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The Emancipation Proclamation and America: A Report on the Discussion Sponsored by the NEH

Vanessa Varin, November 2012

September 22, 2012, marked the 150th anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation—an act that had set in motion the end of slavery in the United States. In light of the sesquicentennial, the National Endowment for the Humanities organized a panel of five leading Civil War scholars to discuss the unfolding drama that accompanied the proclamation. Historians Ed Ayers (Univ. of Richmond), Thavolia Glymph (Duke Univ.), Gary Gallagher (Univ. of Virginia), Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.), and Christy Coleman (American Civil War Center) addressed the question "What Did The Emancipation Proclamation Accomplish?" and offered knowledgeable insights into the pressures coming to bear in the months before the proclamation was announced. An audience of 250 undergraduates from various colleges and universities in the national capital region gathered in the Warner Brothers Theater in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to hear the distinguished historians. The discussion was also live-streamed, courtesy of the History Channel. A recording can be seen at neh.gov/news/what-did-the-emancipation-proclamation-accomplish-webcast.

After discussing the political and social dynamics pertaining to the country's transition to a slavery-free nation, and tracing the antecedents of the proclamation, the panel moved to questions from the audience. During this portion of the session the panel touched upon some significant issues concerning Civil War historiography. Student Lee Showden asked, "Should a person of color still associate prejudice with a celebration of Confederate culture?" Showden's question is one that many scholars face when they approach the "lost cause of the Confederacy" theme in their work. Coleman jumped on the opportunity to answer the question and pointed to her own experience as a female African American leading the American Civil War Center—the first organization, she pointed out, to explore the Civil War from the Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives. She stressed that her job allowed her to recognize the position many Confederate soldiers were in, and that the motivations for southern civilians to join the cause were often distinct from politicians who advocated secession.

Another question from the audience was similarly thought provoking. Undergraduate student Sean Smith asked the panel how we can truly understand the proclamation document when the existing historiography has been shown to be distorted at various points in history. This elicited a discussion among the panelists about how historians have struggled over the years to grapple with the existing historiography, including the infamous "Dunning School." Ayers interjected by simply remarking that "the only way to have command over it [history] is to understand it."

Smith's question underscored the challenges teachers face in the classroom. Historians often complain that history textbooks rarely take note of changing historiography and remain static vessels of information. Perhaps teachers can note this particular interaction as an example of why it is important to introduce students to historiography early so that they can approach it with the same critical eye that historians are also trained. In this particular instance, the panelists acknowledged the past misuses of history but also showed that it is a valuable tool for understanding our own pasts.

The Emancipation Proclamation at 150: An AHA Annual Meeting Session

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 3:30–5:30 p.m.
Roosevelt Ballroom II, Roosevelt New Orleans

The NEH-sponsored discussion described here is among the first of many events marking the sesquicentennial. The 2013 AHA annual meeting will also contribute to the commemorations with a session titled, "The Emancipation Proclamation at 150: Dynamics, Contexts, and Legacies." This session, to be held 3:30 p.m.–5:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 3, 2013, in the Roosevelt Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans) will consider the Emancipation Proclamation's legacy in a global context. The panelists and the topics they will address are: David W. Blight (Yale Univ.), "King and Kennedy: The Legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Civil Rights Era"; Thavolia Glymph (Duke Univ.), "The Battlefields of Wartime Emancipation across the Atlantic Worlds: The Price of Freedom"; Thomas C. Holt (Univ. of Chicago), "The Enduring Problem of Free Labor and Citizenship"; Kate Masur (Northwestern Univ.), "Fugitive Slaves, Military Intelligence, and Civil Rights before the Emancipation Proclamation"; and Rebecca J. Scott (Univ. of Michigan), "Wartime Deliberations: Expanding Citizenship before the Fourteenth Amendment." Christopher L. Brown (Columbia Univ.) will chair the session.

Vanessa Varin is the web content and social media editor of the AHA.