Five questions

This color broadside was published in 1888 on the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is among the holdings of the McLellan Collection of Lincolniana in the John Hay Library.

Credit: John Hay Library/Brown University

A symbol of morality in politics

Abraham Lincoln began his presidency with no intention of abolishing slavery. Within two years, he had changed his mind. Associate Professor of History Michael Vorenberg looks at the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

By Elaine Beebe  |  February 11, 2010  |  Email to a friend

St. Martin’s Press recently published The Emancipation Proclamation: A Brief History with Documents by Associate Professor of History Michael Vorenberg.

In a summary that appeared in Times Higher Education (London) on February 4, a reviewer noted that only a rapid reversal of intention by President Abraham Lincoln made slavery-ending legislation possible at that time. “In his 1861 inaugural address,” the reviewer wrote, “Lincoln vowed not to interfere with slavery. Yet two years later he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, setting the stage for national emancipation. This volume reveals the complexity of the process by which African Americans gained freedom and explores the struggle over its meaning.”

As President’s Day approached, Michael Vorenberg spoke with Today at Brown about the proclamation’s significance and legacy.


Michael Vorenberg: Michael Vorenberg Why should we care about the Emancipation Proclamation today?

If one looks for a moment in time that defines a larger, world-shaking transformation, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation is one of those moments. The power of it was not so much in its legal as its symbolic power. It signaled that the United States, the most successful democratic experiment of the day, would no longer countenance slavery. For the slaves and for all African Americans, it signaled as nothing had done before that they had a stake in this democracy and that the commitment they already had made to it was to be honored.

To whom is it most important? Least important?

It was most important to the slaves themselves, most of whom learned of it immediately, despite great efforts by slave owners and Confederate authorities to keep the information from them. It was probably least important to those who supported the Confederacy who had assumed – wrongly – that Abraham Lincoln had always intended to issue such a Proclamation.

What lessons have we learned, and failed to learn, from Lincoln?

We learn from Lincoln that politics can make a difference, that there is a place for morality in politics, and that powerful people – even the most powerful office-holder in the country – can learn from others, can be changed by events, and can be influenced by ordinary people. For Lincoln, the ordinary people who influenced him the most were the slaves who took steps to secure their own freedom and African Americans generally who fought for a country, the United States, that had denied them so much.

Has President Obama ever commented on the Emancipation Proclamation? If so, what has he had to say about it?

On Martin Luther King day this year (2010), President Obama hung a copy of the proclamation in the Oval Office. Eventually it will go to the Lincoln Bedroom, the site where the original document was signed. At the ceremony during which the proclamation was hung near a statue of Dr. King, President Obama said nothing about the document. Instead he praised the achievements of the elderly, distinguished African Americans attending the ceremony.

I believe that this event represents the only time in his presidency when Barack Obama might be said to have commented on the proclamation. Obviously, the symbolic power of the proclamation on that day was more important than its actual words. But the proclamation was no empty symbol on that day. It signaled that the transition of African Americans from slavery to freedom is not some dull event from a history textbook but rather a living legacy.

In your opinion, what might American life today be like if the Emancipation Proclamation never happened?

It is hard to imagine that slavery could have survived the Civil War even if the proclamation had never been issued. So I don’t think that the imagined absence of the Proclamation in history translates into the possibility that racialized, chattel slavery would still be in the United States today.

But without the proclamation, the war would not have had the same moral force that it now has in American memory. Without the proclamation, Lincoln would not have become such an iconic figure of worldwide significance. Without the proclamation, white Americans — northern whites in particular – could not enjoy what Robert Penn Warren disdainfully called a “treasury of virtue,” that sense that “we” fought a war to end slavery, and thus all part and future injustices are absolved. For African Americans, the absence of the proclamation would mean the absence of a single, simple, and living symbol of a struggle against slavery that began more than two hundred years before the outbreak of the Civil War.