and including stops for Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) is also available in thirteen different clips, ranging in length from about 3- 10 minutes.